All sacred cities are one part invisible. Benares – Varanasi, as it is known officially; Kashi, as it has been known for millennia to the Hindus – is such a place, where beneath the city of brick and mortar, there exists what Richard Lannoy has called a “mythic understructure.” This is the city of mind and spirit. “All of us alike can see her obvious form,” says the renowned monk Swami Karpatri, but Kashi has a “subtle form” too. This, adds Anant Maharaj, “is like the sun behind the clouds. I know it is still there, although I cannot see it.”

Invisibility immunises the sacred city from the ravages of time. In the sixteenth century, when Benares had suffered multiple assaults from Islamic invaders, the scholar Naryana Bhatta devised what he called the “dharma of place.” What this did was allow for worship to occur at a site that had been destroyed on account of its inner sanctity.

The idea finds resonance in the work of the Belgian Sinologist Simon Leys, who, in a remarkable essay entitled “The Chinese Attitude Towards the Past,” conjectures that the durability and adaptability of Chinese tradition comes down to the fact that “the Chinese everlastingness” was too precious to be lodged in buildings. The Chinese, Leys writes, “have realised that – in Segalen’s words – “nothing immobile can escape the hungry teeth of the ages. The Chinese past is both spiritually active and physically invisible.”

Invisibility is a protection from the work of time, but it also allows the sacred city to act as a frontier between the physical (tīrtha means ford, or passage) and the divine.

The sacred city is more than just a place of pilgrimage; it is a visual aid to spur the spiritual imagination. Mecca, with its many highways, hotels and skyscrapers – its Muslim-only McDonalds – is a physical entity to be visited and walked about; but Mecca is also an idea. It is what every believing Muslim meditates on, when on airplanes, in office buildings, and in the far-flung corners of the earth, he prostrates himself in the direction of an intangible Mecca.

Urbi et Orbi – “to the City and to the World” – say the Bishops of Rome as they begin their papal address; they speak, of course, of the earthly city of Rome, which has endured so many upheavals, and which at times in its long history has even been deprived of the Holy See; but they speak, more importantly, of the eternal city of Christianity, which no political or historical convulsion can ever touch.

The Seder closes with the words “Next year in Jerusalem,” and yes, the Jews, exiled for centuries, have ardently wished to return to the actual city of Jerusalem, located on a plateau in the Judaean mountains between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean; but, contained in their prayer, is the more inviolable idea of the cosmopolis – “an entire country (eg, Palestine), a city (Jerusalem), a sanctuary (the Temple in Jerusalem)” – which, as Mircea Eliade explains – all equally well present an imago mundi.

Substitute Palestine with India, Jerusalem with Kashi, the Temple with the Kashi Vishwanath mandir, and, mutatis mutandis, one begins to be telescoped into the special place Benares occupies in Hindu hierophany as the axis mundi, or the cosmic pillar.

What makes Benares unique among sacred cities is how real its intangible side can feel when you are there. Rome, Jerusalem, and Mecca, have all to some extent succumbed to the hard historical present. Not Benares. During my research for The Twice-Born, I met many people, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, who implored me to look beyond material appearances. “There is a secret character to this city,” said Golu, whose ancestors had been priests at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. “You need to understand that.” Pavan Kumar Mishra, a poor Brahmin from a village near Hardoi, had a wayfarer’s air of drift about him. He had come to Kashi because someone he loved had told him to go. He did not know how long he would stay, or what he would do. He had no plan other than to read Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas and to gaze upon the Ganges. He dwelt, like a character out of Chaucer, in an invisible city, which sat at the center of the universe and he had no anxiety to be anywhere else. “Here” – he said, gesturing to the great temple upriver – “nothing happens of one’s own doing; it happens only by his will.”

Aatish Taseer
Aatish Taseer

The idea of Benares as the micro-cosmos, India writ small, was further elucidated to me by Kamlesh Dutt Tripathi, former head of Sanskrit at BHU. Tripathi wanted me to see that those who still “belonged to tradition” had moorings deeper than those that modernity had given us all – more organic notions of space and time than Google Maps could capture. After many days of conversation, he began to draw me a diagram, a single point around which he made concentric circles.

“There is this point,” he said. “If we go a little wider, there is my village. Wider still, my state. My country, the world. There is no conflict between me and the world. It is but an enlargement of me. And that whole world can be collapsed back into this single point: me. This is our symbolism, this is what we call the mandala. It comes of use to us in our prayers. Every day we meditate on this idea. This is what spirituality can do, and this is what art can do…”

The sacred city is never merely a place of habitation – not, as Eliade says, “a machine to live in.”

It reflects the spirit of a culture dreamed into stone. “There are a few great cities in the world,” writes Diana Eck in Banaras: City of Light, “which have converted the energy of an entire civilization into culture, and have come to symbolize and embody that whole civilization in microcosm.”

The image of Kashi, the city that looks across a river into an empty sandbank, seems to me to enshrine the idea of the abyss. I feel that only a culture that gave the world the zero – shunya: the mathematical symbol for the presence of absence – could have fashioned negative space in this way, and dreamt up a city doomed to gaze for eternity into a void. One is free to meditate upon the image of Kashi as one is free to meditate upon the face of the Buddha.

Invisibility has saved Benares from “the hungry teeth of the ages,” but perhaps here too the day is not far off when physical reality will supplant the spiritual. That day the void will cease to speak, and Benares will be confronted with the altogether new emptiness of a mere sandbank, where, in a time long ago, arcane laws had forbidden construction in perpetuity.

Aatish Taseer is, most recently, the author of The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges.