By Rakesh Agrawal, ‘Ridh’
“Look, love-jihad,” commented Shantanu as they ventured out of the historical premises of Sarnath, having the world famous ruins of History was scattered around us with excavations unveiled carved railing pillars from Shunga period that was almost 2100 years ago. It appears an entire city with platforms of fire baked bricks forming the bases and foundations of building, prayer halls, living rooms, even bathing places and lanes—an entire urban landscape that existed before the birth of Christ.
“You know, Sarnath, the name itself is derived from Saranganath, meaning “Lord of the Deer” as it is said that Buddha had been a leader of herd of deer in his previous births had saved the life of a doe and appeared before the king of Banaras who wanted to eat a doe. The king was so moved that he creates the park as a deer sanctuary. This is that very park,” I told Rakhi, my soul mate, who was walking beside me.
But, Shantanu, had other things in his vision, that turned out a tunnel-vision.
We were climbing down the gently inclined hillock of the famous Buddhist site, on the outskirts of the oldest living city of human civilization, Varanasi. I looked down, a young couple, girl dressed in bright yellow salwar-kameez, matching the mood of spring with bright yellow amaltas or the golden shower tree blossoming on both sides of Mulagandha Kuti Vihar, a modern temple erected by the Mahabodhi Society, having excellent Frescoes made by Kosetsu Nosu, Japan’s foremost painter and is a rich repository of Buddhist literature. Behind is the ancient Mulagandha Kuti Temple standing among the brick ruins.
She was sitting on a stone bench, just next to the Temple’s façade, with a guy who was wearing a pair of tight jeans and supporting a fluffy beard. His right hand was over the girl’s shoulder. ‘Oh! That’s why Shantanu Chowdhary, my friend for the last 38 long years, reached to this conclusion,’ I thought as the boy was supporting a string of red thread; the sacred thread Hindus wear after a religious ceremony.
“Certainly, love is in the air,” I remarked.
No, it is not love, it is love jihad,” he protested, subscribing to the theory that be being propagated by Hindutavawadis, the ultra right-wing Hindu religious leaders that Muslim guys are out in the open, following a tailor-made conspiracy to lure Hindu girls by projecting themselves as Hindus by wearing the Hindu religion on their sleeves and after trapping the innocent and juvenile girls in their net, they force them to convert into Islam.
“Well, at least they are waging jihad through love and not through AK-47 and these girls, then are quite foolish,” I replied.
“Yeah, girls are anyway silly, more so Hindu girls,” he replied.
Urmila, his obedient wife, draped in an amorphous pale blue sari, wearing a mangalsutra around her neck, nodded dutifully.
There were many Buddhist monks walking under the shadow of the impressive Dhamekh Stupa, a cylindrical tower measuring 28.50 meters in diameter and 33.53 meters high, holding prayer strings with 108 beads, murmuring, ‘Om mane padma hum,’ coming out from its golden sanctum sanatorium, many with folded hands. Sarnath is, thus, the place where foundation of Sangha, a new order of monks and Dhamma, was laid.
But, now his insinuation was that it was not the same Sarnath where Buddha has delivered his first sermon, but a sprawling venue to wage war!
A war being launched with very potent weapons; weapons of love; weapons of affection; weapons of devotion.
But, fake love; fake affection devotion.
This love jihad appeared ubiquitous in the ancient city as we discovered while re-discovering my paternal city where I’d spent my growing years, decades ago and where, I’d woven an intricate and finely crafted network of friendship that I was enjoying after an eon.
And, once again, after so many years, we were crossing the narrow alleys, the city of famous all over the world for. Roaming on the sandstone laded lanes of chaukhamba where even the midsummer sun struggles to penetrate during the peak summer as multistoried houses built in sandstones are erected on the either sides of these constricted allies so instead of hot loo, cool wind touches the soul, we passed through old Ghanshu Maharaj’s shop. “Let’s have lassi (cool yoghurt) for the old time sake,” I proposed.
“Well, he is dead and gone years ago, but his son continues,” he replied.
Nevertheless, we sat down to enjoy lassi in a big kulhad (earthen pot). Cool dollops of thick and sweetened curd filled our eagerly awaiting mouths and washed them down. Finally, a thick layer of curd was stuck to the kulhad and we cleared it with water and drank it. “Remember, once someone threw the kulhad into the dustbin without, washing it and the old Ghanshu Maharaj blasted him,” I asked.
“Yes, as he considered milk and milk products holy that shouldn’t be thrown into the garbage,” he replied.
The same tradition continued even today.
We proceeded ahead, reaching to Thatheri Bazaar, a market on the either sides of extremely narrow lanes, a market of some famous sweet shops, along with shops selling pickles, papads and pans. There sat Babu Nandan, wearing starched kurta-dhoti, supporting a matching white cap, selling famous Banarasi pan. We couldn’t resist enjoying the famous taste, the city if known for. He put layers of thick katha of pale green leaves along with a dash of lime and a wet supari and we put it our mouths and proceeded ahead.
