Varanasi -- The City of Light
Benares is older than history," Clemens wrote, "older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together…
The timelessness of Benares is an old cliché, but this is what strikes most visitors to this ancient city. This city, so sacred to Hindus that they consider it to be the centre of earth, is believed to be the abode of Lord Shiva, also known as Lord Vishvanath, the lord of death and the life beyond.
Believed to be one of the oldest living cities of the world, Benares has been inhabited for centuries. The old city, basically interconnected ghats (steps leading down to the river) on the banks of the holy river Ganges bustles with energy.
Famous for its temples, notably the Vishvanath Temple and Sankatmochan Temple (dedicated to Lord Hanuman), Benares attracts local pilgrims as well as foreign tourists.
Did You Know?
- Hindus believe that Lord Shiva himself whispers the mantra of salvation in the ears of those privileged to die and be cremated in Benares.
- It is said that funeral fires have been burning at Manikarnika Ghat, the main funeral ghat in Benares, non-stop for centuries!
- Married couples never bathe together in the Narada Ghat – they consider it ill-conducive to marital harmony!
- The Lonely Planet guidebook says the fecal coliform count in the Ganges was measured at 250,00 times the World Health Organization safe maximum!
“There are really only two good reasons to come to Benares and one is to perform Sadhana, and the other is to die…”
(Robert Svaboda on the Soundwalk audio tour of Benares)
The significance of Benares lies not only in the fact that it is considered so holy, but in the fact that it embodies the Hindu philosophy of death. Death for the Hindus is just one step forward in the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. And believers come to Benares to die or to cremate their departed relatives, believing that Lord Shiva himself whispers words of salvation into the ears of the dead here. These words of salvation, Hindus believe, free their souls from the cycle of birth and rebirth, granting them moksha.
Many visitors observe that nowhere else do death and life coexist so closely as they do in Benares. Boatmen row, beggars beg, bathers bathe, and pilgrims pray – all within striking distance of the great funeral ghat, the Manikarnika ghat.
The Ghats of Benares
The Crafts of Benares
Silk Weaving is one of the most important crafts of Benares. It is famous for its elaborate floral brocades with motifs such as the creeping vine and the mango design, the inspiration for European paisley. During the British colonial rule, Benaras weavers started making Chinese-style tanchoi embroidery for the Parsi community, a minority group, who used their clothing to distinguish themselves from the Hindu majority. During the 1890s, weavers who had visited England used wallpaper sample books to create new designs. These days, the Muslim weavers also make the maroon cloth used by Tibetan robes and the rich brocades that frame Buddhists religious paintings.
Hand Knotted Carpets are also woven in and around Benares