VARANASI~THE HOLY CITY: – The holy city Varanasi is a living tribute to the pantheon of Hindus gods and goddesses, a city of vibrant culture, lively people, delicious cuisine.
Written by Tellme Digiinfotech Private Limited
Dated 06 September 2021
The famous writer Mark Twain had once commented “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” The statement construes the image of a very old ancient city, but that doesn’t do exact justice to the vibrance of Varanasi. Situated on the banks of the River Ganga in Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi as we call it today or Banaras or Kashi which are its other names is counted amongst the seven holiest cities in India and one of the few constantly inhabited settlements since historical times. Archaeological evidences excavated from the vicinity of the city date back to about 1800 BCE.
The most likely explanation of the name “Varanasi” comes from the fact that the city is bounded by River Varuna to the north and River Assi to the south, both of which are tributaries of River Ganga. The ancient Sanskrit text Rig Veda has mentions of Kashi and since then the city’s name has been associated with Lord Shiva, who in the form of Kashi Vishwanath presides over Varanasi, along with his consort, Devi Parvati in the form of Devi Annapurna. It is believed that pilgrims to Varanasi are blessed by the Lord and eventually attain “moksha” after death. Apart from Hindus, Varanasi is of great religious significance to Buddhists as well, because the holy site of Sarnath, where Lord Buddha preached his first sermon lies just outside the city boundary.
Today Varanasi is a living tribute to the pantheon of Hindus gods and goddesses, a city of vibrant culture, lively people, delicious cuisine and a centre per excellence of Hindustani classical music, dance, art, textiles and various other crafts which are world renowned.
Let’s focus on the platform of the religious places and historical ghats of Varanasi.
1.Dasashwamedh Ghat-The ghats of Varanasi – River Ganga, who’s personified as a Goddess and fondly referred to as “Ganga maiya” is the lifeline of Varanasi.
The “ghats” which are steps along the river bank have acquired a cult status, being the sites of religious functions, daily ablutions and even cremations. In total, there are 88 ghats in Varanasi, most famous being Dasashwamedh Ghat, Assi ghat, Manikarnika ghat and Harishchandra ghat, the later two being exclusive cremation sites. The Dasashwamedh Ghat is believed to be the site where Lord Brahma had performed the “dasashwamedh yajna”.
Peshwa Bajirao I had reconstructed this ghat in 1740 AD and later in 1774 AD, the Queen of Indore, Ahilyabai Holkar took over the reconstruction. Here the spectacular “Ganga arati” is conducted daily. As the faint light of dusk paints the sky, the resplendent brass lamps, ringing of bells and cymbals accompanied by chanting of mantras fill the air with divinity and is sure to touch the souls of the thousands of visitors.
2.Assi Ghat-Assi ghat is said to be the site where Devi Durga threw her sword into River Ganga after defeating the demons Shumbha & Nishumbha.
This ghat is of great religious significance especially due to the huge Shiva lingam placed under a peepal tree. During festivals like Makar Sankranti & Probodhini Ekadashi, huge crowds of pilgrims take a dip in the holy Ganges here.
3.Manmandir Ghat-Manmandir Ghat was built by Maharaja Man Singh of Amber around 1600 AD. It is one of the most picturesque ghats with an exquisite palace beside it. The Jantar Mantar observatory distinguishes it from the other ghats.
4.Alaknanda cruise-Taking boat rides on River Ganga to gaze at Varanasi has been a popular pastime amongst locals and tourists for a long time.
Adding a modern luxurious upgrade to that the Alaknanda cruise was introduced in September 2018. The double decker luxury liner is equipped with all modern amenities, safety features and a seating capacity of about 110 people. For fee INR 750, one can experience a serene ride along the Ganga from Assi Ghat to Panchganga ghat while enjoying the splendour of the Ganga arati.
In the land of Lord Shiva, where “Har Har Mahadev” resonates from all corners of the city, the fame of of Kashi Vishwanath temple is spread all over the world.
