A city with rich history is still standing tall in modern India. A city, which is considered much older than history itself with ancient river ghats, narrow alleys, classical art and music, is a perfect symbolization of India’s rich culture. A city with various names like Varanasi, Banaras or Kashi, attracts millions of pilgrims around the world. Varanasi is considered one of the seven holiest places in India. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
The culture of Varanasi is closely associated with the River Ganges and its religious importance. The city has been a cultural and religious centre in North India for several thousand years and is one of the world's most important religious centres with a history which transcends and unites most of the major world religions. The Benares Gharana form of the Indian classical music developed in Varanasi, and many prominent Indian philosophers, poets, writers, and musicians resided or reside in Varanasi. Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon at Sarnath located near Varanasi.
The name Varanasi has its origin possibly from the names of the two rivers Varuna still flowing in Varanasi and Assi (not visible, though a small stream of water near Assi Ghat is considered as Assi River), for the old city lies in the north shores of the Ganges bounded by its two tributaries, the Varuna and the Assi, with the Ganges being to its south. Another speculation is that the city derives its name from the river Varuna, which was called Varanasi in olden times. This is generally disregarded by historians, though there may be some earlier texts suggesting it to be so. Through the ages, Varanasi was variously known as Avimuktaka, Anandakanana, Mahasmasana, Surandhana, Brahma Vardha, Sudarsana, Ramya, and Kasi.
Varanasi has seen several dynasties on its soil and as an obvious result it has considerable amount of influences around the city. The most surprising thing is that the older part of the city is still maintaining its older charm and it is indeed the main attracting part of Varanasi for which millions of people visit it from almost every part of the globe. The people of Varanasi and government are perfectly maintaining the old legacy to keep the tradition intact. The city is also called “the spiritual capital of India” and “the land of lord shiva”. The reason is obvious. The famous Vishwanath Temple is situated here and it attracts pilgrims in great numbers. One can find the symbols of spiritualism at every corner of this city with some great historical blends. Another great attraction of Varanasi is narrows alleys. Most of the old part of the city is connected with these alleys and cruising through these is a different experience altogether. It is very hard to find a place in the world with great mixture of history, spiritualism and aesthetic harmony like Varanasi. Perhaps for this reason Mark Twine once said “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
River ganges and the ghats around it are most important ingredients of spiritualism of Varanasi. Ganges is considered as goddess in Hindu mythology and people worship ganges in different forms in different times. So it is very natural that ganges and the ghats play a significant role to form the unique atmosphere of Varanasi. Varanasi has nearly 100 ghats, steps leading to the banks of River Ganges. Many of the ghats were built when the city was under Maratha control. Some of the ghats were also built during Rajput regime. Most of the ghats are bathing ghats, while others are used as cremation sites. Many ghats are associated with legends or mythologies while many ghats are privately owned. The former Kashi Naresh owns Shivala ghat. Each and every ghat is internally connected to each other along the river ganges and this a very unique feature of Varanasi.
Among them Dashashwamedh is the most famous and central ghat of Varanasi. Most of the activities related to puja and other things are performed at this ghat. According to Hindu mythology Lord Brahma sacrificed ten horses here to welcome Lord Shiva. That’s why it is named Dash(ie, Ten)-Ashwa(ie, Horse) –Medh(ie, Sacrifice or Killing). It is located close to "Vishwanath Temple", and is probably the most spectacular ghat.Evening arti at Dashashwamedh is very famous in all over the world. In recent times this arti has also been started at Rajendra Prasad and Kedar ghat as well.
Manikarnika is considered as most sacred and one of the most famous ghats of Varanasi. This is the main cremation ghat of Varanasi. Hindu mythology teaches that the ghat is especially sacred and those who cremated here receive moksha. As the myth goes, Vishnu, after several thousand years of tapasya, trying to please Shiva, to convince him to not destroy the holy city of Kashi when he destroys the world, managed to do so. Lord Shiva along with Parvati came to Kashi before Vishnu to grant his wish. Vishnu dug a kund(well) on the bank of ganaga for the bath of the couple. When Lord Shiva was bathing a Mani (Jewel) from his earring fell into the kund, hence the name Manikarnika (Mani:Beads Karnam:Ear Angad: Ornament). There is another myth about the ghat: the ear jewel from lord Shiva fell down while he was dancing angrily, which fell on the earth and thus Manikarnika Ghat formed. People from faraway places come here for cremation to reach heaven. Many people also put up wish before they die that the cremation must be at Manikarnika. As a result the fire does not quench here for a single moment. Another ghat called Harishchandra ghat is also used for cremation, but it is not as famous as Manikarnika.
Another fascinating element is narrow alleys in Varanasi. This is also very unique with the mood of this city. In some places the alleys are so narrow that only one person can pass through. Most of the temples and mosques are situated inside these alleys and lanes. Most of the houses in Varanasi were built many years back and during that time there was no proper planning. As a result these crowded alleys were created and perfectly made a permanent essence of an ancient city. In recent times most of the markets and shopping areas are grown up inside these lanes. One has to enter these alleys to taste famous Varanasi kachori and pan. Inside these alleys anyone can find old structured houses with nicely decorated painting outside. These paintings are normally done during any marriage ceremony in Varanasi. This old tradition is still maintained by the people of Varanasi.
In a nutshell, the city of light has numerous unique attractions altogether. It is not confined in ghats, alleys or only mere Hindu spiritualism. Varanasi is very famous for Banarasi Sari, an important dress material of Indian marriage ceremony and Indian classical music. Art lovers and historians like Rai Krishnadasa, his son Anand Krishna, musicians like Gopal Mishra (considered one of the best sarangi player of all times) Omkarnath Thakur, Ravi Shankar, Bismillah Khan, Girija Devi, Siddheshwari Devi, Lalmani Misra and his son Gopal Shankar Misra, N. Rajam, Rajbhan Singh, Kanthe Maharaj, M. V. Kalvint, Sitara Devi, Gopi Krishna, Chhannulal Mishra and numerous others have kept the city alive to the spiritual aspect of fine arts. Numerous festivals are celebrated that preserve traditional styles of classical and folk culture. So, it is out of any question that this city is moving strongly with great history of religion, spiritualism, music, art and culture. It is bigger than civilization and truly a saga of everything for which people thrive to die in Varanasi to get easy entry to heaven.
Benares by E.B. Havell
Gangotri Seva Samiti, Varanasi