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Varanasi’s secular dream

A boatsman rows a boat on river Ganges past holy "ghats" (banks) in the northern Indian city of Varanasi December 16, 2007. Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi and having their remains scattered in the Ganges allows their soul to escape a cycle of death and rebirth, attaining "moksha" or salvation. REUTERS/Arko Datta (INDIA)
A boatsman rows a boat on river Ganges past holy 'ghats' (banks)
in the northern Indian city of Varanasi December 16, 2007. REUTERS/Arko Datta 

The rickshaw driver deftly negotiated the narrow alleyways of Varanasi, teeming with other rickshaws and motorcycles, tourists, pilgrims, priests, school-going children, masticating cows and the occasional heavily loaded mule. The rusty rickshaw clattered past Muslim traditional medical practitioners’ clinics, right next door to Ayurvedic ones. Deafened by the insistent honking, loud voices, peals of temple bells and urgent calls to prayer from local mosques, I have an epiphany.

Varanasi – the constituency of prime minister Narendra Modi of the BJP, and a popular Hindu religious city – is more secular than the rest of India. I don’t use the term in its general meaning of being dissociated from religion. You can’t take religion out of the ethos of the city that Mark Twain had famously said was ‘older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and [which] looks twice as old as all of them put together’.

But it does embody the definition of the term as explained in the Indian Constitution as equal treatment of all religions. In this overtly Hindu city of around 23,000 temples, every religion is respected. ‘Varanasi celebrates every religion, every festival,’ Amitabha Bhattacharya, a veteran journalist tells me. Which is perhaps why Modi’s Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) politics is considered somewhat overrated here, where religion is an important part of daily life. Religion is not a novelty in Varanasi; it certainly does not need to be rediscovered or rephrased by politicians.

I am rewarded with an affirmation the next morning at the daily Subah-e-Banaras (literally ‘A Morning in Varanasi’) programme on one of the city’s oldest ghats, or steps, leading to the Ganges. It’s 5.30am, dawn is yet to break. A few hundred people have already begun to gather at Assi ghat for the pre-dawn worship. I hunker down in my shawl in the early morning chill.

Varanasi – the constituency of prime minister Narendra Modi of the BJP, and a popular Hindu religious city – is more secular than the rest of India

A mellow priest’s voice reaches the gathering from the stage. ‘When the sun rises, it is not different for you and me. Everyone has their own god,’ it says. I am surprised to hear this public assertion of tolerance in Modi’s India. A few ghats away, I find AK Ansari, a Muslim skateboard trainer, taking a dip before settling down to pray. ‘I wouldn’t pray anywhere else. The Ganges is our mother,’ he says.

‘Only in Varanasi will you find a ghat specifically reserved for Muslim devotees to perform their ablutions and namaaz (prayers),’ Vijaya Nath Mishra, a reputed neurologist, had told me the evening before.

Varanasi is still the India we knew and loved, where despite differences and grouses communities co-existed peacefully. However, we are now ruled by Hindutva fanatics, who have been targeting minorities in every possible way, from lynching to exclusion as Indian citizens in the country’s archaic National Register of Citizens, which was revived last year by Modi and his home minister Amit Shah. On 12 December, they created legal grounds for Islamophobia after passing the Citizenship Amendment Bill that seeks to provide Indian citizenship only to non-Muslim refugees.

It is in Varanasi that you can fully understand the toxicity of Hindutva, an arrogant ideology, a rightwing political scam that seeks to establish the hegemony of the Hindus in a country that has no official religion.

Back on Assi ghat, I watched the priests lift the heavy brass oil lamps to invoke the goddess, and I thought of the Muslim devotees who would be unrolling their mats for dawn prayer a few ghats away. This coexistence is Varanasi.

New Internationalist issue 524 magazine cover This article is from the March-April 2020 issue of New Internationalist.
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