Cities & Architecture

Failed Kings, Naive Boatmen and Other Ancient Tales From the Republic of Kashi

Recalling the iconoclasm of Varanasi’s ordinary citizens, the wisdom of its scholars and the dreams of its failed kings who sought to make an empire of a republic.

Ascetic. Credit: Aakash Gautam/Flickr CC-BY-NC 2.0

“Death”, writes Walter Benjamin, “is the sanction of everything that the story teller can tell.”

No city in India has more to do with death than Kashi, the city of Manikarnika Ghat, of whom it is said the day its perennial pyres go out, the world will end.

For story lovers in our time, here are some gathas– a few-thousand-years-old but amazingly contemporary in spirit – from the Buddhist jatakas, Jain prabandhas and Vedic scriptures about the Republic of Kashi, the iconoclasm of its ordinary citizens, the wisdom of its scholars, its false swamis, and failed kings who dreamed of making an empire of a republic.

The crows of Varanasi

The crows of Varanasi were a well-fed lot. All pilgrims – those who came here to cremate their dead and also those who came to bathe in the holy Ganges – offered the crows balls of rice, sesame and ghee, in the name of their ancestors. The gentle, kind-hearted Buddhist and Jain monks who wandered the city also fed the crows tidbits out of their begging bowls. Then came a terrible famine. Free meals even for crows became rare as the priests and pilgrims, the Jain and Buddhist monks and nuns fled the city. So the crows of Kashi held a quick conclave. It was resolved that till such time as the situation improved, the crows would fly west to a coastal town by the sea where their sister, married to a water bird lived. They were a large clan and had plenty of sea food to eat.

Brahmin and crow, Varanasi. Credit: Nevil Zaveri/Flickr CC 2.0

Brahmin and crow, Varanasi. Credit: Nevil Zaveri/Flickr CC 2.0

Upon their arrival, the nephews welcomed their crow mamas (maternal uncles) of Kashi with great affection and served them fish, crab and other sorts of sea food on beds of seaweed. The crows resented the smelly meals but ate as they were famished. For days they would confess to each other in crow whispers how they longed for their fragrant Kashi meals of Basmati rice and ghee. A year later, news came that things had improved back home and that pilgrims and priests were coming back. The crows immediately decided to leave.

“Why are you leaving us mama, have we done something wrong ?” asked the gentle water birds.

“Well, actually we have decided to leave because each morning our aesthetics are somewhat offended at the sight of your upturned bottoms sticking out of the sea,” said the crows of Kashi and flew away.

(A folk tale from the compilation of Jaina monk Vasudev Hindee)

The princess and the Brahmins who insulted a rishi

There was a wandering rishi (ascetic) by the name of Matang, born on the banks of a waterlogged area called Mrit Ganga (the dead Ganges) in poor quarters outside Kashi. The rishi once went camping in the garden controlled by the rich yaksha Tinduk. The mighty yaksha was impressed by the learning of the derelict looking ascetic and invited him to visit his garden. The haughty princess of Kosala (modern day Bihar) who was also visiting the garden, thought the weird, emaciated Rishi was eying her and spat at him. This infuriated the yaksha, who forced the princess to marry the Rishi.

This odd marriage did not last and after a while the princess married Rudradev, a prince. The much relieved and footloose rishi went back to his ascetic life. One day, he arrived in Kashi. As he was passing the rich traders’ area, a bunch of prosperous Brahmins hanging around began heckling the lean and muddied Matang Rishi with his begging bowl. The famed yakshi, Bhadra of Kashi, who happened to be passing by, recognised the learned scholar and let loose a volley of swear words Kashi was known for, at the Brahmins. The Rishi, however, told her not to waste her breath. It was a common mistake in Kashi, he said, man was often quickly judged only on the basis of his appearance, not his learning. So he asked her to also forgive the irreverent Brahmins.

