Varanasi (Also Benaras, Kasi) is one of the oldest living cities in the world. Many names have been given to Varanasi, though its recently revived official appellation is mentioned in the Mahabharata and in the Jataka tales of Buddhism. It probably derives from the two rivers that flank the city, the Varana to the north and the Asi to the south. Many still use the anglicized forms of Banaras or Benares, while pilgrims refer to Kash, first used three thousand years ago to describe the kingdom and the city outside which the Buddha preached his first sermon; the “City of Light” is also called Kashika, “the shining one”, referring to the light of Shiva. Another epithet, Avimukta, meaning “Never Forsaken”, refers to the city that Shiva never deserted, or that one should never leave. Further alternatives include Anandavana, the “forest of bliss”, and Rudravasa, the place where Shiva (Rudra) resides. Varanasi’s associations with Shiva extend to the beginning of time: legends relate how, after his marriage to Parvati, Shiva left his Himalayan abode and came to reside in Kashi with all the gods in attendance. Temporarily banished during the rule of the great king Divodasa, Shiva sent Brahma and Vishnu as his emissaries, but ultimately returned to his rightful abode protected by his loyal attendants Kalabhairav and Dandapani. Over 350 gods and goddesses, including a protective ring of Ganesha form a mandala or sacred pattern with Shiva Vishwanatha at its center.
The holy city within Banaras is called Kashi “The Luminous One” or the “City of Light”. Light in Hindu philosophy has great meaning for it exemplifies the wisdom that destroys the darkness of ignorance. Sin and evil are understood to be the acts of ignorance. Sin cannot be washed away by water or prayer but only by wisdom. Immortality is also reached through wisdom and understanding. So the City of Light is the City of Eternal Wisdom as well. To die in the city beside the river of life is to die with a promise of redemption, a promise to be liberated from the endless cycle of life and death and reincarnation, and to gain moksha or eternal absolution. So for centuries thousands of people have come to Banaras to die and thousands have brought the ashes of the dead here to immerse them in the holy waters.
A city which, since it is both an exalted place of pilgrimage and an idealized center of faith, has been likened to Jerusalem and Mecca. According to the historians, the city was founded some ten centuries before the birth of Christ. Mark Twain, the American author and litterateur, who was enthralled by the legend and sanctity of Banaras, once wrote: “Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
Varanasi’s prominence in Hindu mythology is virtually unrivaled. A city where the past and present, eternity and continuity co-exist. The city of Banaras is situated on the west bank of the holiest of all Indian rivers, the Ganga or Ganges. The Ganga is believed to have flown from heaven to wash away the worldly sins of the human race of mortals. Normally, She flows from North to South across the country, but near the city of Varanasi, She flows from the South to the North, it is alleged that the River wanted to pay respects to Lord Shiva, and thus had to change its course.
Life on the banks of the Ganga begins before dawn when thousands of pilgrims – men, women and children – come down to the river to wait for the rising sun when immersion in the sacred river will cleanse them of their sufferings and wash their sins away. The city of Varanasi is on the Western bank of the River Ganga with few buildings on the Eastern bank, allowing for a spectacular view of the rising sun. This is of a particular attraction for the thousands of bathers who bathe in the river at sunrise. The backs of the Ganges exhibit the ultimate expression of giving up ones ego, and thus stepping closer to attainment. It is a spectacular sight to see thousands set aside their inhibitions and take off their clothes, thus taking off the expression of their wealth, taking off the expression of their social status, and indeed, an extremely rare phenomena in Indian society, taking off the difference of the sexes, and be just one with their Almighty.
Along the water’s edge, there are the burning ghats. The most sacred one is Manikarnika, associated with Goddess Parvati, Lord Shiva’s wife. The most famous temples to visit is the Golden or Vishwanath Temple dedicated to Shiva the most important of the trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara, the Lords of this universe. The original temple was located across the road, but it was destroyed by Aurangzeb who had built a mosque over it. The present temple was built by Ahalya Bai of Indore in 1776. The Mosque of Aurangzeb, has been built using columns from the original temple razed by Aurangzeb. This mosque has minarets towering 71 metres above the Ganges. Around this temple evolved the spiritual identity of Varanasi.
The land around Banaras is also held sacred since Shiva is believed to have lived here. It is believed that in this city of 1.5 million, there are 10,000 temples dedicated to different gods and goddesses.
Banaras has always been associated with philosophy and wisdom. A place of learning for many years, the Banaras Hindu University carries on this tradition. The University campus, to the south of the city, was established in 1916, has a student population of 25,000, most of whom live within the 7 sq. km campus, thus making this University one of the largest in India.
To breed national unity during the freedom struggle for India’s Independence, in the 1930s and 1940s, Mahatma Gandhi built a temple where the deity is a three dimension map of India. The map is made up of about 700 individual cubes of marble, showing the respective mountain ranges and the rivers across the country. The idea was that people of different faiths and religions would come and pray for the country. Today, this building is considered a place of worship, and it is given the same respect as a temple.
Today the city is renowned for its silk weavers, who prepare the finest types of woven silk fabrics. A Banaras silk sari or shawl is traditionally a single colored textile with motifs and patterns woven in gold or silver threads. The technique is intricate, the procedure complex and demands great expertise. As the warp and the weft are interwoven on the loom, small, often minute shuttles with gold thread are introduced to form the motif. When the design of the motif is completed, a knot is made and the gold thread cut. The weaving continues until the next design. The smaller the motif or the more intricate the design, the more complex the weaving skills required. Silk weaving in Banaras is a cottage industry and in many areas of the city, especially the Muslim quarters, one can see looms at work all day. Entire families are involved, children often pick up the art from the elders at an early age. There are shops in Banaras, and throughout India, that sell these fine silk fabrics.
Varanasi will perhaps be the most memorable place that you visit in India.