There was the famous Shri Ram Bhandar, the sweet shop, selling high quality sweets. A few steps ahead was the another sweet shop, Satyanarayan Mishthan Bhandar that is for common folk as its sweets are rather inexpensive. Next to it in a lane, so narrow that hardly two persons could stand there together, was a tea shop where we’d spent countless evenings sipping Babu Lal’s tea and discussing many important matters of national and international importance. I glanced at the shop. Lal was still alive, although years had added into life and his face had so many wrinkles that once could count his age. He was at least 70. Seeing me, he stud up from his narrow seat and adjust his glasses, “Babu! After so many years?” Clearly, his memory hadn’t betrayed him.
We kept on walking and reached at the end of the Bazaar where it joins the road. At the end, on the narrow stoned platform outside the sari shops, used to sit famous shehnai maestro, Ustaad Bismillah Khan on the Holi; the Hindu festival of color, a would play it for hours; a living example of the famous Ganga-Yamuna culture of India that is a paraphernalia of Hindi and Islamic culture assimilating to produce a composite, Hindustani culture.
Although the famous Khan is dead and gone, but the tradition continues as his son has replaced him. “Remember, shehnai vaadan by Khan?” I asked him.
“Well, these Muslims claim it as an epitome of Ganga-Yamuna culture, but he said once that although shehnai is his puja, but he is a Muslim as his religion is Islam and his son refused to be the proposer of Narendra Modi when he requested him before he filed his nomination papers from the city. Now, he has won by a record margin of more than 371,000 votes, these anti-national buggers have got a slap on their faces. Soon, our beloved hero will teach these jihadis a lesson they would forget to even look at any Hindu girl,” Shantanu replied.
I kept mum and we went on exploring my old city, crossing Chowk, the famous city square where the uphill road coming from Maidagin flattens and after a while goes downwards. I had a glimpse the huge thana (police station) on my right, crafted in red bricks and having a sprawling courtyard. Left to me were fruit sellers, selling all kinds of fruits—apples, guavas, oranges. We kept on walking and reached at the mouth of perhaps the most famous city lane: Vishwanath Gali. We stepped down a few stairs and were again on a very narrow sandstone laden lane. “How clean are these lanes!” remarked Rakhi.
“Yeah, they are as it has no sewerage it the sides since the entire city has underground sewerage built by Sher Shah Suri, more than 500 years ago.” I replied. Suddenly, a bagful of filth was strewn just a few inches before us and we were saved. “Jai ho Swachha Bharat Abhiyan ki (long live Clean India Campaign), I shouted.”
Shantanu looked at me disapprovingly as seemingly, I was making fun of Modi’s pet mission and he being his devotee, couldn’t approve it.
The two kilometers long Gali that connects Chowk to the famous Dashashwamedh Ghat has scores of shops selling religious paraphernalia as it also goes to the revered Vishwanath Temple and toys, saris along with all shringaar (makeup) gears like bangles, bindi, artificial jewelry, lipsticks, nail polish etc. We also stood on the narrow counter of such a shop as Rakhi was interested in buying some bindi. There were a couple next to us. The guy was wearing a thick kada (wristlet) in his right wrist and supporting a tilak on his forehead. He was holding the hand of the girl, wearing a bright blue salwaar-kameez, trying to put matching blue glass bangles inher hand.
“Oh no! Love jihad here too,” Shantanu was disgusted, “These buggers are so caitiff that depict as Hindu to fasao (entrap) a Hindu girl,” he finished.
We crisscrossed the Gali and reached at it’s another end where it again joins the road, again a narrow road full of traffic; screaming autos, honking cars and jostling rickshaws. Wading through the traffic and the narrow street; both sides on which vegetable vendors were selling fresh fruits and vegetables, we reached the famous Dashashwamedh Ghat and stepped down its stoned stairs.
On the large stone platform, under the bamboo canopies pandas (priests) supporting rudraksha garlands of 108 beads and paste of yellowish sandal red roli had plastered their foreheads with a big tilak in the middle. Pilgrims were obediently sitting in front of these pandas mostly, middle aged, a few young and many supporting beards. They would recite mantras, threw the sacred gangajal from brass containers, using a grass brush and the obliged pilgrims were paying them before taking the plunge in the most sacred river of the Hindus.
I looked down at the River. Thick muck containing flower beads of broken garlands, ash and suspended twigs was floating along with the water that was pale green, turning rather pale yellow. Scores of pilgrims, males naked, except under wears covering their girdles and women, fully dresses were taking dips into the river, standing on the narrow flight of stairs. Many were offering water to the eastern sky, filling them between their palms and emptying it into the river. A few also drank it, reciting, “Jai Gange, Om Namah Shivay.”
