Monthly Archives: November 2016

Varanasi Heritage –Journey to Realize Existence of the Absurd By Navina Jafa ( )

As one of the oldest living cities of the world, Varanasi remains an important tourist destination in India. The city has been for centuries has been a place of  religious tourism for indigenous tr…

Source: Varanasi Heritage –Journey to Realize Existence of the Absurd By Navina Jafa ( )

Varanasi Heritage –Journey to Realize Existence of the Absurd By Navina Jafa ( )


As one of the oldest living cities of the world, Varanasi remains an important tourist destination in India. The city has been for centuries has been a place of  religious tourism for indigenous travelers, however, the idea of the ‘exotic’ Varanasi got started perhaps just a couple of decades ago and this led to Varanasi as a hotspot to relish a wild euphoria defining the microcosm of India and its organized chaos. From Beatles to all sorts of searching souls came and continue to come to find themselves, sometimes taking to meditation and sometimes dissolving in fumes of smoking opium and marijuana!!! Nonetheless, Varanasi has a realistic economic landscape over which has been constructed the Absurd amphitheater of the idea of ecstasy called the Anandavana – Forest of Salvation.



Varanasi/ Banaras/ Kashi/ Anandvana an urban economic space of religious and intellectual energies is one of the ancient living cities of the world. However, the reality of the formation lies in the cold reality that the city is strategically situated on the largest river – the Ganges in India, and is in the middle of one of the richest fertile alluvial plain in the world. It therefore has always been an important location for agriculture and trade. Availability of money allowed for the largest unorganized business to be nurtured – RELIGION. Geographical uniqueness that the river flowed for a selected section northwards towards its source (Uttarvahini) slowed the pace of the current, and the river never changed its course since the beginning. Myths, symbols, metaphors were created to explain to the value of the main heritage of Varanasi its river. The stretch of this unchanged course is known mukti-shetra (land of salvation or the land where you escape the cycle of birth-rebirth). The river is the metaphor for transporting the souls. To prepare and aspire for that ideal communities over time have evolved an array of activities… Someone chants in chaos, another has his head shaved as a ritual for the souls of his ancestors, in another space a contradictory act of celebrating the birth of a new baby by rituals of shaving the hair is juxtaposed with a corpse moving towards the descending steps (ghats) where rhythm of rituals offered on the river aspire to assist souls to escape the cycle of birth-rebirth called Nirvana or mukti …Histrionics of life is never more vibrant in the ceaseless space of Anandavana (forest of Bliss), city of lights-kashi, land between rivers Varuna and Assi… Varanasi.


As a traveler who comes into Varanasi, the riverfront heritage offers to the travelling soul dynamic canvases of activities. The riverfront is just the front curtain to the labyrinths and complex neighborhoods beyond the ghats (divided sections of flight of steps leading into the river). These neighborhoods spell out an entire motely of intellectual, and economic activity along with activities of the senses – food, music, dance, literature, rituals, and festivities among other things. Both the ghats and neighborhoods are indexes of community identities, or define a path of thought by an individual who brought wisdom and change to communities of human species like Kabir and Tulsidas.


The underpinning and most important energies among the people is the unorganized economic sector of religion and rituals. Religion presents a wonderful arena that allows the negotiation of moral ideas and plays on human insecurity his fear,  his greed for power and control of resources; it pampers the human want to seek eternal happiness.



This theme is played out in the theater of the riverfront of Varanasi, and the wonderful part of that realization is the satirical saying integral to the idea of Varanasi raan, saandh, seedhi, sanyasi, inse bache toh sewe kaasi

Translation and Meaning –

Your will acquire the lighted truth Kashi only when you save yourself from raan, saandh, seedhi and sanyasi

Kashi – the city of light is a metaphor of an individual’s journey to seek the truth of the absurd of existence but that truth is elusive and is only reached when one deals with – –

Raan – widows who were abandoned and left to seek their survival as prostitutes in the famous brothels of Kashi) – this is the distraction of sex

Saandh – the roaming Bulls in Kashi symbolizing free sex and therefore unchartered uncontrolled journeys of sensual pleasure

Seedhi – Flights of Steps, one has to be careful alert such that one does not trip in the journey

Sanyasi – the ascetic – Who journeyed into Kashi, but got deviated.



This symbolic satirical saying which describes the metaphoric travel in Varanasi brings together the ultimate truth – The Absurdness of Existence of human life. Perhaps it is this absurdness which is experienced as one experiences through travel –  rituals, colors, unbound laughter, creativity  and chaos that makes Varanasi so, so special. There is that spirited footfalls of the deeply religious pilgrims who walk the panch kosi pilgrimage route groping to make sense of the absurd path of human existence, and on the other hand there are the lost eyes finding the absurd truth in the smoke of pipes filled with opium and marijuana !

