Textual Analysis of a City

Time is the sheet upon which history writes the larger stories of humanity: its cities. A city is a text: a long or short, continuous or interrupted, easy or difficult to read palimpsest.

There is a temple in the city of Kashi that is nearly a millennium old. There’s a tank by the temple that was made pukka a couple of hundred years ago. The houses around the temple and tank, most of them, are not even a century old. They all exist at the same point of time in contiguous spaces. This case presents an extreme contrast that does not repeat itself in any other part of the city, but the temporal gap of hundreds of years does exist between the structures populating contiguous spaces in the palimpsest city of Kashi. What adds to the textual nature of the city is the presence of traces of various times and places in converging at one point.

Dandi Ghat

The image above presents a set of things that go into the making of the ghatscape. The name of the ghat, obviously the work of the person painting the little temple a couple of steps above, does not appear as that of other ghats do. At other ghats, their name is painted in black on yellow background, professionally, in an assembly line manner. This one has a personal touch, something that makes it more natural, more human. One both sides of this ghat are the ghats whose name is painted in the uniform black and yellow manner, the method that is not older than two decades at the most. It’s the kind of aesthetic that drives the painting of the stem of trees ochre and white up to five metres from  the ground in Banaras Hindu University.The white on red, uneven kind of letters belong to a rougher, more natural aesthetic – the kind that doesn’t exact uniformity from the naturally variable world. This second kind of aesthetic belongs to another time and age.

The lingam and Nandi at Dandi Ghatget deman and receive full reverence, as much as any other deity in the city, although they don’t have any temple to house them. They constitute, what may be called, a proto-sacrum of a temple that may grow around its deity in the decades to come, like the little temple at Kshemeshwar Ghat. Or, they may just remain in their present state (before being washed away by the strong flooded Ganga).

The two women in the background are from a dominant theme of the text of Kashi: its religious and spiritual primacy for the devout Hindus. I can claim, with the surety that accompanies having spent nearly my whole life in the city, that they are pilgrims, a part of a group that has come to the city in a big bus, or by train. Their group mates must be around, or at least their tour guide.

The surface of the ghat is covered with stone, as is the case of the other ghats studding the ghatscape. The past peeps at the joints in the form of nature’s most soothing colour: green. It’s only a trace, but enough to suggest a link of the pukka ghats of today to the sand banks of a century or more ago. The past breathes and pulsates under the stone surface and over it too. The legend of King Chet Singh of Kashi and its strong association with ghats is underscored by the big red coloured building towards the left hand corner of the image. It is said that Warren Hastings trapped the King of Kashi, Chet Singh, and imprisoned him there. What followed is now recounted in two different manners today: as history and as his legend.

Legend and history play equal parts in the text of Kashi and the text is richer and more complex than both.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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