Varanasi -- The City of Light

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Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together…

(Mark Twain)

A view of the ghats from the river

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.

Location

The Ghats of Varanasi

Benaras (also Varanasi) is located in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh at latitude 25°20' N and longitude 83°00' E. Sandwiched between the rivers Varuna and Ashi as they join the Ganges, Benaras (or Benares) takes its name from its location. It is also called Kashi, the city of light, but the British, in an endeavor to simplify matters, had coined their own name for the place - Benaras. For a relatively short period, while under Mughal rule, Benaras was also known as Muhammadabad. Modern-day Benaras (or Benares) is situated along the west bank of the Ganges (also Ganga) and extends into a myriad collection of narrow lanes that form an integral part of it. The city winds itself around these vines of communication, stretching from one ghat to the other.

Did You Know?

Manikarnika Ghat, Benares


  • 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!




Cultural Significance

“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

Ghats are a series of well-paved steps that lead to the water. The Ghats in Benares are very picturesque, with small temples built into their sides, and larger buildings – temples, rest houses, forts and palaces – towering above.

There are more than a hundred ghats in Benares, forming the axis on which the city has developed. For Hindus, nothing can be more auspicious than bathing in the holy waters of the Ganges in one of these ghats. Dawn is considered a specially auspicious time for a ritual dip -- thousands of pilgrims can be seen offering salutations to the Sun God in waist-deep water at first light, firmly believing that the muddy waters of the Ganges will wash away all the accumulated sins of their life. At dusk, pilgrims make offerings to the river in leaf boats, which they set afloat with flowers and oil lamps (diyas) flickering inside.

There are five important ghats in Benaras where the pilgrims flock to take a bath-the Assi, Dasasvawamedha, Barnasangam, Panchganga, and Manikarnika. Most of the ghats in Benares were built and owned by the royal families of India -- the Maharaja of Benaras built the Sivala Ghat, Maharaja Man Singh built the Mansarovar Ghat, while Ahilyabai Ghat is named after that legendary Queen Ahilyabai of Indore.

The best way to enjoy the beauty of the ghats is from the water. Many tourists hire boats from which they may watch the activities on the ghats.

Sarnath

Sarnath is in the north section of Benares, and is a very popular pilgrimage destination for Buddhists. Recently renovated to become a very beautiful park, it has a temple complex to mark the spot where Lord Buddha attained enlightenment. To the right of the temple is the third generation of the Bodhi tree, the tree under which Buddha became enlightened. Saplings have been saved throughout the centuries to keep this icon alive.

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.

References

  • History of Varanasi
  • Tourist Information on Benares
  • The Soundwalk Audio Tour of Benares
  • Personal experience of the city

See Also