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

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