A Taste and Spirit of the Cosmology of Banaras

As I move towards the East from Delhi, and halt at Banaras, the “cultural capital” of India, I cannot escape experiencing a taste of the spirit of its cosmology.

The spirit of Banaras has haunted Indians and foreigners alike. Including invaders alike throughout the ages, not to speak of its influence on seers, sages and the great Gautama Buddha who halted for long periods here.

I am in Banaras where I have had meetings and gave lectures on the international dimension of Bhojpuri language and its cultural heritage at the Banaras Hindu University, the Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth University, but also at Allahabad-Prayag on the bank of the sacred river Ganga at the Triveni Sangam, organised by the Rashtriya Bhojpuri Sangam and Bhojpuri Vikas Ewam Shodh Sansthan last week. Mauritius indeed stands as a magnet for people of India. Its beauty, love and hospitality of the population, the stable and friendly government and the capacity of the people to live in peaceful co-existence and harmony despite being multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious all tend to exert a great mesmerising hold on all visitors. We Mauritians do not take time enough to appreciate our own values and worth in the eyes of the visitors.

Rashtriya Bhojpuri Sangam

As I travelled from Banaras to Allahabad-Prayag on 23rd May to attend the one-day Bhojpuri Conference organised by a handful of dedicated young men who had formed part of the Indian delegation to the Antarashtriya Bhojpuri Mahotsaw in October-November 2014 in the context of the 180th anniversary celebrations of the coming to Mauritius of the indentured immigrant workers from India, I could not help thinking of the tremendous impact the Bhojpuri Conference and the people and country had on the participants. The Rashtriya Bhojpuri Sangam one-day conference on 23rd May was an after-effect of the Mauritius conference certainly. To while away the 130 km distance travel from Banaras to Allahabad and beat the atrocious summer heat, though we travelled by AC car, Professor Sadanand Shahi, co-ordinator of the Bhojpuri Study Centre of BHU read to me and his wife Prof. Jahanvi Singh a play in Bhojpuri by the great satirist playwright of Bhojpuri from Sasaram, Bihar, Rameshwar Singh Kashyap entitled Loha Singh. The play is an all-time success, so much so that Rameshwar Singh Kashyap came to be known and identified with Loha Singh, his main character of the play by the same title. The play was also known as “Khedaran ke Mai” due to the outstanding portrayal of Loha Singh and his wife Khedaran ke Mai. As Professor Shahi read as well as enjoyed the play, Jahanviji and myself the two-member audience of the one-man actor could not help reeling with laughter throughout the journey! Such is the beauty of the crisp and pungent script which oozes with wit and humour in every line!

Comparative Studies in Bhojpuri

I could not help seeing and appreciating the common Bhojpuri terms and proverbs: “Ghar ke Bhediya Lanka mein aag lagawe la” which I have heard from my chachi back home, and other terms such as niman, naihar, muri, kapar, kach kach, tangri, nareti, bilai, luga phata. All this can lead to magnificent comparative studies in the Bhojpuri diasporic countries. Let us not forget that we people of Indian origin in Mauritius come from 26 districts of the former British Presidency of Bihar, Bengal, Oudh and Orissa. And we have a combination of several languages such as Bhojpuri, Magahi, Maithili, Awadhi (Ram Charit Manas of Tulsidas), Bundeli, Kashiki (Banaras) and even Bengali and Oriya. So much of research stands to be conducted.

International Bhojpuri Conference at BHU

That is precisely one of the aims behind holding the next Antarashtriya Bhojpuri Sahitya Sammellan combined with the International Bhojpuri Diaspora Conference at the Banaras Hindu University from 4th to 8th December 2015 in collaboration with the Bhojpuri Speaking Union, as was voted in the Resolutions at the October 2014 Bhojpuri Sahitya Sammellan in Mauritius. Prof. Ghan Shyam of the History Department at the BHU whom I had met at the International Conference of Diasporic Culture in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago in June 2014 and I had fruitful exchanges in this context.

At a meeting with the Vice-Chancellor of BHU Professor Girish Chandra Tripathi, we highlighted the aims and objectives of the conference in the presence of Professor Vashista Narayan Tripathi and Professor Sadanand Shahi. The Prime Minister of Mauritius Sir Anerood Jugnauth, a fervent admirer and supporter of Bhojpuri, had led a huge delegation from Mauritius to a previous Bhojpuri Conference at BHU in 2008, as President of the Republic then and had indeed inaugurated the Bhojpuri Study Centre of the prestigious University. Many Mauritian scholars and people holding high posts in Mauritius have studied at BHU. Many students are currently enrolled in various disciplines. It is expected that there should be an increase in exchange of scholars, professors, poets, writers and artists of Bhojpuri between BHU, Kashi Vidyapeeth University and Mauritius and other countries of the Diaspora. The December Conference therefore promises to be a great international forum to set the ball rolling in this direction.

