Varanasi or Banaras or Kashi! is one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities on the planet. The city gets its name from two Ganges tributaries forming the city’s borders: Varuna, still flowing in northern Varanasi, and Assi, today a small stream in the southern part of the city, near Assi Ghat.
The lanes and buildings of Varanasi still ooze the ethos of ancient India. To this day, this 3000 years old city has significant from many angles. It is one of the most important pilgrim centers for Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. It is one of the seven sacred cities of Hindus. It is famous for its Silk fabric, Ivory work, and Sculptures. In fact, from faith, philosophy and culture to Indian arts and crafts all have gained tremendously from this eminent city of India.
Ghats of Benaras
Speak of Varanasi and the first thing that’s flashes of your mind the image of the numerous ghats along the eastern bank of the river Ganges. There are total 87 Ghats lined up here back to back. The religious and cultural life at Varanasi is closely associated with river Ganges, so a trip to these stepped embankments is a must if you wish to feel the pulse of the city. A boat ride across this 6.5 km crescent shaped stretch is the best way to glimpse life at Varanasi unraveling on the ghats. The best time to take a boat ride is predawn at about 4:30 am. The sunlit ghats exude radiance, glowing against the exhilarating blue sky of dawn.
The multitude of devotees since the morning busy performing rituals and “Surya-Namaskar” is utopian. Many can be seen taking a dip in the icy cold waters of the holy river to absolve themselves of all the sins. Most of the ghats are bathing ghats, with a few serving as cremation grounds. However, against this religious background is the incongruous sight of spirituality being sold, shop with so-called religious paraphernalia, touts roaming around in the garb of priests despoiling the very soul the city.
Another very dishearting sight is the filth apparent all around, polluting the historic ghats. It is indeed sad that such beautiful site is so lacking the basic maintenance. The dichotomy of life is brought into sharp focus at Varanasi, on the one hand, are the ghats abuzz with life, on the other hand, the blazing pyres a mute testimony to death. Indeed, Varanasi is melting pot where life and death come together.
At the southern most end is the Assi Ghat. It is here river Ganges joins the river Assi. Just around the corner is the campus of the Banaras Hindu University. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s focus on the cleaning of the ghats of Varanasi, his parliamentary constituency, changes are slowly becoming visible in some of the important ghats, particularly the famous Assi ghat. The ghat is now the venue of a unique cultural and spiritual event — Subah-e-Banaras — that draws large numbers of visitors every morning.
This is the main ghat of the city, centrally located and the most popular among all the ghats. There is always a humdrum of activities taking places here. The most prominent feature of this ghat is the sight of huge parasols with self-proclaimed holy men seated beneath them making a rich living performing ritual. The famous Kashi Vishwanath Temple is also situated near this ghat where one can hear the soulful and melodious Ganga aarti takes place every evening. Thus, it is well worth visiting this ghat in the evening to partake of this soul-stirring experience, when once again it comes alive with the huge mass of humanity.
This is the largest and most prominent of all burning ghats, symbolic of both creation and destruction. However, one still find a peaceful atmosphere pervading here. In the background, the magnificent temples of yore stand as mute testimony to the ancient and ethical culture of this city. Once again, through the sense of serenity is jarred by the sight of huge logs on sale, serving the pyres at the ghats.
Apart from these Ghats, there are a lots ghats with a lots significance to different communities. Stories of all the ghats that I came across can be found in a different post.
Temples of Benaras
As the boatman rows, the boat the rhythmic sound of oars lapping the calm river water creates soothing music. A little further down, the sound of temples bells and conches blowing nearby into focus the ongoing activities in the numerous temples at the ghats. Devotees are already lining up to offer prayers and one can only image the multitude of the people as there are no less than 2000 temples here. In fact, Varanasi is looked upon the holiest city of the Hindus as well as the religious capital of India. the city of lights, the city of learning. It draws millions of devotees, not only Hindus but Buddhists and Jain also. For the Hindus most prominent of all temple is the Kashi Viswanath Temple dedicated to lord shiva. If the city of Varanasi is said to be the city of lord shiva, then the Kashi Vishwanath Temple is truly its beating heart.
The other Hindu temple of importance the Sankatmochan temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman, the Durga temple, and tulsi manas temple are located next to each other. The new Viswanath temple or Birla Temple is located in the heart of Benaras Hindu University Campus. This university is one of the largest residential universities in the world.
At Sarnath, Buddhists converge from around the world to offer prayers. Sarnath is about 13 km away from Varanasi and is one of the top four Buddist pilgrimage shrines in the world. It is here that lord buddha gave his first sermon after becoming the enlightened one. This site now has a huge structure called “Dhamma Chakka Pavattana Sutta”. The term means ” the setting in motion of the wheel of religion”.
Also located in this vicinity is an idol of lord Buddha rendering sermons to four Buddist monks. There is a fig tree here that is believed to be an offshoot of the original bodhi tree under which lord buddha acquired true knowledge. Various countries which predominantly follow Buddhism have established individualistic temples and monasteries in Sarnath, depicting their own interpretations of Buddhism. Tibet, Thailand, Japan, Srilanka, and Myanmar are some of these countries.
A trip to Varanasi is incomplete if you do not experience the sublime joy of the Ganga aarti. A Hindu prayer ritual that takes place every evening after sunset at Dasaswamedh ghat and at Assi ghat before sunrise which is also known as “Subha-e-Banaras”. At any given time, there are hundreds of people both local and around the world comes to witness the aarti. There seems to a festivity in the air.
In the evening, through most people sit on the steps of ghats for the aarti, there are many who partake of the experience by sitting in the boats bobbing gently by the river side. Vendors are busy selling flowers, incense sticks, and tiny oil lamps. center stage is tall umbrella-like structure decorated with artificial flowers and strings of lights. Five, Seven or nine raised platforms are set under each umbrella, with all the paraphernalia required for the prayers.
A group of young priests similarity attired in cream and orange, occupy the seats on each platform and then begins the aarti dedicated to worshipping lord shiva, river Ganges, the sun, fire and the whole world.
Devotees also float small lamps on the river as they gather to witness the grand gang aarti at the ghats. The lights from the lamps cast the ethereal look over the river, silently flowing in the dark. A huge gathering of people watches the entire proceeding in pin drop silence, as through in a spellbound trance.
“Subha-e-Banaras” is the newly included, which I found better than the evening aarti. It’s similar as the evening aarti but a whole lot of less crowd, no vendors and less photographers and in the morning a group of girls sings the hymn in chorus as the priests performs their prayers. After a bath one can participate in the morning yajna. As the first sunlit hits, the banks of Ganges the aarti begins, with very well rehearsed and synchronized choreography. Conches shells are blown loudly to invoke the name of the river Ganges. The light from the huge lamps and smoke emanating from the incense sticks and dhoop add to the celestial atmosphere pervading the rising morning with the beginning of aarti. The entire performance is a visual treat. More so with devotional emotions running high amongst the audience.
Once the aarti is over, it’s time to take another boat ride. As you ride along you can not help but find yourself in a contemplative mood. The filth, the litter, the conman and the poverty all appears to fade into insignificance. There is something so serene and soothing pervading the air, with emotions like faith and devotions so palpable. one wonders, is it only the spirituality that has woven the fine mesh binding every facet of this remarkable city? Whatever the case may be. One cannot deny the irrefutable and lasting mark the city leaves!