Sing a song
– “Please” by Nanao Sasaki 1
Let us go on a pilgrimage to a city that is all about existence and sustenance. If we turned our clocks back about 5,000 years, we would see, on the west bank of the river Ganges in North India, three hillocks that are the seed of a very special human phenomenon, the city of Banaras. Not only has the city survived over the last 5,000 years, but it has thrived and is still very much alive. During those five millennia, the city has sustained its essence, character, mythological power and existential agenda.
People go to Banaras to die – die happily, I might add. The concept may seem startling at first. Many go to Las Vegas to escape the boring and banal reality of their cities and immerse themselves in a hedonistic hyper-reality; others go to Paris, perhaps to immortalize their moments of love. However, there is no city on earth where you go with an express purpose of spending the last days of your life. Think of it as an existential airport to life after death. In Banaras, death is not a dead-end; it is a passage, a transition and a gateway. That is the raison d’être of Banaras, a unique and original phenomenon that has no precedent or antecedent. Why would anybody imagine such a city? What means and modalities allow Banaras to attain such heights of existential resolution?
Banaras is at a rare confluence of unique geography, mythology, urban form and cultural institutions. The city is located about 500 miles south of New Delhi, India. Here, the river Ganges changes her usual direction from south-east to flow back in a northerly direction pointing at her origins in the Himalayas, the sacred mountains for the Hindus. The river also takes a crescent profile, thus reconfirming the mythology according to which Lord Shiva, the presiding deity of the city, wears the moon on his head. The landscape on the west bank rises into three hillocks symbolizing the trident of Lord Shiva. The “other bank” of the river is, in contrast, flat and plain.
In plan, the city is conceived as a half circle. While the west bank of the Ganges has been inhabited for thousands of years and grown into a complex and congested city, the east bank of the river has been untouched and left totally undeveloped. The reasons have nothing to do with the city code. For the people of Banaras, the other bank of the semi-circular city resides in the “other world” or heaven where people go after they die. They metaphorically cross the existential river of life to reach the eternal city of the other Banaras.
The City Of Circuits
Banaras is a city of circuits. Devoted pilgrims carrying food, faith, and age-old stories circle the city following the sixteen codified sacred paths. The city is shaped like an onion: circuits within circuits leading to the center where the great temple of Lord Shiva resides. The form of the city is created, recreated and reasserted as people trace the circuits in the footsteps of their elders.
The city is defined by neither the fort walls nor the boundaries, but by the circuits of sacred circumambulation. Instead of a map, these circuits around the city and its countless temples form a mandala in the minds of the devoted pilgrims, as they follow the routes chanting and reciting the myths and stories of the places that they come across. In this way, the pilgrims meditate the city and establish a correspondence between the city of the mind and the city of the material world. Ultimately, what people carry with them is the city of the mind, not the material city.
There is a distinction between the “map reading” and the “myth reading” images of the city. The mandala of Banaras is a kinesthetic and mytho-poetic image that one forms by experiencing the city and traversing it ritually in space. You may find your way by means of a map, but with a mandala, you become the mandala. Unlike a map, a mandala is a constellation of myths, legends, imagery and sensory experiences. Through chants and processions, the city is constantly conserved, imagined, created and revised. In the process of traversing the city, one existentially transforms one’s own self into the city which is thus projected as an image of one’s self.
The city meets its river through a series of vivacious interfaces called ghats 2. At the ghats, the momentum and the energy of the city is thwarted, such that the city’s edge is forced into a rugged, fat, haphazard, incoherent, circumstantial mass of walls, facades, spires, towers, palaces and platforms. The intersection of the city of steps and the labyrinthine Banaras is intense indeed.
If you are a pilgrim, you may take a walk from Asi Ghat in the south along the uneven terrain of the river’s edge. What you come across may be the most profound and surreal, yet meaningful experience of the city and its life. All along the ghats unfolds the breadth of Banarasi life: a wreck can be seen capsized in the clay silt of the muddy bank; a half-naked mendicant standing waist-deep in the water, in the company of a herd of imperturbable cows, water buffaloes, dilapidated umbrellas, peepal leaves, marigolds, roses and lotuses that bloom around the ghats; well-versed Brahmins conducting funeral oblations for bereft families; a forest of lamp-holding bamboo sticks, a leaning temple capsized in the soft clay, a man in bangles, a rusty balustrade, a worn off rope that once held the mightiest of the boats and an abandoned tower house compete for the same place on the river’s edge and in the viewer’s mind.