1.Kashi Vishwanath Temple- It is one of the Twelve Jyotirlingas in India, Hindu mythology says that Lord Shiva had appeared at these 12 sites in the form an unending column of dazzling light and hence their religious importance is supreme.
Lord Shiva is worshipped here in the form of a lingam which is said to be “swayambhu”. The daily rituals at the temple are elaborate and the biggest festival here is Maha Shivratri, which draws lakhs of devotees. The temple with its dazzling golden shikhara and elaborate architecture sits at the heart of Kashi and can be considered as the nerve centre. The original temple had been vandalized a number of times by invaders such as Qutub ud din Aibak, Sikander Lodhi & Emperor Aurangzeb. The present temple was built in 1780 by Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore, just beside the original temple site.
The tale of Varanasi is incomplete without the mention of its presiding Goddess, Devi Annapurna, consort of Lord Shiva. The Annapurna Temple is located close to Vishwanath temple and people come here in lakhs to seek the blessings of the goddess of abundance and nourishment and locals say that the goddess doesn’t eat bhog until all her devotees are fed. “Annakoot Utsav” is the biggest festival at this temple.
2.Durga Temple-Varanasi is home to thousands of temple big and small, dedicated to almost all the Gods and Goddesses of Hindu pantheon.
One particularly popular temple is the Durga Temple. It was constructed in 18th century by a Bengali lady zamindar called Rani Bhabani of Natore (present day Bangladesh). The temple stands beside a beautiful kund or holy pond which lends an air of serenity to the place. It is said that the idol of Devi Durga appeared on its own in the temple and is not man made. The temple has an interesting epithet, “monkey temple” owing to the large number of monkeys found here.
3.The Tulsi Manas Temple-Varanasi has seen the footfall of numerous Hindu saints and philosophers since historical times and one among them was Goswami Tulsidas who translated the original Sanskrit Ramayana into Hindi and named it “Ramcharitmanas”.
The Tulsi Manas temple stands at the place where this great saint had composed Ramcharitmanas. Built in 1964 by the Sureka family of Howrah, West Bengal, this beautiful temple of white marble and landscaped gardens is dedicated to Lord Ram, his consort Sita Devi, brother Lakshman & Lord Hanuman. Another famous temple is the Sankat Mochan temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman, established by Goswami Tulsidas in early 16th century.
Other Attractions in Varanasi:
1.Chunar Fort-Along with its innumerable temples, Varanasi has some other structures of historical importance such as the Chunar fort and Ramnagar fort.
Chunar Fort is located atop a hillock overlooking a meander on the River Ganga in Mirzapur district of Uttar Pradesh. The strategic location and being practically impregnable to enemies, a number of rulers had waged battles to conquer this fort. Notable amongst them were Sher Shah Suri, Adil Shah, Emperor Akbar & British East India Company. This fort was built in 1029 AD by King Sahadeo. The Ramnagar Fort in Varanasi was built in 1750 by Kashi Naresh Raja Balwant Singh and even now its occupied by the present Kashi Naresh Anant Narayan Singh.
2.Banaras Hindu University- Varanasi is home to the largest residential university campus in Asia, namely the
Established in 1916 it is a great seat of learning and culture.
3.Bharat Kala Bhavan-Inside the premises of the University there is a famous museum by the name of Bharat Kala Bhavan.
This museum came into being on 1st January 1920 with the objective of showcasing Indian art and culture. Presently it houses innumerable artefacts, Hindu and Buddhist sculptures, manuscripts, textiles and paintings. Another illustrious building inside the university is the Malviya Bhavan, erstwhile residence of Sri Madan Mohan Malviya who was one of its founders. At present it serves as a centre of studies and research on the life and teachings of Mahamanaji. The Centre for Yoga, Centre for Value Studies & Geeta Samiti where learned scholars give a discourse on the Bhagvad Gita is all situated here. An added attraction is the annual flower show of the university held in the garden of Malviya Bhavan.
