The poetics of a holy death
By Rini Barman
13 January 2015
A new collection of poems on Benaras explores the city’s depth and complexity.
His death in Benares
Won’t save the assassin
From certain hell,
Any more than a dip
In the Ganges will send
Frogs – or you – to paradise.
My home, says Kabir,
Is where there’s no day, no night,
And no holy book in sight
To squat on our lives.
These lines from Kabir’s poem ‘His Death in Benaras’ reflect the pluralist heritage of the holy city of Benaras. Poets and philosophers have long been enticed by the glory of this ancient city, recognising the creative force lurking behind death. Death and Benaras go hand in hand, but with death also comes life. Mythological literature shows that these binary forces sometimes coalesce. In the medieval past and in contemporary times, many poets with diverse views on religiosity have been attracted to the composite culture of Benaras. Akbar, the ‘secular’ Mughal ruler, patronised the city’s progress and it was under him that brocade textiles (known today as Benarasi textiles) found syncretism. His court was also a nucleus of Persian litterateurs, like Abul Fazl, who propagated the syncretic religion Din-i-illahi (Persian for ‘divine faith’) through accounts like the Akbarnama.
Mosques and temples
Today, what remains in the collective memory of most Indians is the pro-Hindu project of ‘Modern Varanasi’ under the Rajput, Maratha and neighbouring kings who were religiously inclined towards Hinduism. They ruled during the British colonial times and were involved in tussles over ownership of the sacred city. The British gave the city its anglicised name, and also sought to homogenise the spiritual cults of Paganism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Jainism. Madhuri Desai, in her essay ‘Mosques, Temples, and Orientalists: Hegemonic Imaginations in Banaras’, points out many examples that made Benaras an indisputably ‘Hindu’ city. Taking her cue from Partha Chatterjee’s The Nation and its Fragments, Desai elaborates on colonial understandings of the material and spiritual. The inner domain, as colonial scholars understood it, was spiritual and defined by one’s cultural identity. With the emergent hegemonic nationalism after the partition of Bengal and the rise of the Swadeshi movement, an urgency was felt to protect spaces associated with spirituality. To symbolise this fervour of nationalism, Benaras began to be represented as a site of “unalloyed Hindu spirituality”.
Poetry on Benaras, among other literary genres, struggles to trace this lost lineage. Ghalib’s poems on Benaras are oft-cited in Southasia; for instance, ‘Chiragh-i-Dair’ (Temple Lamps) was composed during his trip to the city in 1827. His verse was idealistic about the infinite ways in which the people of Hindustan connected to spirituality.
Farnezah Azam Lotfi, in her insightful ‘Ghalib’s Masnavi Chiragh-i-Dair and the Indian Myth, Ganga and Banaras and the Holy Number of One Hundred and Eight’ discusses the poet’s allusion to a sacred number. She focuses on the fact that ‘Chiragh-i-Dair’ contains 108 couplets and verses. The number 108 is a spiritual sacrament in several religious folds. Hindu and Buddhist beads have 108 marble heads, and major gods and goddesses of the pantheon of Hinduism are represented with 108 holy traits. There is no denying that this number is sacred, especially for Hindus in Benaras, and an integration of this knowledge became an inspiration for Ghalib’s literary imagination.
Ghalib (1796-1869) lived at a time when Hindus and Muslims shared a pluralistic way of life – they worshipped common saints, dargahs and even popular gods and goddesses. In conversation with a seer, the poet ponders the reasons why doomsday (qiyamah) has not yet arrived, even as brother fights against brother. Benaras is evoked as the Kaaba (sacred house):
Sir you well perceive
that goodness and faith, fidelity and love
have all departed from this sorry land
Father and son are at each other’s throat;
Brother fights brother
Despite all these ominous signs
Why has not doomsday come?
