Kashi - The city of Light
Also known as Kashi (“the City of Light”), or as Benares, Varanasi is situated on the west bank of the Ganges and is India’s holiest Hindu city, with a spiritual and religious legacy that goes back nearly 3,000 years. This is the city of Shiva, the foremost among the 12 places where the god burrowed and then burst into the sky in a fiery pillar of light (jyotirlinga) . Sanctified by Shiva’s all-pervading presence and the sacred Ganges, the 90 or so ghats along the river define the life and identity of Varanasi. Stretching from the southern Asi Ghat to the northern Adi Keshava Ghat, close to the Malviya Bridge, the ghats cover more than 6 km (4 miles). Lined with temples and shrines they reverberate with the endless cycle of Hindu religious practice – from daily rituals to profound rites of passage.
The Ramlila is a cycle of plays which tells the story of the Ramayana , in which Lord Rama is exiled from his kingdom for 14 years. The Ramlila tradition was started in Varanasi by Tulsidas, author of the Ramcharitmanas (a popular version of the epic). Street performances take place in the evenings at different venues, in September/October, attracting thousands of spectators. The performance at the residence of the former maharaja at Ramnagar Fort is by far the most spectacular of the Ramlilas in Varanasi.
DIGPATIYA GHAT TO MIR GHAT
These centrally located ghats are the city’s most sacred, and many of them were built under the patronage of India’s erstwhile princely states, such as Darbhanga, Jaipur and Indore. One of Varanasi’s two cremation ghats, Harishchandra Ghat, lies just to the south. Behind the holy Dasashvamedha Ghat meanders a winding lane known as Vishwanath Gali, lined with a multitude of shops that sell all manner of religious objects. It leads to the city’s principal shrine, the Vishwanath Temple, said to be over 1,000 years old.
This centrally located ghat, Varanasi’s holiest spot, is named after the ten simultaneous horse sacrifices (dasashvamedh) performed by Brahma the Creator. Rows of priests sit under bamboo parasols, ready to perform ritual prayers for the pilgrims that swarm here.
A sunrise boat ride is the highlight of a trip to Varanasi, when the temples along the river front are bathed in soft light. The people of Varanasi trickle out of the labyrinthine lanes and head for the ghats at dawn. Here, they wash clothes, perform yoga asanas , offer flowers and incense to the river, and take a ritual dip. The most fascinating ride is from Dasashvamedha to Manikarnika Ghat. Dozens of rowing boats ply up and down the river, and can be hired by the hour. Rates are negotiable, so do fix the price before hiring one.
NEPALI GHAT TO PANCHAGANGA GHAT
Along this stretch is the famed Manikarnika Ghat, one of the city’s two cremation ghats. According to legend, Shiva’s mani (crest jewel) and his consort Parvati’s karnika (earring), fell into the nearby well while they were bathing, hence the name. Dying in Varanasi is a cause of celebration for Hindus, as it is believed to bestow instant salvation or moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death). It is said that Shiva whispers into the ears of the dying, and the old and infirm, sages and ordinary people, come here to breathe their last.
RITUALS PERFORMED IN THE GANGES
Although there are over 700 temples in Varanasi, none are more sacred than the river itself. The Ganges is worshipped as a living goddess, with the power to cleanse all earthly sins. Daily baths in her waters are advised by Hindu scriptures to prepare for the soul’s final journey to liberation. Offerings of flowers and diyas floating down the river are a common and very pretty sight.
Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world and a contemporary of Babylon and Nineveh, dates to the 7th century BC. This eternal city, where religion is an integral part of daily life, has drawn saints, poets and pilgrims through the ages. Behind the riverside ghats are narrow crowded lanes and bazaars, where people jostle with sacred cows, saffron-robed sadhus and devotees making offerings at roadside shrines. Varanasi is also renowned as a centre of Sanskrit learning and Hindu philosophy, attracting scholars and students from all over India. The Benares Hindu University, established in the early 1900s, perpetuates this tradition.
The display of Gandhara sculpture is also noteworthy. The 17th-century Ramnagar Fort , lying across the river beyond Asi Ghat, has been home to the maharajas of Varanasi for 400 years. Although now in a state of disrepair, the palace still retains its charm. Ornamented swords, photographs of tiger shoots and visits by the King and Queen of Belgium line the walls. The Durbar Hall now houses the museum, where numerous objects are on display including palanquins and elephant howdahs.
BROCADES FROM VARANASI
Varanasi, India’s most ancient pilgrimage centre, is also famous for its textiles. Renowned for its gossamer-fine cotton weaves for over 2000 years, its weaving traditions acquired new splendour from the 16th century onwards, with the patronage of the Mughal emperors. Varanasi’s weavers soon became adept at weaving silk with gold and silver thread, to create sumptuous brocades for royal costumes and court furnishings, embellished with the exquisite floral, animal and geometric motifs favoured by the Mughals. They also produced brocades for Tibetan monasteries, decorated with Buddhist motifs such as clouds, lotus flowers and flames. Today, a wide range of brocade saris, scarves, and Tibetan-style fabrics are made and sold in the city.