Kashi Vidyapeeth

My keynote address on the Immigration History and contribution of Mauritius as the First Post for the Great Experiment in Girmitia system at the invitation of Professor Prithyush Nag, Vice-Chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth served to ignite great interest and enthusiasm in Mauritius and the efforts being made by the Mauritius Government and people to promote the Bhojpuri language and its culture. The Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Nag, himself a geographer like me who has brought out a magnificent volume on the Cultural Atlas of India has agreed to my proposal of setting up a unit of Bhojpuri Studies and Research at the University. It would be worthwhile pointing out that I did my PhD from this university indeed. Not only that: my hosts in Banaras, Mr Ambuj and Dr Nishi Gupta hail from an illustrious philanthropic family. Mr Ambuj Gupta’s great-grandfather Shiv Prasad Gupta donated most of his huge property to the foundation of the Banaras Hindu University, responding to the appeal made by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya in the early 1900s. Moreover, Shiv Prasad Gupta had also contributed entirely from his own money the setting up of the Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth at the initiative of Mahatma Gandhi, who wanted an entirely ‘desi’ Tertiary Institution with Indian values and ideals taught. The first Principal of the Kashi Vidyapeeth was none other than the famous Hindi writer Prem Chand. An illustrious student of the Vidyapeeth was former Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri.

Indeed I am really honoured to be putting up at the same Seva Upvan of Shiv Prasad Gupta where prominent and illustrious personalities of the time including Mahatma Gandhi himself, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Shrimati Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore had stayed or visited. As for Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya himself he lived at Seva Upvan during the start-up and construction of the BHU from 1916 to 1920. It was the best place, closest to the BHU for him to live and supervise the construction of the University.

Harishchandra Ghat

Coming back to present-day Banaras, one cannot experience Banaras in its totality if one does not enjoy a boat ride along the Ganges and take a deep panoramic and enthralling view of its 80 ghats built over the centuries, including the Assi Ghat where Tulsidas sat and wrote the Ram Charit Manas (in Awadhi-Bhojpuri). As the boat glided on the sleek quiet but deep waters of the Ganges in the early hours of the night, we passed by the Harishchandra Ghat where two bodies were being turned to ashes by the consuming ochre hungry flames while the furious flames at ManikaKarnika Ghat consumed 8 bodies. I could not help thinking of how short is our sojourn on planet earth. Soon we get consumed by the flame of fire which had entered our parents’ bodies as flame of passion to produce us, and likewise lead to such aches and pains and desires in us, soon to be turned to ashes………..

Kashi Vishwanath Mandir

I am indeed privileged to have had the scholarly company of Ambuj and Nishi Gupta’s family friend Dr Naval Krishna, son of Rai Saheb Anand Krishna and grandson of Padma Vibhushan Rai Krishnadasa, friend of Pandit Motilal Nehru. Rai Krishnadasa had donated his entire personal collection of artefacts, artworks and founded the Bharat Kala Bhavan known as the renowned Indian Art Museum in BHU. His son Rai Anand Krishna was the Curator and Director of the Museum. Prof Naval Krishna himself a world renowned art historian and archaeologist has studied the history of the Maharajas and Palaces of Rajasthan through the hand written diaries- the Bahi Khatas kept by the Munims (clerk/accountant) of the Maharajas in Mundiya (also known as Kaithi) .He accompanied me to Sarnath Stupas and the Archaeological Museum. He gave me new insights in my knowledge of the ruins and statues of the Buddha from his vast knowledge and expertise. How could I be in Banaras and not pay my ‘darshan’ at the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir to Lord Shiva? Professor Navalji had organised it personally for me. I had the privilege to observe from close quarters the resonance of Sanskrit shlokas, merging with the mystical reverberations of the bells, dhols, accompanying the wavering of dozens of lamps to the swayambhu so sublimely decorated with garlands of fresh flowers, and getting into a sacred trance.

The chants were performed by 9 pandits, cousins of Himanshu Tripathi who organised the darshan and who belongs to a lineage dating back 600 years, living in the same building complex of the temple.

Chaat, Panipuri and Paan in Banaras.

But before concluding this magical and mystic trip to the sacred city of Kashi with its legendary cosmology and modern realities of internet and ICT era, I must say layers and layers of cultural history merging one with the other from the hoary past in the various cultural landscapes abound. I cannot resist some delights enjoyed by all Banarsis, babus or not or Banarsi thugs! And all Indians and tourists taking a dip in the city or the Ganges! Prof. Naval Krishna took me to the famous Kashi Chaat Bhandar at Gadaulia on the way to the Dashaswamedha Ghat. One had to manoeuvre a way intelligently and craftily and muster the greatest degree of patience in the 46.8ºC temperature and watch right, left, front and behind as tourists, sadhus, mahatmas, men and women, common folks, senior citizens, and roadside hawkers, impatient college youths, indolent cows and buffaloes, amidst the shrill persistent non-stop horns of passing autos, cars, jeeps and scooters – all trying to make a way to their respective destinations! We had delicious panipuris. People flock to the chaat shops to the minute and as soon as you are done, you have to vacate. “People are so addicted to chaat that without having a fill, they do not feel their day is over!”

And of course, how can one be in Banaras and not enjoy the celebrated Heera Moti or Meetha paan of Keshaw in Lanka, which is meant to be held in a corner of your cheek and just allowed to melt. If you chew the paan, that means you are a novice in the art of paan eating!

* Published in print edition on 29 May  2015

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