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«ESTHER WAPSTRA Thesis submitted for MA degree Supervisors: Dr. Laurens G. H. Bakker Prof. Paul J. C. L. van der Velde 30 August 2013 COMMUNAL HARMONY ...»

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The Ganges suffers from industrial and agricultural pollution. In Varanasi the main pollutants of the river are 150 million litres of sewage per day and 140-200 tonnes of flesh and 200-300 tonnes of ash per year. Minor pollutants come from the washing of clothes, the bathing of cattle and defecating on the river banks. With the introduction of the Ganga Action Plan in 1986, an electric crematorium was constructed, community toilets were introduced on the major bathing ghāts, and 6,000 tortoises that eat half charred and unburnt bodies were thrown in the river. Since 1986, the water quality improved significantly, with higher Dissolved Oxygen (DO) levels and lower Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) levels (Singh, J. & Kumra, V. K. (1997). Ganga Action Plan and river water quality. A case of Varanasi.

In: P. Nag, V. Kumar, & J. Singh (eds.), Geography and environment (pp. 145-158). New Delhi, India:

Concept Publishing Company) Karma is the accumulation of a person’s deeds, good and bad, that maintains the cycle of life, death and rebirth. One can escape this cycle by attaining liberty (moksha) (Klostermaier, 2007, pp. 176-180) Varanasi is closely associated with death. Because people who die in Varanasi are assured of moksha (liberation), many people come to Varanasi to spend their last days. Parry mentions that his informants do not agree with each other about what ‘liberation’ means. Most say that it means the cessation of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth, but some hold that the next rebirth will be prosperous and happy. Those who think the cycle of rebirths comes to an end again disagree about what comes next, for example a stay in heaven or merging with the Universal Spirit. Almost everyone, priests included, accedes that ‘all creatures’ will be granted moksha in Varanasi, irrespective of religious background and whether human or animal. Eck quotes a scholar who explains that “just as poison will poison anyone who drinks it, so will the nectar of immortality, called amrita, impart immortality to anyone who drinks it.” (Eck, 1983, p. 336). Although this means that scoundrels also reach moksha, they may have to undergo a brief and very intense punishment. As everyone in Kashi reaches moksha, mortuary rituals to take care of the deceased’s soul are irrelevant. Yet they are performed in Kashi, according to Eck because it is the duty of the living to take care of the dead.

One of the names for Varanasi is Mahāshmashāna, the great cremation ground; the whole area is cremation ground (Eck, 1983, pp. 32-33). Whereas elsewhere in India the cremation ground is outside the town because the ritual pollution caused by dead bodies makes it is an inauspicious place, the cremation places of Kashi are in the middle of town. Manikarnika ghāt is the most important burning ghāt. It is the place where, according to Hindu mythology, Vishnu dug out a kund (pool) and filled it with his sweat from performing tāpas (austerities) in order to create the cosmos (see footnote 12) (Eck, 1983, pp. 334-340; Parry, 1981; 1994, pp. 11-32; Vidyarthi, 1979, p. 18).24 Parry argues that death is important in Benares and specifically at Manikarnika ghāt because cremation is the continuous recreation of the universe. Because Kashi will always be in Satya Yuga, everything remains as it was in the beginning and does not deteriorate. The city stands above the world on Shiva’s trident, which is below the Vishwanath temple, and will be lifted up during pralaya (cosmic destruction). As the world in Kashi is timeless, karmic laws (experiencing the consequences of one’s actions in this or next life) do not apply and there is no difference between saint and sinner. Because liberation comes naturally people can pursue all of the four goals of life (purushārthas) and live a good life and enjoy themselves listening to music and Satya Yuga (‘Age of Truth’; also: Krita yuga) is the first of the four ages that make up a cycle (kalpa). The other ages are Treta Yuga, the Dwāpara Yuga, and finally the Kālī Yuga (‘Age of Darkness’). A day of Brahma comprises of a thousand of these cycles; a night of Brahma of another thousand cycles. The world deteriorates with every age: in Satya Yuga everyone is virtuous and good, but the Kālī Yuga is a time of wickedness (Klostermaier, 2007, pp. 494-495) chewing pān (intoxicating betelnut leaves).25 Parry observes a parallel between “cremation which destroys the microcosm of the physical body and praláya... which destroys the macrocosm.” (Parry, 1981, p. 356) and points out that Veena Das has shown the resemblance of cremation to ancient fire sacrifices. The corpse is now not a corpse, but a willing victim, an offer. Das explains that people who are usually not cremated but immersed are those who are not a ‘worthy sacrificial offers’.26 Parry concludes that cremation rituals are enactments of Vishnu’s efforts to create the universe and are the reason why Benares is immune to degeneration (Parry, 1981;

