Uttar Pradesh archive
"Here religious feeling reigns supreme, and no sensual thought ever seems to assail these beauteous mingled forms. They come into unconscious contact with each other but only heed the river, the sun, and the splendor of the morning in a dream of ecstasy." – Pierre Loti
Introduction: If Delhi is the political capital of India and Mumbai is the financial one, what about the cultural capital? Yes! Varanasi is the right guess. It encompasses activities ranging from the Aarti at different Ghats to early morning and evening boat rides to last rites being performed. It is a hub to a number of chaotic, hectic activities happening simultaneously.
Being one of the oldest living cities, Varanasi got its name from the two rivers Varuna and Assi, which eventually merge in the Ganges. Legend has it that after getting married to Parvati, Lord Shiva moved to Varanasi along with all the gods. The connection with Shiva makes the place spiritual enough for people to believe that ending their lives here would free them from the endless cycle of life and death (also known as attaining moksha). By the 2nd century BCE, the city was a commercial and industrial center because of muslin, silk fabrics, perfumes, ivory works and sculpture. Archaeological pieces of evidence suggest that remains from 1200 BCE have been found here. The city was mentioned by the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang in 635 BCE as one extended for about 3 miles.
Varanasi has emerged as an important industrial center in North India apart from retaining its spiritual entity. It’s famous for the silk, muslin works and the world famous Banarasi sarees. The temperature over here ranges from 5°C to 46°C and is either very hot, very cold or a humid one. One is greeted by traffic, hustle-bustle on the ghats and numerous illustrations of spirituality on visiting Varanasi. As mentioned above, Varanasi holds a high place in Hindu mythology and it is believed that dying here would directly lead one to heaven and therefore a tourist can expect a number of last rites being performed on the ghats. For some reasons, some bodies are half burnt and then left in the river, so one shouldn’t get scared if she comes across a dead body during her boat ride.
The evening aarti of the Ganges at the Dashashwamedha ghat should not be missed. With waves of the Ganges flowing gently in the front and the light of small lamps dancing on them, gentle wind passing by and a number of priests chanting mantras along with tintinnabulation of bells, the aarti is surely a divine experience. While strolling on different ghats, one will come across different experiences, some of which will inspire awe while the others will be amusing enough to generate interest. Beware of touts who will insist on charging money on the pretext of anything and everything.
The Ganges is a trans-boundary river originating from India and empties into the Bay of Bengal before passing through several Indian and Bangladeshi districts. This largest Indian river provides water to approximately 40% of the indian population (around 500 million) across 11 states. As per the Hindu mythology, Ganges is the holiest river and taking bath in it washes people’s sin. Well, from a tourist’s perspective the Ganges is a Bath, Washing Area, Dishwasher, Swimming pool, Vessel of commerce, Dustbin of several industries and the list goes on. No wonder it has become the fifth most polluted river in the world. The pollution from the aforesaid sources has also put more than 230 species surviving in the Ganges in danger. A number of initiatives have been taken by the Government out of which the latest one is “Namami Ganga” announced by Narendra Modi in July 2014 but this project is yet to see any tangible outcome so far.
Varanasi being one of the holiest cities in Hinduism and Jainism, has temples sprung up like mushrooms over the period of time. The world famous Kashi Vishwanath temple is one of the most important temples to which we have devoted a separate section below. A one of its kind, Bharat Mata Mandir has a huge map of undivided India carved in marble instead of traditional statues. Tulsi Manas Mandir, dedicated to Lord Rama is the place where Tulsidas the great seer penned the epic “Shri Ramcharitmanas”. Shri Tilbhandeshwar Mahadev Mandir is one of the oldest temples and as legend has it, the “Lingam” here increases by a nominal length on an annual basis. The temple unites the cultures of Malayali and Banarasi culture depicting the idols of Tilbhandeshwar, Mahadev, Vibhandeshwar, Parvati, Bhairava, Ayappan etc. A beautiful replica of Pashupatinath Temple (Kathmandu) is in Varanasi in the name of Nepali Mandir. Dhanvantari is known as the god of medicines whose black stoned statue is situated in Chowk area. A brahmin found this statue during some digging work and started worshipping after Lord Dhanvantari came to his dream and asked him to do so.
One of the most important temples, Kashi Vishwanath temple is mentioned in Skanda Purana. Its history can be gauged from the fact that Shiva used Jyotirlingas to settle a dispute between Vishnu and Brahma and this temple is one of the twelve Jyotirlingas. The temple had been destroyed time and again by Muslim invaders and had been rebuilt. A series of small shrines in Vishwanatha Galli on the banks of the Ganges constitute the temple complex. The main temple is quadrangle in shape and is surrounded by shrines of different gods. As per the legend, the well is known for because of the main priest jumping into it with the Shiv Ling to protect it from the invaders. Two out of the three huge domes are covered by gold and the third one is merely gold plated. Visitors in the temple clock to around 3,000 per day and they peak to around 1,000,000 and more on certain festivals.
Varanasi has to be in the travel list if one wants to meet religious India and to step back in time. Each of the ancient structures, ceremonies has a story behind it. Walk on the ghats, savor glasses of lassi, see last rites being performed and take an unforgettable image back home.