We hired a boat and went into the ride to see the real glory of Varanasi as the real glory of this ancient city is visible only by exploring its ghats, a series of staired structures crafted in pale fawn sandstone from Raj Ghat in the north to Assi Ghat in south spread in —km that besides binding the Ganga in a half-crescent shape where is flows in the reverse direction, is a must for the tourists to visit, for the pilgrims to take a bath in India’s most sacred river and for the locals to perform their daily chores like washing clothes, bathing and also cremating their loves ones.
The boat smoothly glided towards Harishchandra Ghat as the boat man rowed it effortlessly in the placid water of the river, “Darling, the city has about 100 ghats; this being amongst the most famous and oldest ghats along with our destiny: Harishchandra Ghat in southern ridge of Ganga and the, we’ll move to the Manikarnika towards the northern edge,” I said. “And, both these ghats are cremation ghats and it is said that the fire never extinguishes at Manikarnika,” added Shantanu.
We were smoothly floating on the 21st Century, but in front of us, history was unfolding as most of these ghats were built in the early 18th Century when Varanasi was part of Maratha Empire and many Maratha emperors built these ghats as Ahilya Bai Holkar of Malwa built Holkar Ghat, Peshwas of Gwalior got Peshwa Ghat. The boat glided past Lalita Ghat that the late King of Nepal built where stands Keshav Temple, a wooden temple built in typical Kathmandu style, having an image of Pashupateshwar, a manifestation of Lord Shiva. We passed through Harishchandra Ghat, where Raja Harishchandra, who would never speak a lie, had to perform the last rites of his son. It is still a cremation ghat, although much smaller than Manikarnika. Beyond it is the equally famous Assi Ghat which is at the end of the continuous line of ghats, where many festivals, classical musical parties and games regularly take and is a much sought after site of poets, painters and photographers. “At Assi Ghat that Swami Pranabananda, the founder of Bharat Sevasharam Sangh, attained ‘Siddhi’ (fulfillment) while performing ‘Tapasya’ (endeavor) for Lord Shiva, under the auspices of Guru Gambhirananda of Gorakhpur,” informed Shantanu.
As the boat reversed back towards Manikarnika, we realized that not all ghats were built by emperors and many bear the stamps of famous poets and writers as Tulsidas wrote Rāmacaritamānasa at Tulsi Ghat and Munshi Ghat is named after the famous Hindi poet the Munshi Premchand.
Almost all ghats have temples at, many touching the river water where the rivers struggles to enter into it and not all temples are Hindu as Bachraj Ghat has three Jain temples near the river’s banks.
But, no one can miss Scindia Ghat, just before the famous cremation ghat as it borders Manikarnika to the north. Very much like the Tower of Pisa, stands a Shiva temple on its edge, lying partially submerged, as it gave to the excessive weight of the ghat’s construction about 150 years ago. No pilgrim worth of his salt can miss it as above the ghat, many influential shrines of the city are located within the maddening network of city’s lanes.
The boat man smoothly turned the boat back to Dashashwamedh Ghat, with the slanting sun rays that were turning the pale yellow water of the river into simmering gold. The boat glided through the placid water smoothly. He could hear tintinnabulation from the countless temples that were lining along the prose; the story written over centuries, crafted in stone; jelling with the azaan from a mosque from behind; very much like a poem.
Another boat, a smaller, two-seater boat passed by ours. In front of a bearded guy, rowing the bat, sat another bearded guy, with a young, pretty and slender girl at his bosom. He ducked down and fill Ganga water in his fist and sprinkled it on the smiling face of the girl who giggled freely and fell on his lap. “These buggers are everywhere and have declared an all out Jihad on our girls!,” Shantanu was bitter.
The diamond in Shantanu’s wife’s nose ring refracted the dying sunrays. She tapped her husband’s shoulders.
The sun rose again, this time after many months as its golden rays entered through the huge glass window of my home in Chandigarh, more than a thousand kilometers away from Varanasi, my current karma-bhumi (vocational place). I was enjoying the early morning tea with Rakhi when the phone rang, it was Shantanu. I eagerly picked up the phone, “Hi bugger, what’s up?,” I cheered. “Well, get ready for another trip to Varanasi where we all are waiting for you,” he sounded cool. ‘Anytime to have kaleidoscopic view the city’s lane and ghats were we spent years together. But, what’s the excuse?” I was as cheerful as earlier. “My daughter has found than man of her life and I’d to say yes,” he announced as if a newsreader were reading the news of an accident. “That’s indeed great and we’ll run to the city. And, who is the lucky bum?” I was really pepped up. “You’ll come to know it soon,” he disconnected the phone.
