Mark Twain visited Varanasi in 1895, while following the equator around the world. “Benares” he wrote, referring to the city by its Raj era name, “is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Twain was almost right. Varanasi is old – older perhaps than any other city still inhabited by man – but the close, cluttered alleyways near the river, which Twain thought looked older than history, tradition and legend combined, have only taken shape over the last few hundred years. India’s Islamic rulers razed the city’s temples and persecuted its residents, culminating in the demolition of its holiest temple, Kashi Vishwanath, on the orders of Aurangzeb – last of the great Mughals – at the end of the seventeenth century. And yet, in the old city’s rhythms and its connection to the Ganges River, in its cobbled streets with roaming cows and its excess of mouldering shrines, there remain traces of the city established here three or four thousand years ago by the Aryans, when they first arrived in India.
Varanasi’s doorways echo this distant past. They are inconsistent: short, sunken and splattered with mud and dye, or raised, separated from the street by stairs and an elegant arch. They are made of metal sheets rusting gradually, or of wood, delicately carved but rotten, hanging loosely from a hinge.
Varanasi is a city where Hindus hope to die. It is believed that a person cremated at the city’s river ghats will achieve moksha – release from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth – and the widows and Brahmins that make their way through the streets can seem spectral, like otherworldly shades, which you will pass by only once. The old city’s doors are different: solid, purposeful, unmoving, stained by the traffic of passing generations. They are landmarks in a labyrinthine world, decorated with painted fish and pictures of palms, protected by idols in a niche; they are the narrow membrane between personal and public worlds, in a country where a separation between the two can be a privilege hard-won. Chai wallahs and garland sellers conduct business in the recesses beside a door, and itinerant workers and vagrants, forced to sleep outside, still choose to lie down close to these markers of indoor space.
Varanasi’s doorways hint at a story, but also remind you that you’re an outsider. The symbols and shrines that decorate them, which tell locals what sort of family might live behind them, are, in the end, only as penetrable as the doorways’ wood.
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