As reflected in the poems of Ghalib, Benaras has continually metamorphosed. Ghalib’s Masnavi (rhyming spiritual couplets) are an example of the poet’s subversion of religious norms used to homogenise a multicultural city. His aim was to understand the city’s edifice of death and connect it to his compatriots’ forgetting to thrive for a peaceful, inclusive existence. Through this, it appears, Ghalib not only challenges an orthodox hierarchy, but empowers us with his fresh style of interpreting religious dictums. To create life through verse by evoking a place associated with death is one of the many tropes the poet uses.
Benaras has been bestowed with many names, substantiating its polymorphic nature. Kashi Naresh, the king of Benaras was responsible for many cultural exchanges between poets, philosophers and travel writers. Thus, the ancient name Kashi is usually attributed to him. Further, Gautama Buddha delivered his first sermon in Sarnath, near Kashi.Diana L Eck, in Banaras: City of Light, meditates upon Kashi: it is here that life is lived in the perpetual presence of death. She brings to our attention a popular couplet of Kabir’s, painted on walls throughout the city. Kabir, mystic saint and poet, was born in Benaras around 1440. His poetry reflects Hindu and Islamic traditions, while subverting conservative elements of both:
Chalti chakki dekh kar, diya Kabira roye
Dui paatan ke beech mein, sabit bacha na koye
(Seeing the grinding stone turning, turning, Kabir began to weep
Between the two stones, not a single grain is saved!)
In saying “life in the presence of death” one does not mean merely an acknowledgment that Kashi is where people come to die, but that for the Kashi diehard, death is the gateway to a higher degree of living. Diana Eck elucidates upon this couplet by referring to the much-quoted Sanskrit sloka, “Kashyam maranam muktih,” which means that death in Kashi is liberation. Yamraj is the lord of death, known in Hindu mythology as the accountant of death. After judgement of one’s good and evil acts, Yamraj determines the fate of a person’s afterlife. In Benaras, however, Yama is not allowed within city limits, so dying in this sacred city means one can escape the binary of heaven/hell. Kala Bhairav, a manifestation of Shiva himself, takes charge of the dead and is ensured liberation, even if the harshest penalties are to be meted out. The Kala Bhairav temple is known to be the most ancient temple in Benaras. According to Hindu mythology, it is here that the five elements (panch tatva) symbolically associated with the physical body are supposed to be released into the cosmos.
Myth-makers, storytellers and dancers
The attempt at telling the story of the ancient is undertaken to instil the confidence that poetry exists in all of us who share the history of a holy city. Maitreyee B Chowdhury’s Where Even the Present is Ancient: Benaras notes the importance of understanding living oral traditions and the need to revive them. Travelling through the roads of Benaras is considered a pilgrimage, and Maitreyee, through her poems captures the essence of the pilgrim.
Her collection is, I feel, a tribute to India’s fading tradition of oral storytelling. Assuming the role of a sutradhar (a story-telling character in Indian myths and legends), she unifies many traditions from east and west. Her poems indicate how a female sutradhar’s mytho-poiesis (Greek for mythmaking, a device used by poets and writers to subvert myths and create their own for nuanced storytelling) can be radically different from the kind of (patriarchal sutradhar) narration prevalent in Indian legends and epics. Roland Barthes pointed out that myth is a kind of speech, and thus its language has more to do with ideology than semiology. Myths are circulated by the dominant ideologies of their time, and mytho-poiesis allows writers and poets to challenge them.
Perhaps the most striking characteristic of Maitreyee’s poems is the way she has liberated the female poetic voice. The poet is imagined to be an active participant in funeral rites in some of the poems on Benaras. It is important to remember that women were not traditionally allowed to burn the corpses of their family members or be present in the funeral ghats, in keeping with the patriarchal Hindu customs of the time.
Ghats are pristine burning and cremation sites that, in Benaras, lead to the river Ganga. Benaras alone has around a hundred of them. One is called ‘Manikarnika’ (meaning ear-ornaments), and is related to Shiva’s first wife, Sati, who was sacrificed by a fire ritual upon her father’s orders. Manikarnika Ghat, known to lead corpses to instant moksha, was named after ornaments that fell from Sati’s body. It is further evidence of how women’s participation in public spaces has been considered impure, requiring ‘cleansing’ by fire. Silencing the female voice and not allowing females access to funeral rites, while simultaneously worshipping a female deity, is just one of the hypocrisies of ultra-conservative Hinduism.