1994, pp. 11-32).

3.2.1.4 Banaras’ Hindu traditions: the Ramlila De Ramlila (Rāmlīlā) is the re-enactment of the Ramcaritmanas. The Ramcaritmanas is a version of Valmiki’s epic Ramayaṇa (in Sanskrit), written in the colloquial language by Tulsidas in the sixteenth century. Re-enactments of Rama’s life and the death of Ravana on Vijayadaśamī are performed in many places in Banaras and throughout North India.27 Whereas most performances last for 3 to 10 days, the Ramlila at Ramnagar in Varanasi lasts 31 days. According to Sax, Varanasi’s Ramlila is “the largest... [and] most famous and spectacular Ramlila in north India...” (Sax, 1990, p. 129). Sherring wrote already in 1868 that “The festival of the Ram Lila is, perhaps, the most popular and most numerously attended of any held in Benares.” (Sherring, 1868, pp. 222-223).





The story follows the life of Rama; his birth and childhood in Ayodhya and his marriage to Sita. The night before Rama’s coronation one of the king’s wives reminds the king of his promise to fulfill two wishes; she asks him to send Rama into the forest for a fourteen year exile and to crown her son Bharata king. The king is filled with grief but has to keep his word. Rama is unperturbed, accepts his father’s order readily, and leaves with his brother Lakshmana and his wife Sita. After demon king Ravana kidnaps Sita, Rama and Lakshmana pursue him to his kingdom in Lanka.

They receive help from many animals, amongst them monkey general Hanuman. A heavy fight follows, Sita is rescued, and the company returns to Ayodhya. Because Sita spent time in another man’s house, people call Sita’s fidelity into question, she is The four goals of life (purushārthas) are moral law (dharma), success and material wealth (ārtha), physical and sensory pleasure (kāma), and liberation (moksha). They are associated with the four life stages (chaturashrama): student life (brahmacharya), householder life (garhastya), retired life (vanaprasthya), and renounced life (sannyāsa) (Klostermaier, 2007, pp. 291-292) People with leprosy, victims of small-pox, people who died a sudden or violent death, victims from suicide, renouncers, children, and pregnant women are usually not cremated but immersed in the Ganges. People who cannot afford the wood for a funeral pyre also throw corpses in the Ganges (Parry, 1981, p. 185).

On Vijayadashamī (‘Victorious tenth’) the victory of Rama over Ravana as well as Durga's victory over the bull-demon Mahishasur are celebrated (see also footnote 184) requested to undergo a fire ordeal to prove her innocence which she passes. Rama is coronated and his just and peaceful rule begins (Klostermaier, 2007, pp. 167-169).

Līlā is the play of the gods in which they create the cosmos, without attachment and without desire for a specific outcome (Sax, 1990, pp. 130-131). Rama, an avatar of Vishnu, knows life is mere play and fulfills his dharma (destiny). His journeys connect the whole of India, including many ancient sacred places (mountains, rivers, paths), in one pilgrimage. For the Ramlila, Ramnagar and the surrounding countryside are transformed into the world of the Ramayaṇa in miniature. During a major part of the performance the audience moves along with Rama’s journey; the total area in which the performance takes place is twenty-five square kilometres. The Indian subcontinent with all its sacred places is encapsulated in this performance area, so while moving along the audience has the experience of a real pilgrimage (Sax, 1990, pp. 134-140; Schechner & Hess, 1977, pp. 65-66).