Just after three days, his tepid attitude towards his own and only daughter’s wedding was clear as the postman delivered an invitation card, printed in pale gray, as if it was announcing a death and not a wedding.
Wasting no time, I opened the card. It announced: Mr. and Mrs. Chawdhary invite you along with the family on the auspicious occasion of the marriage of their daughter Reema with (sic, all wedding invitations in English in India says marriage with and not to!) Shahid Khan.
I could hear a bomb exploding, with a high decibel, ear-deafening noise; but in far away Varanasi, although its echo was audible in Chandigarh too.
But, when we reached to solemnize the wedding, it turned out to be a dumb-squib. As we entered Shantanu’s double story home, a petite, good looking girl with pearly white, almost illuminating skin, having big oval shaped eyes and a lissome body, opened the iron gate and touched our feet. Her long, silky and lustrous hair was floating vagrantly and covered the left portion of her lingered face.
We were awestruck by her beauty. Rakhi took her in her arms and we settled down on a sofa. Soon, a tall and handsome young man joined us. He was about 6 feet tall, with a sturdy body, very expressive eyes and thin moustache.
“Yaar, he is Shahid, my daamad (son-in-law), Shantanu introduced him.
‘Little wonder, they fell for each other as they are indeed made for each other,’ I thought.
Indeed that’s what happened. After graduation, Reema joined a major software company in Bangalore, developing software for the expanding android Smartphone applications. While, on job, she met Shahid, who was developing anti-virus software for these phones and was awestruck by his simplicity, looks, command over the language and moreover, by his sense of humour.
He, by her beauty that was almost radiating, eagerness to help others, especially the downtrodden and presence of mind.
It was really the love at first sight.
Next day, they went to the Arya Samaj Temple of the city for the ceremony where Reema was looking like a goddess who had descended from the heavens. Her hands were decorated with beautiful henna motifs as in the Mehndi ceremony that was done in her home a few days ago, her friends and relatives anointed her with a paste of turmeric and sandalwood powder to cleanse her mehndi (henna) was applied on her hands and feet. “We also had mahila sangeet (the women’s music session) and sang folk and wedding songs,” she told him later.
Shahid looked no less gracious. He was wearing a silk cream color kurta with a silken jacket. A pashmina shawl careless wrapped around his shoulders.
Before the ceremony began, Brahmbhoj was conducted. 16 Brahmins, all wearing white kurta and dhoti ad a sacred thread across their chest, were fed in the morning of the wedding. When Reema arrived, her mama (maternal uncle) slipped red ivory bangles on her wrists. A nath (nose bangle) that has a round edge was put in her nose as unlike most girls in India, her nose was not pierced, so was this modern nath, a large, circular nose ring with a rounded edge.
Then, the actual wedding ceremony begins in the Arya Samaj wedding hall in a local temple. Both Rishi and Ritika exchanging garlands of roses, bela, chameli and marigold. She garlanded him the first and hands him a pitcher of water. He washed his feet, then his hands, and finally, his face. Then, then he garlanded her. Then, the priest asked her to put a mixture of curd, ghee and honey into the cupped palms of Shahid. After scattering the mixture in all directions he consumed the rest. This was madhupark se satkaar and as this combination of curd, honey and ghee is a known ayurvedic cure for indigestion and any other imbalances in the body, this rite indicates the commitment of the couple – the wife’s to feed and nurture her family, and the husband’s to provide for his family without harming Mother Nature.
Now, it was the time to do parikrama, or take seven rounds around the sacred fire. And, Shahid had no reluctance to perform this. He was just waiting for the Reema’s parents to ‘donated’ her, meaning doing Kanya Daan or ‘giving away the girl. Soon, the final hours arrived as it was the time for the Saptapadikriya, or seven rounds. The ends of Reema’s red sari and the Shahid’s shawl were tied together. This ritual signified their seven needs: nourishment, strength, wealth obtained through honest means, good health, progeny, good luck and a loving relationship. They went around the sacred fire seven times, first Shahid lead her for three rounds and it was the turn of Reema for four rounds and while making the wound they took their wedding vows.
After that, they went out of the wedding hall and looked at the azure sky. A bright, hot sun was in the heavens. It was the time for Suryadarshan by which they worshiped sun, the life giver in the earth.
Finally, they did Hriday Sparshor touched each other’s hearts and promise to be tender-hearted and gentle with each other and Shahid performed the finale of the wedding ceremony. He performed sindoor daan and from a small silver box having sindoor or vermilion, he put a bit of it through a silver streak into Reema’s parting thrice.
“Our Reema will remain a Chowdhary even after her marriage and will worship the gods she has been worshipping until now,” said Urmila.
“This is real jihad, fighting with the devil inside you, struggling to strive to reach out to the inner peace and goodness,” Shantanu remarked.