If you are patiently and curiously walking along the ghats, you may also meet the vandalized stone plinths of the lofty palaces, a scale measuring the height of the Ganges when she floods in ecstasy, a blood-stained Hanuman 3, a rusted bicycle, a group of mischievous kids flying kites, stray dogs, and Gandharvas 4. Burning corpses with swirling smoke blacken the empty edifices. Still hot ashes of a funeral pyre and a meditating yogi with a trident and saffron flag, chatting fishermen with tangled nets, graceful young girls and the floating body of a dead infant coexist simultaneously on the craggy steps of the ghats. You wonder what brings all these disparate things and phenomena together. As a stranger you may be baffled by the onslaught of images, things and events, but the people of Banaras seem to be completely at home with the city. You wonder what gives them the power to reconcile their existential dilemmas with this labyrinthine city. You soon realize that, as in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, there is more to Banaras than meets the eye.
There the people, in an effort to experience the fullness and completeness of the world, have created certain beautiful fictions portrayed in an all enthralling mythology called Kashi Purana 5. Such delightful myths as Parvathi’s earrings 6, Divodasa’s ten-horse sacrifice 7, a broken bow and a bride won, Indra with a diamond-edged lethal weapon 8 etc., situate the physical city amid a narrative and fictional city. The invisible and mythical population of Banaras by far surpasses the visible population and dominates the visible world.
In Banaras, everything has a story, a legend, or a myth. Like the morning mist, powerful mythologies shroud the city. Story telling is one recurrent way of structuring and sustaining Banaras. The sacred fiction sustains the city and its pursuits. Mythology is the form giver of the city. Here, form undoubtedly follows immaculate fiction. There is the larger context of Gods, heavens, nether worlds, demons, Gandharvas, sages, ascetics and epics of mythical India; and there is the fiction of the city of Banaras that fits into the larger work of sacred literature. The secret of Banaras’ integrity is neither in its magnificent spires nor in its vivacious ghats; the secret of Kashi is neither in its topography nor in its traditional structures alone. The real secret of Banaras is wide open: it is the way everything is interwoven into a huge system of sacred fiction.
People come here to die. And behold, they are only too happy to die! It is said that even a dog can be blessed with liberation if it dies within the bounds of Panch Kroshi – the largest circumambulatory circuit that defines the city limits. Even if one has led a miserable life, death in Banaras is said to liberate one of all the agony. The invisible signs on thousands of temples, ghats and houses in Banaras tacitly declare this eternal bargain through an ingenious epistemology of space. At Manikarnika ghat you could see scores of people of both sexes and all castes and ages unfettered by death! At Banaras, death, the biggest human fear and enigma, has been tamed and domesticated by the city and its mythologies. With death, all of your sins are forgiven by virtue of your being in the city of Banaras. Existence is eternal and immortal, and therefore sustainable in Banaras.
People in Banaras learn story-telling right from the time when, under the moonlit sky, their mothers sang lullabies on Lord Rama; the time they played in the streets, shrines and steps of the ghats, and contemplated the mysterious emptiness of the other bank. When they grow up, they see the whole world as a beautiful work of fiction: a work where everything is well composed and under the control of the author. The author is at the center, and there are a million authors inhabiting Banaras, visiting and imagining it. It is all imagination, powerful and enthralling. For the people of Banaras, the whole universe is replete with life; there is nothing inanimate or lifeless in the universe. The post-structuralist observation on the death of the author serves as an excellent comparison between the cities of infrastructure and the city of Banaras. Albeit with a different inclination and intent, Camus made a brilliant observation that reinforces the notion of humanizing the universe: “If man realized that the universe, like him, can love and suffer, he would be reconciled.”9
In the rugged undulation of the masculine landforms, people of Banaras see the trident of Lord Shiva or Mount Meru. In the feminine curves of the sweeping crescent of the Ganges, they see a caring mother. The sky crowded with lazy clouds is a theater where, perhaps, in the shadow of a mountain, a demon drinks Sura, the eternal drink. The emptiness of the other bank is an unfolded blankness set against the crammed tightness of the stony complexity of the opposite bank. Place making is myth making: the place creates the myth, and the myth in turn creates the place. What distinguishes Banaras from other cities is that it duly recognizes and addresses existential dilemmas.
Thus, in Banaras, a grand and unique urban paradigm reconciles our existential dilemmas through a marriage of architecture, urbanism and narrative means of dwelling. Banaras teaches us that fiction is a powerful mode of imagining, building and dwelling in our cities; that mythologies and other fictions are essential to enliven the inanimate world of things and infrastructures. The existential absurdity of life and death are reconciled through the architecture of the city. When such a reconciliation takes place spatially, cities and architecture become sustainable.
1. Nanao Sasaki, Break the Mirror (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987), p. 47.
2. A ghat is a stepped interface between a river and land.
3. Hanuman is a Hindu mythological God with the characteristics of a monkey.
4. Gandharvas are the heavenly musicians in Hindu mythology.
5. Kashi Purana means the sacred history of the city of Banaras told through various myths and legends.
6. Parvathi is the wife of Lord Shiva.
7. Divodasa was one of the first kings of Banaras.
8. Indra, originally a primary God during Indus Valley Civilization, is the ruler of all Gods.
9. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, Op. Cit., p. 13.