Varanasi, one of world’s oldest living cities, is rightly called the religious capital of India. Also known as Banaras or Benaras, this holy city is located in the southeastern part of the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. It rests on the left bank of the holy river Ganga (Ganges), and is one of the seven sacred spots for Hindus. Every devout Hindu hopes to visit the city at least once in a lifetime, take a holy dip at the famous ‘Ghats’ of the Ganga, walk the pious Panchakosi road that bounds the city, and, if God wills, die here in old age.
Both Hindus and non-Hindus from around the world visit Varanasi for different reasons. Although Varanasi is popularly called the city of Shiva and Ganga, it is at once the city of temples, the city of ‘ghats’, the city of music, and the center for mokshaor nirvana.
For every visitor, Varanasi has a different experience to offer. The gentle waters of the Ganges, the boat ride at sunrise, the high banks of the ancient “Ghats”, the array of shrines, the meandering narrow serpentine alleys of the city, the myriad temple spires, the palaces at water’s edge, theashrams (hermitages) , the pavilions, the chanting of mantras, the fragrance of incense, the palm and cane parasols, the devotional hymns – all offer a kind of mystifying experience that is unique to the city of Shiva.
PLACES OF INTEREST
River Front (Ghats)
The great river banks at Varanasi, built high with eighteenth and nineteenth-century pavilions and palaces, temples and terraces, are lined with an endless chain of stone steps – the ghats – progressing along the whole of the waterfront, altering in appearance with the dramatic seasonal fluctuations of the river level. Each of the hundred ghats, big and small, is marked by a lingam, and occupies its own special place in the religious geography of the city. Some have crumbled over the years, others continue to thrive, with early-morning bathers, brahmin priests offering puja, and people practicing meditation and yoga. Hindus puja, and people practicing meditation and yoga. Hindus regard the Ganges as amrita, the elixir of life, which brings purity to the living and salvation to the dead; sceptical outsiders tend to focus on all-persuasive and extreme lack of hygiene. Ashes to the dead, emissions from open drains and the left-overs from religious rites float by the devout as they go about their bathing and ceremonial cleansing.
Asi Ghat to Kedara Ghat
At the clay-banked Asi Ghat, the southernmost in the sacred city, at the confluence of the Asi and the Ganges, pilgrims bathe prior to worshipping at a huge lingam under a peepal tree. Another lingam visited is that of Asisangameshvara, the “Lord of the Confluence of the Asi”, in a small marble temple just off the ghat. Traditionally, pilgrims continued to Lolarka Kund, the Trembling Sun”, a rectangular tank fifteen metres blow ground level, approached by steep steps. Now almost abandoned, except during the Lolarka Mela fair (Aug/Sept), when thousands come to propitiate the gods and pray for the birth of a son, Lolarka Kund is among Varanasi’s earliest sites, one of only two remaining Sun sites linked with the origins of Hinduism. Equated with the twelve adityas or divisions of the sun, which predate the great deities of Modern Hinduism, it was attracting bathers in the days of the buddha.
Chauki Ghat to chausathi Ghat
Northwards along the river, Chauki Ghat is distinguished by an enormous tree that shelters small stones shrines to the nagas, water-snake deities, while at the unmistakable Dhobi (Laundrymen’s) Ghat clothes are still rhythmically pulverized in the pursuit of purity. Past smaller ghats such as Mansarovar Ghat, named after the holy lake in Tibet, and Narada Ghat, honouring the divine musician and sage, lies Chausathi Ghat, where impressive stone steps lead up to the small temple of the Chausathi (64) Yoginis. Images of Kali and Durga in its inner sanctum represent a stage in the emergence of the great goddess as a single representation of a number of female divinities. Overlooking the ghats here is Peshwa Amrit Rao’s majestic sandstone haveli (mansion), built in 1807 and currently used for religious ceremonies and occasionally, as an auditorium for concerts.
Dashashwamedha Ghat, the second and business of the five tirthas on the Panchatirthi Yatra, lies past the plain, flat-roofed building that houses the shrine of Shitala. Extremely popular, even in the rainy season when devotees have to wade to the temple or take a boat, Shitala represents both both benign and malevolent aspects – ease and succour as well as disease, particularly smallpox.