(Vividh Teertha Kalp by Jinprabha Suri)

The foolish boatman

Kashi was a part of the major cluster of republics (maha janpad) in the northern plains, where the river Ganges ran broad and deep and offered good business to those ferrying folks across the vast river. But there was a foolish boatman by the name of Awariya, a man of few words, who was frequently cheated by his customers. They knew that he would ask customers for money only after he had dropped them safely ashore, and so most of his passengers leapt off the boat as soon as they arrived at their destination and were seen no more.

The poor tongue-tied Awariya was finally advised by a cluster of sympathetic fish and dolphins living in the river to seek the wise counsel of the Bodhisattva, who was giving advice to Kasheyas (the people of Kashi) in a forest nearby.

Boat on the Ganges. Credit: Aakash Gautam/Flickr CC 2.0

The Bodhisattva laughed when the boatman recounted his accumulated losses. I have rich customers, he told the Bodhisattva, but they also cheat and leave without paying me back for my services. The fish and the dolphin have told me to seek your wise advice. How do I get my thuggish rich clients to pay their fare? “Look”, the Bodhisattva told Awariya, “in Kashi the rich and the not so rich are all talkative but unreliable because they will frequently change their mind (chanchal chitta). If you wish to extract your money from them, you must insist that no matter how rich or not so rich, those that wish to be taken across the river, must pay the fare before they step aboard.”

(Jataka, 3/152)

Kasheyas denied their favourite intoxicant, refuse to perform a fire sacrifice

Kashi was a republic but a group of Vedic scholars from the west came bearing the holy fire and introduced the city to the ritual of yagna (fire sacrifice). A little later, chosen leaders began to be called Kashya. New nomenclatures mattered little to their mischievous and stubborn subjects, the Kasheyas, who continued to drink traditional drinks made of crushed hemp seeds (bhang) and also took to imbibing soma. This was a plant extract that the western fire bearers introduced in the city as the favoured beverage of their Vedic gods.

There came a strict Kashya or king, by the name of Dhritrashtra, who objected to the general atmosphere of chaotic liberal banter among the by now perennially inebriated Kasheyas and their new friends, the Vedic scholars. Dhritrashtra the disciplinarian banned all intoxicating beverages and focused on good governance. He also began an earnest consolidation of his kingdom using his armies.

An uncertain future. Credit: Aakash Gautam/Flickr CC-BY-NC/2.0

When he was sure he had things under control, he announced his royal desire to perform the Ashwamedha Yagna, signifying his arrival as the uncontested lord of Kashi janpad. As customary, the Kashya sent out a white horse accompanied by his trusted generals to formally mark and secure the boundaries of the area of Kashi republic (janpad). But suddenly, during his generals’ march through the kingdom, the royal horse disappeared . This caused much embarrassment. The horse was later relocated and resent, but the people of Kashi believed it was not the same, but another white horse procured from the famed horse markets of the janpad. When the horse and the army returned to the city, the irate Kashya Dhritrashtra tried again and again to perform the Ashwamedha Yagna but failed. The irate Brahmins who had arrived in Kashi from the faraway western plains with Videgh Madhav, were the only bunch that knew how to perform a proper fire sacrifice. And they boldly told the king that they had been unfairly deprived of their favorite intoxicating beverage so they would not help use the rare holy fire (shrautagni) to perform the yagna. The king finally died without having performed the yagna which would have made him a chakravartin samrat! Thereafter it is said that for a thousand years the Kasheyas kept their backs turned to the dangerous Vedic fire.

(Shatpath Brahmin)

Mrinal Pande is a writer and journalist and former editor of Hindustan

  • Sumanta Banerjee

    Wonderful narrative, Mrinal Pande ! Just let me add an ancient Bengali folk saying (and Bengali widows, discarded by their children, as you know, had been a part of Varanasi for ages) –

    “Shinri, Shanr/ Ranrhi, Sannyashi – Ei char niye Baranashi” – which translated into English means: “Steps (of the ghats leading to the river), bulls, widows and hermits – these four make up Benaras.” They are still ubiquitous in Kashi.