This piece goes out to all those who have travelled with me to Kashi among other journeys I curate around India called ‘Sacred Journeys into Secret India’  – the journey is important and  the fun lies that all is an illusion – Maya and therefore the reality – Heritage of the Absurd

Metaphor of Waves Indian Fabrics, Music, Kathak Dance & Meditation Illusion & Dissolution

A wave as a metaphor is potent, in the Hindi language the word is Leher. It represents an endless continuity of cyclic energy. The Indian Cultural matrix takes this symbol and represents its inherent philosophical ethos in weaving, music, dance and meditative practices.


It is an inherent aspect of water one of the five elements, elusive and impossible to contain a symbol of movement, potential and power. In Buddhism the wave represents the Mahamudra – or the great position of inherent energy. It is the union of compassion and wisdom- the ultimate realization of one’s true nature.


In Kathak, the Classical Dance from North India, and other instrumental music performed, there is an incorporation of a seminal framework that resounds in the background the basic beats of the chosen rhythmic cycle. In Kathak dance, the idea of rhythm which is manifested in what is played on a string instrument or the harmonium (the Indian organ) liltingly in the background marks the flow of a rhythmic cycle. It is interestingly called Lehera or wave pattern in the aerial format representing a cycle of time in space. The first beat represents the shore and the cycle repeats itself again and again hitting that shore. The melody of the Lehra comprises of musical notes set in a selected Raga. The melody is repeated in ascending and descending order to illustrate the tala or the rhythmic cycle.  While the percussionist matches the performed content of the dancer, the Lehra does not change, and in a monochrome manner like an anchor is responsible for providing the structure of the tala for the dancer and percussionist.  It is played repeatedly all through the performance, and the tempo of the melody ( Lehra) is moderated by the requirement of the performer. Sum or first beat of the tala represents the shore in the cyclic journey of waves or Leher – where the melody ends and begins and thus forms focal beat of the tala.

The symbol of the Wave further is assimilated in textiles. Rajasthan and Gujarat are well known for their tie and dye technique in fabrics, largely cotton and silk, and now evident in other material. It is called Bandhni or Bandhej.

The symbol of the Wave further is assimilated in textiles. Rajasthan and Gujarat are well known for their tie and dye technique in fabrics, largely cotton and silk, and now evident in other material. It is called Bandhni or Bandhej.

This is a 5000-year-old colorful hand-dyeing technique. The art of Bandhani is highly skilled process. The technique involves dyeing a fabric which is tied tightly with a thread at several points, thus producing a variety of patterns like Lehariya.

The wave patterns are produced in brightly colored cloth with distinctive patterns. Lehariya is distinguished by the natural, ripple effect in mesmerizing colors, using a color resist dyeing technique where the patterns are made up of innumerable waves respectively. The wavy, diagonal stripes created through this technique look bewitching in brilliant color combinations. According to World Textiles: A Visual Guide to Traditional Techniques, the fabric is “rolled diagonally from one corner to the opposite selvedge, and then tied at the required intervals and dyed”. Wave patterns result from fanlike folds made before dyeing. Traditional Lehariya employs natural dyes and multiple washes. The Lehariya was patronized in the nineteenth and early twentieth century by the local traders and merchants who wore turbans of bright Lehariya fabric. The itinerant trading communities of Rajasthan wearing the Lehariya turban seem to symbolize their eternal cyclic journeys. The harmoniously arranged diagonal stripes in their Turban were originally, dyed in the auspicious colors of yellow and red. While Red in the Indian civilization is associated with the energy symbolized and manifested in the Mother Goddess, Yellow is the color of learning and knowledge, in Buddhism the yellow symbolizes our experience of the everyday world. Presently, the Lehariya design is most common in chiffon sarees, cotton stoles and skirts.

Further, if one explores, waves are nothing but a name and form in a larger setting of existence. So long that they move – rise and fall they exist. The skilled weaver, dancer, musician and the meditating ascetic creates a geography to map that movement. For the dancer and musician it is the environment of time and space in which he creates designs of rhythm with his music or body, exploring and negotiating in the idea of waves. For the weaver that space of creation is the cloth where waves assume a visual pattern, for the ascetic it is the hand position with which he frames his mental and physical energies. But then the reality is  the idea of dissolution. Which in North Indian performing arts  it is the ‘Sum’ (first-last beat of a cycle), or for the waever it is the first knot of the weft and warp (taana-baana) or for the meditator the dissolution is the concept of the ‘Brahman’. To arrive at the the path is the creation of roads in the virtual or real existence of wave patterns which is nothing by an illusion Maya which is dissolved. The wave is c absolved in the ocean, the lehera in the sum, for in meditation it is the reality of shoonyata or the void.