If Calcutta used to be Nepal's commercial connection to India during the 20th century, then Banaras was our spiritual link. No other city in India has closer historical and cultural ties to Nepal than this holy city on the banks of Ganges. During the middle of the monsoon, the river is brown and swollen, and flows swiftly past the temples and ghats. These are waters so holy that one dip will cleanse your soul, and so precious that pilgrims take it in tiny bottles to their homes and keep the holy water to sprinkle on special occasions.
I was back in Banaras, contem-plating a river that is the cradle of the north Indian civilisation and one that is a spiritual umbilical for nearly 800 million Hindus from India, Nepal and beyond. Having stayed there 40 years ago, I am familiar with this crowded, frenzied town. But this visit wasn't a pilgrimage, it was a trip to re-know the city and research a new guidebook for an Indian publisher.
Lord Buddha, born in Lumbini in what is now Nepal, chose Sarnath on the outskirts of Banaras to preach his first sermon. Sarnath is a serene enclave of Buddhist shrines, monaster-ies and archaeological sites.
Kashi, as Banaras is also known,has close historical links with the kings of Nepal. King Prithvi Narayan Shah, visited the city before he embarked on his conquests of Himalayan principalities to amalgamate them into the nation of Nepal. Ranjit Malla, the defeated king of Bhaktapur went to Kashi to spend the last days of his life. In fact, Kashibas, became a sort of tradition for dispossessed monarchs, or exiled Nepali leaders to be banished to Banaras so they could not create mischief back home. King Rana Bahadur Shah spent four years in Banaras in the beginning of the nineteenth century. The infamous queen Rajyalakshmi was exiled here after the Kot massacre and Bhandarkal episodes in 1847, which saw the emergence of Jang Bahadur and the Rana dynasty. Poet Bhanubhakta studied in Banaras. Another Nepali poet, Motiram Bhatta, spent much of his short life here and went on to play a significant role in developing the Nepali language, inspired perhaps by what Bharatendu Harischandra, a native of Banaras did for the Hindi language, at the end of the nineteenth century. Such renowned Nepali Sanskrit scholars as Hemraj, Somnath, Kulchandra Gautam and Padma Prasad Bhattarai all studied in Banaras.
The city also played an important role as a base for Nepal's fledgling democratically-minded leaders. Nepal's first elected prime minister, BP Koirala, was born here and was actually named after the city's presiding deity, Bisweshwar. BP spent many years of his life in the city including his years in exile in the 1970s after his release from prison in Nepal. Veteran Nepali communists, like Man Mohan Adhikari and Madan Bhandari lived here, either during their college days and/or in exile. The Banaras Hindu University was where many Nepalis of the day studied, and the city also was for many years the major centre for books published in the Nepali language.
Interestingly, all the water from Nepal flows down to the Ganga. But at Banaras, not a drop of it is from Nepal. All the major rivers from the Nepal Himalaya-Mahakali, Karnali, Gandaki, Bagmati and Kosi, meet up with the Ganges downstream from Banaras. Yet, the city has remained sacred for the Hindus of Nepal as they have for Hindus elsewhere. Banaras' famous cremation ghats are listed in UNESCO's World Heritage Sites (as are seven sites in Kathmandu Valley). Almost all of the ghats were constructed in the 17th and 18th centuries by princely families from what are now the states of Maharashtra and Rajasthan in India. There is one named after a Nepali queen called Lalita Ghat, which also has the familiar silhouette of a Nepali pagoda-style temple dedicated to Shiva, complete with erotic eaves. What is striking is that despite the materialism and consumerism that is sweeping India, the numbers of the devout from all over India and beyond who come to Banaras to take their holy dip have not diminished.
At the famous Vishwanath Temple-one of the twelve jyotirlingas of Shiva demolished by Moghul emperor Aurangzeb in 1669 and re-constructed by Rani Ahilya Bai of Indore a century later, is a mosque that Aurangazeb built. Ever since the demolition of a similar mosque in Ayodhya, communal tensions have risen and this mosque now has a posse of policemen guarding it. Even though Banaras is a holy city for Hindus, a quarter of its population is made up of Muslims who are concentrated in their own neighbourhoods. Banaras is indeed a cosmopolitan city, an Indian melting pot where Bengalis, Maharashtrians, Punjabis and south Indians live in their traditional quarters. Dudh Binayak is the locality where Nepalis have congregated to permanently settle down, or to rent rooms from where they commute to the university.
The narrow alleys and by-lanes are fascinating to explore on foot or rickshaw, if you can negotiate the bulls and cows that seem to feel very much at home on the streets. In a lane named Chaukhamba is the house of the famous Hindi poet Bharatendu, the "Moon of India". Nearby, adjoining the city's red light district stands the shop where the famous Hindi poet Jaya Shankar Prasad wrote his masterpiece Kamayani. Then there is the village of Lamahi, home of Prem Chand, perhaps the greatest novelists in Hindi and Urdu. At Tulsi Ghat is the house where Tulsi Das lived in the sixteenth century and composed his famous epic Ram Charit Manas.
No visit to Banaras is complete without a meeting with Bir Bhadra Mishra, the environmentalist and teacher who launched the "Clean the Ganges Campaign". Mishra is actually professor of Civil Engineering at Banaras Hindu University and also chief priest of the famous Sankat Mochan temple. His can-do attitude has helped clean up the Ganga, and the professor-priest has been given the coveted Magsaysay award and even featured in Time magazine earlier this year as one of the seven environmental heroes of the planet.
Everyone talks about how it is a sacrilege that the holiest river in India should also be one of its most polluted. Mishra thought there was enough talk, and decided to do something about it. The Ganga-Jamuna drains one of the most densely populated regions of the world, flowing past large cities like New Delhi and Allahabad, where untreated urban sewage and industrial wastes are dumped into the river. Perhaps the only stretch of river where the pollution levels are still "accept-able" for taking a holy dip is at the southernmost stretch of the ghats, before sewage from the city enters the river.
Times are changing, Nepal's Banaras connection is being overshad-owed by our links to bigger centres in India like New Delhi, Bombay and even Bangalore. Banaras' importance as
a hotbed for Nepali politicians has also diminished. And elderly Nepalis don't head down to Banaras for Kashibaas anymore, preferring the Nepal tarai where malaria has been eradicated and where there is now electricity and good transportation.
And Kathmandu has also changed, it is no longer a Himalayan boondock in comparison to Banaras. But there are now new air links between Banaras and Kath-mandu with daily flights by Indian Airlines and Necon Air. It may be premature to say goodbye yet to the Kathmandu-Kashi Connection.