Banaras has always intrigued me so, when I came across this book in a book club, I ordered it. And this book did not disappoint me. Even though it has been written by a westerner, it provides in depth knowledge about the place, its culture and its history. It is a well-researched book which throws light on the Sanskrit scriptures relating to Varanasi, geographical texts, information from Brahmins and the city life.
Unfortunately, Indians have never been in a habit of documenting neither their places nor their travels. To know more about our country, religion and traditions from the historical aspect, we tend to rely on accounts of foreigners who visited India, were mesmerised by its beauty, allure and diversity.
In this book, it is evident from the opening lines to her preface that the author is in love with this place:
“I first knew Banaras 15 years ago when I studied for a year at Banaras Hindu University. It was an awesome city – captivating, challenging and endlessly fascinating. Benaras raised some of the questions about the Hindu tradition which have interested me ever since – it’s complex mythological imagination, its prodigious display of divine images, its elaborate ritual traditions and its understanding of the relation of life and death.”
The book begins with a detailed map of Banaras, which I referred time and again while reading the text. Diana, the author gives vivid descriptions of the life in the holy city, which has attracted millions of pilgrims and seekers from all over India for over 2500 years. The author is fascinated by the early morning activity in the city – the students practising yogic exercises, Brahmins performing puja in the numerous temples and shrines, students in ashrams preparing for the day and most importantly bahkts taking a holy dip in the Ganga.
She documents about the art and culture prevalent in this city during the different time periods and under reign of different rulers. Shiva is known to be the Lord of Kashi and thus a complete chapter is dedicated to Shiva who made Kashi his home. Shiva temples number in thousands here. Shaiva renouncers and ascetics throng the monasteries of the city. The author also writes in detail about the other Gods who visited Kashi or made it their home and are worshipped in this city of lights. She gives references from the scriptures to elucidate her point.
This city is different from all others because dying here, one gains liberation from the earthly round of samsara.
The book has been elegantly written, in a fluid manner giving an account of the rituals, myths and literature associated with the city. Though the topic is heavy but the writing style keeps the reader engaged and fascinated.
A must read!!