Children of Varanasi: How their childhood is trapped in the ‘market of bhakti’

The forlorn and the forsaken, Varanasi has the capacity to embrace all who are drawn to it.

Written by Bindu Sajan | Updated: July 16, 2017 12:53 am
varanasi, benaras, kashi, varanasi religious places, benaras significance, children in varanasi, children profession beneras, india news, uttar pradesh, eye 2017, sunday eye, eye magazine, indian express Crossing over: Varanasi is also called Avimukta or “never forsaken” for those who reach its banks are embraced in its folds. (Source: Express archive)

We were in the queue for two long hours, leading to Kashi Vishwanath temple, the main temple of Varanasi. Thirteen-year-old Raja, a self-styled confidant of Lord Shiva, stood with us. We had met him earlier in the evening, when the sight of a queue snaking for about 5 km had left us almost resigned that we would never make it to the sanctum sanctorum.

Then, he appeared before us out of nowhere and asked:
“You want to have the darshan of Jothir Lingam”?
“But how is it possible?”?
“You have to meet Raja.”
“Who is Raja?”
“I am Raja,” he said, with a naughty twinkle in his brown eyes. “But you have to pay me Rs 1,000,” he added.

Without waiting for our consent, he led us to the front of the queue, near the temple entrance. His modus operandi was simple — we had to break into the queue of people who had been standing there for the last 10 hours. Sensing our reluctance, he literally pushed us into the queue. “Don’t worry. Just chant ‘Har har Mahadev’ loudly, and nobody will say anything,” he assured us. In an atmosphere of spiritual ecstasy, enhanced by a profuse consumption of milk and bhang, the crowd was in a jovial mood, and, like good friends, we all started chanting together, inching our way into the temple.

The crowd behaviour had a magical transformation within the sanctum sanctorum. A mad frenzy erupted while entering the holy chamber of Lord Shiva. I was about to hit the granite pillar when someone held me protectively. It was Raja. “I told you to be careful,” he said, like a parent to a child.

Raja had come to this city from Coimbatore when he was just four. He had lost his father and his forlorn mother had decided to come to Varanasi for the last rites of her husband and to atone for his unnatural death. Raja has only faint memories of a train journey in a general compartment, with his mother and infant sister and a bundle of cloth as their sole belonging. “And we never went back,” he said simply.

Raja explained that Kashi is also called ‘Avimukta’, “never forsaken” — those who reach its banks are embraced in its fold.

“I’ve been looking after my Amma and Thankachi since I was eight, and I won’t let her work in other households,” he said.

“What about your studies?” we asked.
“I am a very busy person. But I go to the local school when time permits,” he responded with a smile.

Cremation Ghat, Varanasi

It was an unforgettable night, witnessing the magic of a city pulsating to a feverish frenzy of worship. The cremation ground at Manikarnika Ghat, where about 300 dead bodies are cremated every day, is considered to be the most auspicious of all places on earth. Kashi is the final destination of a long pilgrimage through many lives until the great crossing to the far shore. It was only 4 am in the morning and the ghats were abuzz with life. I was sitting on the embankment, watching this great drama of life and death unfold, when someone called out to me. “Do you want to do a special pooja for your ancestors?”
I looked up and saw a young man, his forehead smeared with ash and kumkum.

“Upadhyaji will do the pooja for you.”

I don’t know if there are any lost souls among my ancestors, but I definitely wanted to meet Upadhyaji, who I presumed would be an elderly man. I was amused to see a small boy, barely eight years old, dressed in a traditional dhoti and thattu, at least three times bigger than his small body. The enormity of the task he had to perform — of guiding the lost souls to the other world — seemed to be too much of a burden on him.

There were, at least, a dozen rudraksha chains around his delicate neck, a sacred thread, and his whole body was smeared in ashes and kumkum. There was an air of innocence about him and a tinge of sadness in his eyes. He started the pooja on a solemn note. I was thinking about his lost childhood, trapped in this market of bhakti.

On the night of Shivaratri, the entire city turned out to be a big dance party. One boy of about seven years, in a torn shirt and shabby pants, caught my attention. Lean and dark, with two protruding teeth, Magesh was quite a gifted dancer. He danced with abandon, holding the money offered to him between his lips. A street urchin, his only family was an elder brother who begged for a living. When the gala got over, he posed for a photo with us. “How do you plan to spend all that money?” I asked him. “They snatch all my money, and, some days, I don’t get enough to eat food,” he said, as if it was the most natural thing to happen.

There were so many others whom I met. There was Mayangi, a girl of barely nine, walking on a tightrope at a dizzying height of 10 m, with a balancing rod and three pots precariously placed on her head. There was no safety net to protect her.

Little Avantika, 6, dressed as the Ganga, was hungry and crying. Someone fed her a banana and she went back to the role of the omnipotent goddess on top of a stilt.

We were standing in front of Kamakhya Devi temple. “Balabhairava is a very mischievous boy,” said 90-year-old Radhika Bal, as if she was talking about her grandson. “He is pitch black and short-tempered like his father; he often quarrels with his mother. But his mother has an equally bad temper. They can’t stay under a single roof so there are two temples.” The child Radhika Bal is talking about is Balabhairava, the son of Kamakhya Devi and Kalabhairava, the manifestation of Shiva’s most terrible aspect, that even the god of death is afraid of. Balabhairava is always followed by dogs, the only animal that carries the human soul. The temple idol, accordingly, has a multitude of dogs and puppies roaming around it.

Varanasi has this uncanny ability to absorb all who are drawn to it.

Bindu Sajan is a visual media professional.

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