I have seen my city with Hindu eyes. I’ve enjoyed its ghats, galis and Gangaji as a Hindu. In last few years I have been curious to know about the Banaras experience as a Muslim. When I returned to my city, I returned with a heightened consciousness towards certain things: a consciousness that gave me a whole new perspective. It enabled me to see things that were new to me, and also the old things in a new light. Distancing has a beneficial critical effect on my analytical faculties, it seems. So, while my walks through the ghats I started marking things that I’d pass without noticing in my previous life. The span of my stay being so short, an acute sense of shortage of time and the accompanying need to absorb while observing, have always accompanied me on my trips. Moreover, camera, the friend of observing man, has also helped me in many ways: in both capturing and recalling moments.
It was while looking at the images taken in my last trip to Varanasi that I discovered my “Muslims at Ganga Ghat” photos. I was fully aware of my purpose while clicking them back then: that I wanted to do at least one post on Muslims at ghats, just like I have been planning to do a post on “Women at Ganga Ghats”. Later on, I was caught up with other themes. Finally, I committed myself to the post by uploading a few images from my collection.
The one image that I posted in the beginning is accidental. I was clicking my camera indiscriminately, as I always do when rising or setting sun is around and I’m in Banaras. It was a regular trip from Karnatak State Ghat to Digpatiya Ghat. Something in the ghatscape changed at Rana Mahal Ghat. The Muslim identity markers viz. white kurta and pajama, check lungi, the distinctive skull cap, along with the beard made it clear that the ghatscape demography had been suddenly inverted.There was this gentleman enjoying the rising sun, and I took their photograph without asking them.
The ghats around Harishchandra Ghat have no Muslims because it’s the ghat where Hindus cremate their dead. Kedar Ghat has the popular Kedar Temple and is always filled with either the permanent or floating Hindu population. Chowki, Kshemeshwar and Mansarovar Ghats belong to washermen and boatmen and are of low value for the pilgrims. They are not good for those who wish to enter the river. Narad Ghat and Raja Ghat receive South Indian pilgrims and Pandey Ghat has a high concentration of Japanese and other foreign nationals. Finally, we reach Chausatti and Rana Mahal ghats. These ghats probably receive the Muslim populations of Madanpura and allied lanes that are in the vicinity.
People come there to sit, chat, play cricket, take their bath, swim in the river or for boating, and generally have some good time. Good time is guaranteed in the city of good life, especially when one has already reached its font of life: Gangaji. The river has a definite and deep effect on human mind: “Peace comes dropping slow” on the ghats (Yeats, “The Lake Isle”). I couldn’t chat with anyone there as I was rushing forth to my destination and I’d come back, predictably (Sitting duck, my friend Rishi calls the locations where I return again and again. According to his theory, I can postpone photographing them for the next visit, and then the next!). Well, life is both short and unpredictable. I don’t plan it, but any day can be my last. The sitting duck theory is not for people like me then. No interactions or interviews took place on those ghats. I simply clicked a couple of images and walked on.
From Chausatti Ghat onwards there are major Hindu Ghats: Dashashwamedh, Manikarnika and Panchganga. Along with Assi, Kedar and Adi Keshav Ghats, the three ghats previously mentioned receive the maximum foot fall on both normal and festival days. There are a couple of ghats around Teliyanala Ghat where a definite Muslim presence can be felt again. Then again, towards Assi Ghat, they can be seen at Prabhu and Chet Singh Ghats.
Chet Singh Ghat is famous for its bird population. Wild pigeons, parakeets and mynahs have made their nest in the niches of the palace gate and wall. There are people from the neighbourhood who come to the ghat to feed the birds and the fish. Feeding fish is a popular activity in Kashi, as it’s considered as a part of dharma by Hindus, and Muslims like it too. Although Prabhu Ghat is the favourite spot of the Banarsi anglers too, many of them Muslims from around. So, I spotted this gentleman in my early morning visits to the ghat. He would come with a polythene sack full of bird feed and would start beckoning them and scattering the feed on the steps of the ghat. The birds would come flying to their friend. Amateur photographers like me find the moment and place just right for shooting at will, and indiscriminately, hoping for rich rewards.
He is as regular as the other Banarsis on this ghat and on other ghats. The city’s rhythm has become one with the rhythm of his life. Banaras has grown into him, sprouted roots and all. Once more, it should be made clear that other cities have their rhythm that become one with many living there, and I’m not claiming uniqueness for my city here. I’m only pointing towards the obvious and noting it down for others to see too. And yes, I’m generalizing because I don’t have more data to particularize with. While walking towards Raj Ghat I saw a woman in naquab near Naya Ghat.
This trip of mine was special as I observed, contrary to my previous view, that women are present throughout the ghatscape, if not as strongly as the men of the city, then at least in larger numbers than what their numbers used to be in the past. More about that some other time. The image above was taken with the purpose of showing a Muslim woman at ghats. It was around seven in the morning. The couple, I am sure, sat there facing the river and the newly risen sun from behind its further banks. Had I been more poetic I’d call their pose meditative. Being what I am, let’s just say that they were enjoying the morning moderateness of the otherwise unbearable sun rays. They were completely at home: a fact that tells me that they are regulars to that ghat and the routine: pukka Banarsis.
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