Discovering the Wonders of Varanasi: an Overview of the City

Varanasi also known as Benares, Banaras or Kashi is a city on the banks of the Ganges in the Uttar Pradesh state of North India, 320 kilometres (200 mi) south-east of the state capital, Lucknow, and 121 kilometres (75 mi) east of Allahabad. Varanasi lies along National Highway 2, which connects it to Kolkata, Kanpur, Agra, and Delhi, and is served by Varanasi Junction and Lal Bahadur Shastri International Airport.

The holy city of Varanasi (Banaras) lies on the banks of the Ganges. Said to have been founded by Lord Shiva himself, this place finds mention in the Hinduism’s epic sagas of 'Ramayana' and the 'Mahabharata'. Not only does the city attract countless pilgrims, it's a place where many choose to spend their last days. Belief goes that the one who dies here attains eternal salvation.. The 3000 years old city is located in the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh, along the left bank of river Ganga. The origin of the name of this holy city can be discovered through many tales and stories. The name Varanasi originates from the names of the two rivers - Varuna (which flows from the north of the city) and ASI (which is a stream near Assi Ghat). The term “Ghat” refers to the areas in holy river-side cities like where stairs exist to reach the rivers. The ancient name of the city can be found in many Hindu scriptures such as the Rigvaeda, the Skanda Purana, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The Rigveda has referred the city as Kashi-The City of Light. In one verse of Skanda Purana, Shiva says, 'The three worlds form one city of mine, and Kashi is my royal palace therein.' The city had tanks and little forests, which made it a peaceful place in pursuit of the metaphysical world. Hence, it has been named as Anandavan (a forest of bliss) in many of the Hindu holy texts. Adi Shankaracharya, an austere worshipper of God said that- In the otherwise non-substantial world, the four substantial are: living in Kashi, the company of good people, water of the Ganga and worship of Shiva. It is also believed that Varanasi stands on „the Trishool‟ (also called the Trident) of the Lord Shiva. Hindus believe that one who is graced to die on the land of Kashi would attain salvation and freedom from the cycle of birth and re-birth. The river Ganga flows from west to east but at Varanasi it takes a north turn and forms vertical crescent shaped bank. The base of crescent is at the Assi ghat and at the tip lies at the Adi Keshava ghat. Thereafter, the river shifts to its east wards direction once again. Thus the city has a shape of a conch shell (shankha), which has got immense religious significance in Hinduism. Buddha is believed to have founded Buddhism here around 528 BC when he gave his first sermon, “The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma” at nearby Sarnath. The city’s religious importance continued to grow in the 8th century, when AdiShankara established the worship of Shiva as an official sect of Varanasi. During the Muslim rule through middle ages, the city continued as an important centre of Hindu devotion, pilgrimage, mysticism and poetry which further contributed to its reputation as a centre of cultural importance and religious education. Tulsidas wrote his epic poem on Rama’s life called Ram CharitManas in Varanasi. Several other major figures of the Bhakti movement were born in Varanasi, including Kabir and Ravidas. Guru Nanak Dev visited Varanasi for Shivratri in 1507, a trip that played a large role in the founding of Sikhism. In the 16th century, Varanasi experienced a cultural revival under the Mughal emperor Akbar who patronised the city, and built two large temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu, though much of modern Varanasi was built during the 18th century, by the Maratha and Bhumihar kings. The kingdom of Benares was given official status by the Mughals in 1737, and continued as a dynasty-governed area until Indian independence in 1947.

Most people conforming to the Hindu faith strive to visit Varanasi (Banaras) at least once in their lives. Many of the temples here are centuries old, with some of the most prominent ones being Vishwanath Temple, Gauri Matha Temple, and Kaal Bhairav Temple. Viewing the holy ghats from a boat and taking a dip in the Ganges are considered as one of the 'must experience' things in one's lifetime. Wake up before sunrise to catch the painting-like shadows of early bathers and boatmen. There are vast stretches of sand on the eastern bank of the Ganga, so you can see the day breaking over the horizon. Sit on a boat with the lilt of the boatman’s accent and his splashing oars and watch the ghats glow. There’s always a breeze, always a floating bowl of leaves with marigolds, and gulls and pigeons on floating logs.

Sari connoisseurs will have a field day here selecting some of the finest silks Varanasi (Banaras) is known for. The ghats — literally ‘flights of steps’ but more like theatres of life — stretch for some 3 km along the riverfront. They are the beating heart of Varanasi; you can stroll down the entire. stretch over a day and never be bored. The whiplash sound of Dhobis washing clothes, later arrays of prismatic clothes drying, children flying kites, moronic looking goats, pandas under picturesque umbrellas, foreigners with cameras. Towards the extreme north lies Raj Ghat, the site of ancient Varanasi, with Adi Keshava, the primordial Vishnu temple, physically 200 years old but with a tradition stretching back to the Puranas. Going south from Raj Ghat, one can take a boat till the Panchganga Ghat. The holy city is also home to spectacular festivals such as Dev Deepawali (the biggest festival), Bharat Milap, Mahashivratri, Buddha Purnima and Hanuman Jayanti. Plan a trip to Varanasi during Dev Deepawali and you will fall in love with the place for sure. The Ramnagar Fort, near the eastern bank of the Ganges, was built in the 18th century in the Mughal style of architecture with carved balconies, open courtyards, and scenic pavilions. Among the estimated 23,000 temples in Varanasi are Kashi Vishwanath Temple of Shiva, the SankatMochan Hanuman Temple, and the Durga Temple. The Kashi Naresh (Maharaja of Kashi) is the chief cultural patron of Varanasi, and an essential part of all religious celebrations. An educational and musical centre, many prominent Indian philosophers, poets, writers, and musicians live or have lived in the city, and it was the place where the Benares Gharana form of Hindustani classical music was developed. One of Asia's largest residential universities is Banaras Hindu University (BHU). 

16 August 2021
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