Ramnagar is seen as a pilgrimage place and the visitors, coming from everywhere in north India, are seen as pilgrims. The performance draws sādhus (renouncers) and lay people who attend every performance (mostly Vaiṣhṇavas, followers of Vishnu).

These people come for darshan (vision) of god. Because the actors enact the gods in the Ramlila, the actor is as much god as Rama is an avatār (a manifestation) of Vishnu (Sax, 1990, pp. 131-147). Yet there are also people who come just for fun.

The sacred and the profane are intertwined. During the break the performance becomes a melā (fair) during which families picnic, walās sell their wares, people have food and drinks, and sādhus sing devotional songs (Sax, 1990, pp. 130-133;

Schechner & Hess, 1977, pp. 69-71).

As much a central figure as Rama and mirror image of him is the Maharaja. The performances begin when the Maharaja arrives and break up when the Maharaja departs. While Rama is hailed as king, the Maharaja is seen as representative of Shiva and is saluted ‘Mahadev’ (another name for Shiva). Although he has no political power, he is hailed as upholder of tradition and king of the people (Schechner & Hess, 1977, pp. 69-74).

3.2.2 Religious significance for Muslims The first Muslims came to Varanasi around 1000 BCE when Salar Masaud, or Ghazi Mian, came to Varanasi to ‘slay the infidels’ and was defeated by the Hindu king. His troops settled down in the area, quite a few Muslims nowadays claim to be descendants of these soldiers. Many muḥallas (neighbourhoods) are named after these early crusaders and their graves and mausoleums (called dargāh or mazār) can be found throughout the city (Kumar, 1987, p. 264; 1990, p. 84). Apparently, a qualitative difference exists between these descendants (settled in Madanpura) and Muslims who settled in Varanasi about three centuries ago (in other muḥallas); the first ones feeling superior to the ‘new’ ones. The old ashraf elite are often Shia and regard themselves “urban, suave, [and] replete with tahzīb and ādāb (culture and courtesy)”, whereas the newer Muslim residents in Varanasi are “simple and outspoken, brimming with mohabbat and hamdardī (love and compassion)” (Kumar, 1987, p. 273).

There is much diversity between Muslims of various sects. Most Muslims in Varanasi (about 90%) are Sunni; they belong to old schools such as Hanafi or new schools such as Barelvi and Deobandi. About 10% of Varanasi’s Muslims are Shia, Ahl-eHadith (Wahabi), and Ahmadiya (Singh, 2011, p. 56). The Barelvis can be considered syncretists, having adopted customs such as visiting mazārs that are considered shirk (idolatry) in classical Islam. Deobandis are more conservative and reject visiting tombs as superstition, and Wahabis are more conservative, opposing music and many art forms and recognizing only the Qurān and the Hadiths as sources of authority (Searle-Chatterjee, 1994, pp. 84-85).28 Three waves of reform occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries aiming at a return to a ‘purer’ Islam, based on the Qurān and Hadiths and free from un-Islamic customs. This return to a ‘purer’ Islam can be viewed as a means to articulate a change in economic status, emphasizing their upward mobility. However, it sharpened boundaries between various Muslim sects as well as between Hindus and Muslims (Kumar, 1987, p. 273;

1990, pp. 88-90; Raman, 2010, p. 117; Searle-Chatterjee, 1994, pp. 85-98).

Although Mecca is their holy city and they acknowledge Banaras’ place in Hinduism, Muslims also consider Varanasi an important Islamic centre. The sacred Muslim geography of shrines, and other religious structures makes it an open and benedictory place full of barkat (blessing) (Kumar, 1989, p. 167; 1990, p. 84). They regard the Ganga as holy (dariyaye-pak) and enjoy the peace and scenic beauty of the famous ‘Subahe Banaras’ (morning view of Banaras) that has inspired many (Urdu) poets (Lee, 2012; Singh, 2011, p. 79).

3.2.2.1 Banaras’ mosques and mazārs Besides an incredible amount of temples, Varanasi also has some beautiful mosques.



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