I saw her by the Godhuli
Of a ghat, making love to Ganga-
Wildness in every DNA
And the calm of the little ektara
‘Gowri’s arms are flung wide
In every remote, possible
And yet when Giri calls
For one sublime moment-
The little girl with red pig tails
Of my memory,
That you had called mad
A fact remarkable in Maitreyee’s poems is the reclaiming of sacrosanct spaces like Ghats, where rituals are the preserve of the Purohit (a male priest-Brahmin). To evoke Benaras, Maitreyee discusses the different forms of Sati, such as the goddesses Durga and Gowri. Incarnations of the same deity assigned with the multiple roles of creativity, destruction, war, fertility and so on complicate the mono-myths associated with femininity. For instance, “To Godhuli” eulogises Gowri’s song to the Giri (Himalaya), a paternal figure. Yet Gowri is also visualised “making love to Ganga”, with her feet adorned with ghungroo (anklets). This song recollects the autumnal ten-day festival Durga Puja, dedicated to the homecoming of the goddess to her parents’ house. As a child returns to her parents, Benaras too welcomes everyone to their final abode: “In Benaras every artist merges, every traveller comes home.”
Maitreyee’s collection often spills over into performance. Understanding the performative aspects of Indian poetry can tell us a lot about the exchange of cultures in the region. In ‘On the oral nature of poetry’, Etheridge Knight writes:
Poetry is primarily oral utterance, and the end of a poem belongs in somebody’s ears rather than their eyes. Once this orientation becomes your approach to writing a poem, then the whole process of creation is different because you’re making up the poem to be said aloud, to be heard, rather than read. I also see the written word as an extension of the spoken word, not a separate entity.
Knight’s insights on orality may encourage many new perspectives when locating a poet’s ethno-cultural identity. It is imperative to return to orality to unearth the hegemonic constructions of Benaras as a ‘Hindu sacred site’. Maitreyee’s poem breaks myths about the outsider’s notion of India as a finished Hindu project by echoing some of the alternative legacies that enrich the Subcontinent.
Commenting on her inspiration, Maitrayee says: “People, especially the man on the road, have always been my greatest muse. In Benaras, I got ample opportunity to find how history and mythology had blended into ordinary lives.” Her idea of Benaras is threefold: marked by tales, time and transcendence. All of these attempt to conjure the idea of a common space of community, and views death in Benaras as an equaliser in a socially divisive and caste-ridden India.
It brings the smell of dead bodies
While I sit at Assi and smell of Manikarnika
Where my lover lives
In his lonely indifference
His fear of life and living
Only ghosts I am told
Are a social lot-
They move in groups,
Of Brahmins and Shudras perhaps?
I smell only of you,
full of you
Death reduces everybody to the same level: the few feet a corpse lies above the ground. Brahmins and Shudras are the supposed religious heads and the menial labourers, respectively. The Brahmins were at the top of the caste system, and Shudras the lowest of all. Oppression is the key to the caste system’s power hierarchies; Maitreyee’s poem here is mocking a structure that millions of people consider “holy and absolute”.
Shrikant Verma, in his 1984 poem ‘Kashi mein Shav’ (Corpses in Kashi), deals with this same power of death. By referring to death and the irony of all material desires and power structures, Verma’s poem discusses the triviality of human physical existence:
you have seen Kashi,
where corpses come
and corpses go
by the same road.
And this is all you did-
Whose corpse is this?
Whoever it was,
Whoever it wasn’t,
Did it make a difference?
