The series of little shops slowly waking up to life,
flanked the slender lane we had wandered into –
as serpent like, it wound as if around Shiva’s neck,
all the way up till the four entrances of his shrine:
They sold Benarasi silk saris, make-up, ornaments,
stone idols, wooden toys, flowers and steel-utensils,
also kumkum, sandal paste, fruits – dry and fresh;
with incense sticks and all conceivable puja items
for a visit to the famed Kashi Vishwanath temple.
Amid the shops, revered cows authoritatively roved,
thrusting their heads into tiny, grill-gated sanctuaries –
to be fed by their presiding priests out of steel buckets:
who starting their day out thus – considered it sacred.
The arterial road, Vishwanath galli branched out of
was also the busiest, commercial stretch of Banaras:
Gowdalia chowk, Gyanvapi to Dashashwamedh ghat –
where with flourish Ganga arati is currently conducted;
sunrise rites of birth, life, death, from time immemorial.
It was over a walk to this ghat we had taken a deviation
to stroll in Vishwanath galli – coming to life at eight am;
though we had no inclination to join throngs to the temple –
for at nine, with a friend we had a breakfast appointment.
But as the series of shopkeepers intoned encouragements –
“This Saturday, the queues to the shrine are light”, they said,
“so if you hurry, with luck you will have a peaceful darshan.”
These shopkeepers obviously had a sharp business acumen,
for at a cost we deposited our mobiles, shoes, bags, valuables –
then collected a set of locker keys and a pre-set puja basket;
as there were several restrictions in Kashi temple’s premises
for security reasons – due to threats from devious elements:
that in administration, pilgrims – a sense of security eluded.
After an hour of walking bare feet in serpentine queues,
we were relieved in entering the temples outer premises –
but to our immense disillusionment, also an exasperation,
the queue from here only got more taut like Shiva’s mane –
for we zigzagged on a rectangular patch through steel rails
just after we’d crossed Gyanvapi mosque – Aurangzeb built
on demolishing the original Kashi temple – in his conquests.
Though the Shivling remains primary religious attraction
after it was saved by the priest – in ducking it into the well
that lies fortified in a forty pillared low-roofed colonnade
and still stands testimony to grave chronological upheaval:
Queen Ahilyabai – its current form rebuilding the temple,
where now a seven feet high stone statue of Nandi the bull –
gifted by Raja of Nepal, sits adjacent to east of the arcade.
Standing in queue amid Kashi temple and Gyanvapi mosque –
both heavily guarded by army task forces around the clock,
many pilgrims, especially ladies burst forth singing bhajans:
in the name of Shiva, inspiring themselves for his presence.
The numerous monkeys here prance as if to their rhythm –
with red bottoms they swing around trees and steel bars gaily;
their pint-sized babies bending low, deftly drinking from taps
from which you may quench your thirst, fill your containers –
if you haven’t brought along water samples from the Ganges:
to pour over the Shivling to appease the lord, thus your soul,
along with milk sprinkled with rose petals – sold in paper cups,
handed out deftly by their staff – from out of the Amul caravan.
After a two hour queue, in February the weather still cool,
I find myself inadvertently shoved to the attendance of Shiva:
Before I have a presence of mind to offer the milk I’ve bought –
as in the harried crowd I’ve been pushed to reach this podium,
that has several altars; doors, windows ushering in sunlight,
whereby I just manage to offer the milk over the pious Shivling –
I’m curtly indicated the way and urged to step out the door,
not a minute to rest my weary mind at the shrine of the lord.
I’m now walking back to gate four, with my mind in a furore,
my heart disappointed at this momentous, perfunctory call;
when to my left I see an engraved door – past its porch an altar
I am enthused to find, so I may rest my fasting, seeking mind:
as it leads to Parvati or Annapurna – goddess of nourishment,
in whose sanctuary I pray unobstructed by the jostling crowd –
intent on drowning the Shivling in milk to appease their soul,
while like Parvati – I prefer to feed the starving with a purpose.
I feel I’ve been brought to Annapurna by divine intervention –
craving a spiritual experience, dissatisfied in ritual excursion;
so I may go back to work and spread intellectual nourishment,
thus be blessed with a meaningful life in tune with my vision.
PS: This is in continuation of my Kashi/Varanasi Chronicles from the previous posts…And it took the longest time, and the most effort, over any poem I’ve ever written. 🙂
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