Man Mandir Ghat to Lalita Ghat
Man Mandir Ghat is known primarily for its magnificent eighteenth-century observatory, equipped with ornate window casings, and built for the Maharajah of Jaipur. Pilgrims pay homage to the important lingam of Someshvara, the lord of the moon, alongside, before crossing Tripurabhairavi Ghat to Mir Ghat and the New Vishwanatha Temple, built by conservative brahmins who claimed that the main Vishwanatha lingam was rendered impure when Harijans (untouchables) entered the sanctum in 1956. Mir Ghat also has a shrine to Vaishalakshi, the Wide-Eyed Goddess, on an important pitha – a site marking the place where various parts of the disintegrating body of Shakti fell as it was carried by the grief-stricken Shiva. Also here is the Dharma Kupa, the Well of Dharma, surrounded by subsidiary shrines and the lingam over all the dead of the world – except here in Varanasi.
North of Lalita lies Varanasi’s pre-eminent cremation ground, Manikarnika Ghat. Such grounds are usually held to be inauspicious, and located on the fringes of cities, but the entire city of Shiva is regarded as Mahashmashana, the Great Cremation Ground for the corpse of the entire universe. The ghat is perpetually crowded with funeral parties, as well as the Doms, its Untouchable guardians, busy and pre-occupied with facilitating final release for those lucky enough to pass away here. Seeing bodies being cremated so publicly has always exerted a great fascination for visitors to the city, but photography is strictly taboo; even having a camera visible may be constructed as intent, and provoke hostility.
Bordering Manikarnika to the north is the picturesque Scindia Ghat, with its titled Shiva temple lying partially submerged in the river, having fallen in as a result of the sheer weight of the ghat’s construction around 150 years ago. Above the ghat, several of Kashi’s most influential shrines are hidden within the tight maze of alleyways of the area known as Siddha Kshetra (the field of Fulfilment). Vireshvara, the Lord of all Heroes, is especially propitiated in prayer for a son; the Lord of Fire, Agni, was supposed to have been born here.
Panchganga Ghat to Adi Keshva Ghat
Beyond Lakshmanbala Ghat, with its commanding views of the river. Lies one of the most dramatic and controversial ghats, Panchganga Ghat, dominated by Varanasi’s largest riverside building, the great mosque of Alamgir, known locally as Beni Madhav-ka-Darera. With its minarets now much shortened, the mosque stands on the ruins of what must have been one of the city’s greatest temples, Bindu Madhava, a huge Vishnu temple that extended from Panchganga to Rama Ghat before it was destroyed by Aurangzeb and replaced by an impressive mosque. Panchganga also bears testimony to more favourable Hindu-Muslim relations, being the site of the initiation of the medieval saint of the Sufi-Sant tradition, Kabir, the son of a humble Muslim weaver who is venerated by Hindus and Muslims alike. Along the river front lies a curious array of three-sided cells, submerged during the rainy season, some with lingams, others with images of Vishnu, and some empty and used for meditation or yoga. One of these is a shrine to the Five (panch) Rivers (ganga) which, according to legend, have their confluence here: the two symbolic rivulets of Dhutapapa (Cleansed of Sin) and the Kirana (Sun’s Ray), which join the mythical confluence of the Yamuna and the Yamuna and the Sarasvati with the Ganga.
the Old City at the heart of Varanasi, between Dashashwamedha Ghat and Godaulia to the south and west and Manikarnika Ghat on the river to the north, lies Vishwanatha Khanda, sometimes referred to as the Old City. The whole area rewards exploration, with numerous shrines and lingams tucked into every corner, and buzzing with the activity of pilgrims, pandas and stalls selling offerings to the faithful.
Approached through a maze of narrow alleys and the Vishwanatha Gali (or Lane), the temple complex of Vishwanatha or Visheshwara, the “Lord of All”, is popularly known as the Golden Temple, due to the massive gold plating on its shikhara (spire). Inside the compound – which is hidden behind a wall, and entered through an unassuming doorway – is one of India’s most important shivalingams, made of smooth black stone and seated in a solid silver plinth, as well as shrines to the wrathful protectors Mahakala and Dandapani, and the lingam of Avimukteshvara, the Lord of the Unforsaken, which predates Vishwanatha and once held much greater significance. The current temple was built in 1777 by Queen Ahalya Bai Holkar of Indore, and is closed to non-Hindus, who have to make do with glimpses from adjacent buildings.
The Kashi Vishwanath Temple
Also known as the Golden Temple, it is dedicated to Lord Shiva, the presiding deity of the city. Varanasi is said to be the point at which the first jyotirlinga, the fiery pillar of light by which Shiva manifested his supremacy over other gods, broke through the earth’s crust and flared towards the heavens. More than the Ghats and even the Ganga, the Shivalinga installed in the temple remains the devotional focus of Varanasi. Entry restricted for foreigners.