The Eternal ‘Kashi’

By R S Tolia • Random Thoughts • 13 Apr 2014

Several friends and former colleagues of this writer have often demanded of him that he pens a stand-alone-book on his days in Kashi, or the Varanasi of today, as during a span of nearly three years of his career he spent as its Deputy Commissioner in that station ( 1983 – 86 ), so many events had occurred in the City that they deserve to be left behind for the posterity.  In fact some of them are definitely going to pose a major problem to him as their recounting may open up, and revive, quite a few memories that are best left un-told, un-recounted. While a detailed account of those hectic days are best left to be described in some detail as a part of his memoirs, at a later date, it seems the sudden emergence of Kashi at the centre stage of national political discourse demands that some sense of this Eternal City gets shared with the discerning readership situated in the lap of the Shivalik foot-hills. It is, let me remind the reader, a three decades old description of Kashi, quite dated one would remark. This sharing is across the Ages, from ancient times to the present.                                                                                                                                                                                                  

The Eternal Kashi : Oldest Living City

How is Kashi linked to Uttarakhand, many may even marvel or quip ? In several ways, those who have some knowledge of Kashi, would immediately respond. The best description that belongs to Kashi, is that Kashi is The Eternal City – the oldest living city of the world. One does not have to go very far for its justifiable claims. During the modern era, when the East India Company was struggling to set up a few hutments near Hoogly, as their warehouses, and there was no trace of present day Metropolis, Kolkota, the Calcutta of the yore, during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the of Bishop of Calcutta was set up in 1813-14. The fourth Bishop of Calcutta, Bishop Reginald Heber, a passionate Anglican missionary, decided to travel up the newly acquired territories of the Upper Provinces. Taking the streamer up-stream he travelled across Bihar and reached Ram Nagar, on the northern bank of the Ganga, across Benares ( as Kashi got popularised in the English works ). Entertained by the Raja of Benares, in Ramnagar fort with a traditional Katthak performance, he visited the fabled old City. Quite contrary to his understanding he was totally floored by the multi-storied Havelis, well laid out sewer-system of this ancient Hindu City ! He very closely watched and visited all famous places and temples, even a school constructed by a Christian Bengali Ghoshal-babu and has left behind for us a very graphic account of the most eminent city, recently entered and taken over by the Company. For this writer, his stay in Benares exposed him to the early efforts of the Company to introduce a new mode of governance, which they had already commenced in Bengal, during the first decade of 1760s –the ‘Collector-Magistrate-Judge’ system of district- governance.     

Bishop Heber was quite bowled –over by this charming city, the only City of Northern India, which bubbled with religion, business, old traditions, world-class craftsmanship – all hall marks of a major City in the year 1824. Raja Benares had already accepted a back-seat and left the revenue and judicial administration of his territories to the Agent of the Company, who had been posted there way back in 1775. Benares was the first ‘Province’ which implemented the administrative pattern that we see in all provinces of India today, as early as from 1795 AD, the same having been implemented in the Lower Provinces of the Bengal Presidency viz., Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, earlier. So, by the time Bishop Heber paid a visit to the Oldest City in 1824, Company administration was very much calling the shots, with the settled working of a three decades old administration. The entire North Western Provinces, south of the Ganga, east of the Jamuna, and south of the Himalayan –foothills, except the Awadh districts, under its control. He visits all famous spots of the City, including the Gyna-vapi well, as well as the Juma Masjid, adjacent to it. While observing the landmarks he mentions the well-drained and sewage-linked sanitation mechanism, and the Shahi-drain, a sewage system which could allow a modern day heavy truck to pass through it ! The vast fertile tracts, east of Benares right up  to the eastern flank of the Jamuna, was still ruled from Calcutta directly and a new set up, the North Western Province, with headquarters at Agra, was still some six years away ( 1831-32 ). The ‘communal’ sentiments, how they have been resolved over time, events after events, some quite disturbing, provide us many a  insights, which will be taken up towards the end of this series.

