Written by Sadiq
Banaras is counted among the world’s most ancient cities. It is a city imbued with religion, culture, history and faith, and it dwells in our hearts with its sanctified, hallowed imagination.
These days, due to the Lok Sabha elections, frenzied political discussions centre around Banaras. This is partly due to the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is contesting from here, and also because a soldier, and many farmers, came in the forefront to challenge him.
It is interesting to observe that even here, education, employment, public health, etc have failed to emerge as big poll issues. Even the drinking water crisis could not become the rallying point.
Anyway, these are transient political machinations which we are getting used to listening to and watching. Banaras, however, is not a battleground of politics; it’s a town bristling with belief and spirituality. It has had this status for centuries. And every age has accepted its hallowed character and accorded the city its due. Nearly 200 years ago, the great poet Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) wrote an extraordinary poem on Banaras in Persian, titled Masnavi Charagh-e-Dair (Lamp of the Temple). In the poem, Banaras has been described as “Hama na Kaaba-e-Hindustan ast (Hindustan’s Kaaba)”.
In August 1826, Mirza Ghalib travelled to Calcutta from Delhi to file a lawsuit against the injustice meted out to him in a case involving his family pension. During this period, he also stayed in Banaras for some time. During the journey, he fell sick and grew weak. In the letter that he wrote to a close friend, Rai Chhajmal, after he reached Banaras, he penned a qata (couplets written on a theme) in Persian. It read: “A melancholy man, Ghalib, who was so weak it seemed there was little life left in him, has reached Banaras alive. I had not expected this feat from that twig.”
In a letter to another friend, he wrote that when he reached Banaras in a state of critical illness, the city’s cool and pleasant weather energised him and lent him a fresh lease of life. All praise be to Banaras: It will be appropriate if I call it the core of world’s heart out of the happiness coursing in my own heart. Because of the exuberance of its lush greenery and flowers, if I call it a paradise on earth, it’s only a fair comparison. The city’s breeze reanimates the bodies of even the dead.
The first couplet of the masnavi (extensive poem) Ghalib wrote on Banaras reads: Talilla Banaras chashme baddoor/ bahishte khurram-o-firadaus mamoor (From the evil eye, may God in his greatness/ save Banaras as it is a grove in paradise).
Needless to say, Ghalib used grove in paradise to mean Anand Kanan (forest of bliss), which Banaras is popularly called. In the same first draft of the masnavi, Ghalib wrote that Banaras was held in high esteem, and that the pinnacle of its prestige was difficult to reach for the human imagination.
Nearly 200 years ago, when Ghalib arrived in Banaras, the city was like a garden in full bloom. Ghalib lavished praise on the city’s climate, its natural landscape, its gardens and beautiful edifices.
Ghalib was not beckoned to Banaras by Maa Ganga, but whatever he wrote about Banaras reveals his deep regard for the city and the Ganga. The Ganga in his time was not so polluted that a budget of crores of rupees was needed to clean it, and even that has left no trace on the river.
In the Masnavi Charagh-e-Dair, Ghalib also recorded an anecdote. Though that anecdote is a sample of his poetic imagination, it demonstrates how sacred he held Banaras in his heart of hearts. He writes that one day he asked a conscientious holy man, “Do you see that virtue has vanished from the world? There is no trace of love, empathy and affection… A father thirsts for the blood of his son who, in turn, bays for the former’s blood… Warmth and cordiality have bid the world adieu. There are tell-tale signs already, yet why doesn’t qayamat (Day of Judgment) arrive?”
Upon hearing this, the holy man smiled and, pointing a finger towards Kashi, said, “This city has stopped the arrival of qayamat. The truth is that the creator of the universe doesn’t seem willing to let this beautiful and effervescent city be reduced to ruin and devastation.”
During his stay in Banaras, in one of the personal letters he wrote to a friend, Maulvi Mohammad Ali Khan, Ghalib gave expression to a true emotion lodged in his heart, stating in no uncertain terms that if he did not fear the reprimand or criticism of his enemies, he would have willingly “abandoned religion, broken the rosary”, worn tilak on his forehead and janeu (sacred thread) across his chest. And, in that avatar, he would have sat meditating on the banks of the Ganga for so long that he himself would have washed away the dirt and impurities of his life and, like a drop in the ocean, would have disappeared into the ocean. This letter is an unparalleled sample of the spirituality Banaras is steeped in as well as Ghalib’s mystical conduct.
Last year, I saw a film, Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation, 2016), that artistically portrays the lives, beliefs and relationships of the common people staying in a serai (inn) on the banks of the Ganga, waiting to attain moksha (salvation). While watching the film, I acutely remembered Ghalib. And, with him, Banaras, too. What Ghalib saw, felt and reflected during the short span of his stay in the city, us ordinary mortals can’t do even if we spend an entire lifetime there.
Sadiq, translator of Ghalib’s Masnavi Charagh-e-Dair into Hindi, taught Urdu at Delhi University
Translated from Urdu by Nawaid Anjum