4.St. Mary’s Church-Apart from the Hindu temples, there are illustrious edifices of other religions as well, such as churches and Buddhist temples.
St. Mary’s Church which was established in 1810 by Rev, George Weatly in the cantonment area is a great example of western architecture. This is the oldest church in Varanasi and the oldest standing garrison church in southern Asia. Some people refer to it as “Church of England”.
5.Tibetan Buddhist Temple-Varanasi along with its nearby town of Sarnath has always enjoyed popularity amongst Buddhist pilgrims as being the site where Lord Buddha preached his first sermon.
The Tibetan Buddhist temple in Varanasi is one example of brilliant Buddhist architecture. It was constructed in 1955 in the gorgeous and colourful Buddhist style and houses a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha (Buddha in resting position). Beautiful frescoes and Thangka or Buddhist monastery paintings adorn the inside walls. The cylindrical prayer wheels outside are distinctive as they release small scrolls of paper with prayers written on them when rotated clockwise. This temple along with the many shrines in Sarnath and nearby Sanchi are important spots for Buddhist pilgrims.
Sarnath is famous for being the site where Lord Buddha preached his first sermon to his disciples. It is situated about 10km from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh.
Many of the Buddhist and Mauryan structures lie in ruined condition and at present, the Archaeological Survey of India is entrusted with the maintenance of this historical site.
6.The Dhamek Stupa-The Dhamek Stupa is believed to be the exact spot where Lord Buddha revealed his Eightfold Path leading to Nirvana.
At a present height of 43.6m it is the most massive structure in Sarnath. The Mulagandha Kuti Vihar, a Buddhist temple was built in 1931 by Sri Lanka’s Maha Bodhi Society is an impressive structure housing numerous sacred treasures. The temple enshrines sacred relics of Sakyamuni Buddha. The interiors of the temple are decorated with beautiful frescoes and the golden statue of Lord Buddha is the centre of attraction. Sarnath had undergone many invasions and demolitions, as a result many of the Buddhist structures have been lost. One good example is the Dharmarajika Stupa, of which just a 3 feet high foundation is left.
Emperor Ashoka had built a number of beautifully carved stone pillars depicting royal & religious emblems. The most iconic amongst them is the Ashoka Pillar with the Lion Capital which was adopted as the national emblem of India. The lion capital is a stunning piece of architecture with the intricately carved animals, the lotus base and the Ashoka chakra which is our National emblem. Despite the ravages of time, Sarnath still stands today as a reminder of the greatness of Mauryan architecture and Buddhism.
7.Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary- Stepping away from the hustle and bustle of Varanasi city, we get to visit a pristine forest area called Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary. It is situated in the Chandauli district of Uttar Pradesh, about 70km from Varanasi. With its lush green forests of deciduous trees and cascading waterfalls, covering an area of 78 sq.km, this sanctuary was established in 1957 with the objective of preserving the dwindling population of Asiatic lions. Today its home to numerous animals like sambar deer, nilgai, chinkara, wild boar and large number of bird species, making it a popular spot for wildlife and bird watchers.
8.Rajdari & Devdari Waterfalls-The star attractions of the sanctuary are the Rajdari & Devdari waterfalls on the Chandraprabha river.
Rajdari waterfall cascades majestically down the hillside in a series of steps, amidst the verdant green trees dotting the sides of the gorge. Devdari is lower in height but breathtaking nevertheless with its foamy white water falling into a circular plunge pool before flowing out into the forest. The serene nature attracts lots of tourists and local people come here to have a day out in the midst of nature.
9.Varanasi Market- Not only is it one of the holiest cities to Hindus.
But it is also a rich centre for classical Hindustani music, traditional dance forms, handicrafts, rich textiles like the Banarasi silk and muslin, the indigenous cuisine of the land. A visit to Varanasi is thus a wholesome experience in itself and the city still holds its quaint old world charm in an era of globalization.
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