The Cultural Capital  of India

Besides being adjudged as the Oldest Living City of India, Kashi has yet another claim to fame, that of being the Cultural Capital of India. It is this aspect of the city’s many-faceted personality that Uttarakhand gets connected to it. It was, as the story goes, when these parts of Uttarakhand, especially the higher reaches of Uttarakhand, the parts north of the Jyotirdham, including the holiest of the holy, the Badrinath dham, was being threatened by the latest version of Hindu Protestism, the Vajrayan version of Buddhism, from across the Himalayan passes. One version of the Badinath-dham is that it used to be located at a place known as the Tholing-math. As the Vajrayan version of Buddhism replaced the old Bon-mode of Tibetan religion and spread westward, in the western Tibet region, the cultural practices at the Tholing-math seat of Lord Badri became unacceptable to the traditionalists. It is this time that when the high Himalayan regions were being threatened with the latest version of revived Buddhism, in western Tibet, that that great Shankaracharya was trying to seek his philosophical superiority being accepted at Kashi, through an open academic debate with the acknowledged intellectual of the day, at Kashi. While the future Adi Guru was engaged with Pundit Mandan Misra, at Kashi, it is said that some body suggested to him that instead of defeating Pundit Mandan Misra in  an intellectual debate, or ‘shashtrarth’, he better rush to Jotirdham, Joshimath of today, and save the Hindu religion on ground. It is said that Shankaracharya, took that challenge, left the debate in the middle, and rushed to Joshimath to save a dying Hinduism there.

It is here where several versions are at conflict with each other, from one extreme of atrocities committed against the Buddhist monks ( the Chinese Annals ), to the other, where Lord Badri is brought to where Badri-dham is today. The bottom-line is, the Adi Guru Shankaraycharya, established the first of the Char-dhams, and later the other three more, if one discounts the fifth one that was also recognized by some, as having the same sanctity. The un-interrupted tradition of Shankaraycharyas, in all the four Dhams, one in each direction of the country, gets started from that point of time. This is another story, in actual practice, that Badrinath’s is the only interrupted chain of Shankaraycharyas, the other three maintaining a continued one. An interesting part of the Shankaracharya saga is the fact that the Adi Guru, offered the second seat he established at Dwarka, to his defeated adversary, Pundit Mandan Misra.

This aspect, offering your office, or one created by you, to your adversary and the latter graciously accepting it without any rancour or grudge, is something from which all segments of current day India can draw lessons from, is a gift to all of us from ancient India. One may or may not agree with this story of Pundit Mandan Misra versus Shankaracharya debate, and its subsequent impact on Hinduism, Buddhism, the new architecture of religious governance of the Sanatan Dharma, as Shiv Prasad Dabral has called it, or socio-political relationship between the cis and trans Himalayan regions of India, and so forth, there are some positive take-aways for all of us during the politically surcharged present times.

Lessons of Kashi

We may have philosophical, theological and all other kinds of differences – this is what politics is all about, there is a way to resolve them, harmonise them, and live with all the diverse world views peacefully. When the debates and arguments are over, the dust having settled, one having been declared a winner and other the loser, there is adequate space for every one to live and survive. Civility and magnanimity has not harmed any one, at least that is what the great story of Mundan Misra-Shankaracharya tries to convey to us.    

The way the present day politics is being played out in this oldest city, the General Elections 2014, the ancient and acknowledged cultural capital of India, let us remind our modern day players, with whatever colour of cap they may be wearing, that they should also learn about the well-known culture and history of this city and follow the rules as have been practiced even by the greatest practitioners of politics in the past. The politics of religion is also  politics and game of governance of one kind, not much different from the politics of political governance, and there is no reason for our present day power-seekers not to to be as civil and magnanimous as other players have been in the past, at least so long as they are playing the game within the precincts of this City.

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