At two in the morning, when Banaras takes a breather, I present myself at the Vishwanath Temple to find some hundred people already in the queue.

In an hour from now, the lord of the universe will be roused and bathed and decorated for the first worship of the day, the mangala aarti. The earlier you arrive the closer you are placed to the sanctum sanctorum when priests conduct this elaborate ritual. Even a small delay in joining the queue can squander the chances of an unhindered view.

This is a ticketed event for which only about 400 people are allowed in. Devotees come from far and near – mostly far. An elderly Tamil man walking past the queue enquires aloud: “Is this the way to the Mangala aarti?”

“Yes, but please join the queue,” someone replies.

“But I have a ticket,’ the man waves a paper.

“We all have tickets.”

“But I have a 300-rupee ticket.”

“We all have 300-rupee tickets.”

The disappointed man retraces his steps and disappears towards the end of the line. More such ignorant souls are humbled in turn.

Chatter fills up the alley containing the queue. My ears can tell that Tamils, Telugus and Bengalis – in that order – outnumber the others. The voices, irrespective of the language, betray impatience: killing time is not easy when not in possession of a mobile phone, which is prohibited inside the temple and must be deposited in a locker at one of the flower shops.

A small group of Tamils right behind me in the queue breaks into a chant:

Brahma Murari surachita lingam
nirmala bhasita shobhita lingam
janmaja dukkha vinashaka lingam
tat-pranamami Sadashiva lingam...

It’s the Lingashtakam – an eight-stanza paean to Shiva’s lingam, or phallus. I happen to know these opening lines by heart. They roughly translate to: “I bow to the eternal Shiva lingam, which is adored by Brahma and Vishnu, which is pure, shining and bedecked, which destroys the sorrows that afflict us right from our birth.”

Like most prominent Hindu deities, Shiva too has been given a physical form: muscular; matted locks from which springs forth the Ganga; a cobra coiled around the neck; a crescent moon resting against the head; large, introspective eyes, a half-closed third eye. But he is almost always worshipped in the form of the lingam that is mounted on a base representing the yoni, or vulva.

The placing of the lingam on the yoni symbolises generative power – but isn’t Shiva the god of destruction? It doesn’t matter. For his devotees Shiva is capable of both: generating hope as well as destroying sorrow.

Then there are people like me, almost atheists, who are more groupies than devotees of this rock star of a god who makes vices look like virtues and who is as comfortable dwelling atop a pristine mountain as in an ash-laden cremation ground.

More than Shiva, it is the idea of Shiva in which I believe. Shiva’s is an attitude you can aspire to. The day you walk around a cremation ground with the same sense of belonging that a young couple experiences on a tour of a house they expect to own soon, you’ve become Shiva.

At 2.45 the queue begins to inch forward. By the time I am inside the temple, after being frisked multiple times, it is well past three and the ritual has begun. The earliest to arrive are already seated right outside the sanctum sanctorum, in an area marked by steel benches. They are watching the proceedings without blinking, for a blink would cost them a fraction of a second of the holiest of sights. I join the crowd surrounding the steel benches and, standing on my toes, catch a glimpse of the lingam being decorated with flowers amidst chanting.

A portly, ponytailed Tamil in priest’s robes, seated in the enclosed area, is so overcome by the spectacle that he decides to stand up and watch, blocking the view of a Bengali woman behind him. She instantly protests, “Ei, kya karta hai? Sit down! Sit down!” The man ignores her at first, but his flabby back is unable to withstand the fusillade of her angry words and he caves in.

Monkeys, meanwhile, go about their business, unimpressed by the ceremony. It is difficult to say whether their day is coming to an end or has just begun, but it is clear that the top half of all structures that constitute the temple belong to these simians. Some are walking on the ledges, with their little ones on their backs; some are half- asleep in the niches of the spires; some others are intently surveying the scene below, looking for goodies to grab.

The scene must not have been very different a hundred or even two hundred years ago. Way back in 1885, the London Daily Telegraph reported that a railway company had turned down a plea from the Brahmins of Banaras to transport 10,000 “superfluous” monkeys to faraway Saharanpur. The plea was made after two failed attempts by the king of Banaras to relocate the monkeys to the other side of the river, where his fort stood.

At present the lingam disappears under a mountain of marigold. The aarti, obeisance by oil lamps, begins. Those attending this pre-dawn ritual are entitled to a privilege extended to devotees only twice a day: touching of the lingam. So, while the aarti is still on, we are asked to queue up again. I think of the favours I need to ask of Shiva.

Standing in line, I hear a familiar voice behind me. I look back to find it belongs to the elderly Bengali woman who had quelled the Tamil priest. She is still querulous, complaining loudly to a female companion about the queue not moving. She is also calling out new arrivals attempting to sneak into the line ahead of us.

The lady has a fresh grouse: the wastage of milk. She had been at the temple the night before as well, to watch the closing ritual, and was appalled by the sight of milk – “pots of them” – being poured on the lingam. “Imagine the number of children that could have been fed”, she complains.

Bells suddenly clang, drowning her whines. MS Subbulakshmi’s Suprabhatam begins to play on the temple speakers. The time is 3.45. A new day has begun in Banaras. The queue begins finally to move. I wait for my turn to touch Shiva.

The mountain of marigold has been removed and the lingam is now bare and brown and glistening. Many devotees are so overwhelmed by the sight that they throw themselves over it and refuse to let go. They have to be forcibly lifted by the temple staff and shoved out of the door. To a monkey perched at a height, the scene would resemble a stampede.

I’ve barely felt the wet lingam when a strong arm grabs my shoulder: “That’s it, just one touch. Now move on!” My list of favours is not very long, but the time allotted to me turns out to be even shorter. Never mind. Shiva should know what’s on my mind.

I walk in the direction of my lodge, barely a few hundred metres away, hidden in a riverside gali. Gali means an alley. Banaras, that is Kashi, is essentially a network of galis set against the ghats. I seem to be its sole inhabitant as I find my way back: hardly a soul around.

Soon, this timeless city will be up and about, the first light of the day unveiling the familiar silhouettes of parasols by the river and the boats on it. But for the moment, I feel Banaras belongs to me – and I belong to Banaras.

Aimless In Banaras

Excerpted with permission from Aimless In Banaras: Wanderings in India’s Holiest City, Bishwanath Ghosh, Tranquebar.