-(Translated by Rahul Soni in Magadh, Almost Island Publications, 2013)
A central figure in the Nai Kavita movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Srikant Verma’s collection is highly allegorical. It refers to several real-life political figures and events of his time. Likewise, Maitreyee’s poem ‘Madhukuri: The Song of a Sadhu’ combines the ritual of Madhukuri with ‘bhiksha’ (alms). According to the Chinmaya mission’s guidelines “Hindu scriptures state that Brahmacharins and Sannyasins seek Bhiksha from Devotees and Householders. They do not cook for themselves”. Brahmacharins and sannyasins are people who have vowed self-imposed celibacy that will lead, they believe, to the path of spirituality. They renounce worldly and material desires. Bhiksha, in the metaphoric sense, suggests the importance of self-effacement of oneself and identifying with the other. Providing alms is an act of dharma (self-righteousness). The poem reads:
In the evening he sits
Besides a string of lamps
Lit by the ghee,
Someone with pity had left behind.
He sang then,
His prayer beyond his voice.
Someone stopped with a plate of Pedas,
Another with a bag full of lentils
As I sat in Bhiksha,
For a puff of hasish,
Mixed with his eyes, thread bare.
His song asked of Ganga,
For his Madhukuri-
She rose to the occasion it seemed-
And churned him inside her deluge.
Madhukuri – literally meaning honey gatherer – is the ancient tradition of the Bauls, the wandering rustic bards of Bengal. Imbued with the itinerant flavour of life on the road, Madhukuri is mostly practised by Bauls. They earn food from different houses by singing and invoking inner peace for the residents, similar to the ritual of bhiksha. The music of the Bauls is varied and heterogeneous, celebrating divine love in earthy terms. With folk lyrics that appeal to common people, Baul mystics break down religious and caste hierarchies in their songs and attempt to achieve harmony with nature and its beings. ‘Faceless in Benaras’ reads:
Somewhere the sarangi plays,
Nandi walks up to me,
As I pine the loss of some belongings.
A God I might have reduced to ritual,
All in a maze called Ganga.
‘You haven’t lived,
Till you’ve lost’,
He seems to say-
‘Most of all yourself’
The reference to classical instruments, like the ektara and sarangi, enable Maitreyee’s storytelling to become a lived musical reality. Ektara (literally “one string”) is an instrument used in Indian folk and traditional music. Sarangi is a bowed, short-necked string used in Hindustani classical music. The deities Radha, Krishna and Rama chime together with the sound of bells and come alive in the song of a majjhi, the boatman:
The waters swelled passionately,
As fingers trace her mould
A sadhu sang a Radha Krishna Rasa leela
Whence she became the Ektara.
Her neck arched in wanton want-
As two drops of his perspiration fell on her breasts.
A dingy on the Ganga
Drowned in the sudden rise of water levels-
The majjhi went down singing,
Hare Ram Hare Ram!
The Rasa Leela is part of the traditional story of Krishna, described in Hindu scriptures, in which he dances with Radha and her sakhis (companions). This dance is supposed to be a dance of divine love, and metaphorically refers to courtship. As with the Bauls, the tradition of Rasa Leela varies regionally. Leela, literally translated as ‘play’, has an esoteric function in Indian rituals – that of the unification of male and female cosmic energies.
Leelas aspire for a liminal space, and speak volumes about the nature of Benaras as a city, too. The city that “partly is” and “partly is not” suggests a state of being on a threshold. Victor Turner, in Rites de Passage, writes that liminality creates a fluid space during any ritualistic performance. Kedarnath Singh’s poem ‘Banaras’ also uses simple tropes by entering a liminal world that unravels itself through water imagery. If we take Benaras as the performer and death as the performance, in this poem, it is not difficult to comprehend that the city attempts to subvert established hierarchies, such as caste and religion. The poem finely draws out the politics of space in Benaras – from the higher caste heads entitled to blow conches, to undertakers whose occupation (and dwelling) is restricted by their professions, like burning corpses.
If you ever happen
To be in Banaras unexpectedly
And see it in the glow
of lamps, lighted:
you shall see a Magic City,
partly in water, partly in mantras
partly in conches, partly in flower
partly in corpses, partly in sleep
If you see carefully
partly it is and partly it is not…
Offering water to an unseen sun
The city stands on one leg in water,
Where its other leg is.
-(Translation by Sunita Jain)
Apart from Benaras existing on the threshold of life and death, other kinds of celebrations can be understood as ritual performances, too. For example, dances and death are considered able to unite cosmic energies inherent in the universe. One cannot ignore the recurrent motifs of dance and the dancer in Maitreyee’s collection.
Liminality manifests in the way devotees and sadhus enact the rituals of attending to one’s body. In the following lines from ‘Shiva on the Road’, a Sadhu smoking ganja (marijuana) wishes to become Shiva, the lord associated with entheogens. Shiva’s intake of entheogens has been considered ritually significant since ancient Vedic times, and perhaps even preceding them:
In his dance and mask,
He is Shiva and more-
Magnificent in the false Tandav,
The dancer becomes,
Who he knows not-
And also whom he is trying to find.
The mask becomes the dance,
The song and his drum.
In ‘A Dancer on the roads’, Benaras transforms into a stage. The poet goes into a trance-like state when she observes the dancer become Kali and Durga (goddesses known to protect truth in different ways), the creator and destroyer. The erotic energies of the dancers in Ram Leela allow for a liminal space. Ram Leela is a stage adaptation of the Ramayana – an epic ascribed to sage Valmiki, but that has many versions, especially in oral forms. Ram Leela is a popular form of learning and entertainment, presented in different forms throughout India.
In the Ramleela,
Or on the streets,
Dancers are ethereal creatures.
I watch their bodies,
I walk like them
And sometimes become them…
Using elements that appeal to the oral/aural, and not exclusively to the visual, Maitreyee’s poems create a collage of sights, sounds and smells. In Indian society, smells are markers of purity and pollution, driving many inequities in the country.
Most Southasian oral legends, including fairy and folk tales, follow a circular narrative. This is why oral poetry can be read as a continuous thread, the chronicles of a multicultural past retold. The past can be examined through a circular lens. This chakravyuh (wheel-like) mode of time in “Where the present is ancient” is particularly interesting. One can recognise the stories of older generations, and view a contemporary mythical performance at the same time:
The beggars on the road,
Now cease to exist,
here voice reigns supreme.
It is enough to listen,
When talk is futile.
In a chakravyuh like Abhimanyu,
There is no way out.
Everything is a song,
A sad song and a happy song-
But a song in the end.
Devdutt Pattnaik has written that the wheel indicates the radial nature of Indian thought. For example, the Sudarshana Chakra is portrayed on the rear, right-hand of the four hands of Vishnu. A weapon with 108 serrated edges used for destruction of the enemy, it again reminds us of the holy number 108, mentioned earlier. The circling nature of the wheel is believed to be a harbinger of positive energy.
Maitreyee’s ‘A concert in Benaras’ connects this idea to Abhimanyu (Arjuna’s son, who mastered the theory of warfare in the womb). He knew, after listening to a conversation between his father and pregnant mother, how to enter and exit successfully through the maze-like battle formation (shaped like a wheel). This is the story of Kurukshetra from the epic Mahabharata, where a massive battle had taken place for the throne of Hastinapura. Conversely, the poet links the secret of the chakravyuh to Benaras, full of Hindustani classical music, beggars and idols.
Liberation is traditionally attributed to the ascetics, but Maitreyee’s anthology problematises it by bringing in Eros, the son of Aphrodite, and the Greek equivalent of Kamadeva. Kamadeva aroused erotic energies in deities in Indian myths to maintain a balance of fertility and sterility on earth. Complicating ritual performativity by subverting the roles of ‘celibate’ figures in mythology invites readers to retell the story of Benaras, to form a new discourse. Ending with the motif of the chakravyuh again, the poet writes: “Benaras is but a song in the end”, perhaps signifying the elemental and circular nature of Hindu philosophy. Maitreyee’s Benaras is not an escapist ideal but a struggle to unearth multiplicity from the hitherto linear narratives. What else but poetry would allow her the license to do so?
~Rini Barman is a student and freelance writer living in New Delhi. Her articles, poems and stories have been published in the Sunday Guardian, Kindle, Northeast Review, The Bangalore Review and Muse India, among other places. She researches questions of ethnicity, folklore and culture in India’s northeast.