Varanasi: An Exquisite Discovery of India’s Oldest Living City

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If the need arises to choose a single city that represents the ancient and medieval cultures of India, Varanasi would be the utterance of every Indian. The three-century-old bustling streets of Varanasi or Banaras give us a glimpse of what the multi-coloured and multi-faceted Hindu culture truly is. On touring the city on foot, you will explore thousands of temples, large and small, and palaces rising tier to tier from the edge of the river. Each temple of the city of Varanasi is a narrator of an age-old story.

Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together…

Mark Twain

With over 88 ghats, Varanasi has the finest river frontlines in the country. Some of the major ghats include the Lalita Ghat, Man Mandir Ghat, Dasahwameth Ghat, and Harishchandra Ghat. Along these very shores of Ganga, stands the holiest of holy Kashi Vishwanath Temple, one of the 12 Jyotirlingas of Lord Shiva.

The rhythms of Bismillah Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar echo in the streets of this colossal temple complex, while the auspicious Sankat Mochan Mandir voices the historic melodies of Girija Devi’s Thumri. Tulsidas compiled the sacred “RamCharitManas” on the banks of this very city, landmarked today by the awe-inspiring Tulsi Manas Temple. Apart from the rich culture of the city of Ganga, its magnificent temples glorify the architectural benchmarks of the precedent period.

A Brief History of the Spiritual Capital of India

Any piece on Varanasi’s beautiful history would remain incomplete without mentioning the remarks of the famous American writer Mark Twain. He said, “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, And looks twice as old as all of them put together”. Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities by humans in the world.

The Story of Varanasi dates back to the age of the earliest Aryan settlements in India. It was one of the 16 Mahajanapadas in post-Vedic India, the capital of the kingdom of Kashi, which has a special position in the hearts and history of Hindus because of its direct relation with Lord Shiva.

People believe that after Shiva chopped off the three heads of Brahma, he dropped them in Kashi, making it one of the holiest lands on earth. Though many consider this as just another fable, the beauty of the consolidated faith in this legacy over centuries makes Varanasi one of the most resorted sites in India for pilgrimage as well as funerary rituals. Hindus believe that Kashi is the best place to leave their earthly bodies and attain salvation.

One City, Many Stories

Apart from being the seat of Hindu culture, Varanasi holds tremendous religious value for Buddhists and Jains as well. The holy land is the birthplace of the 23rd Tirthankara of Jain Religion, Parshvanatha. Also, Lord Buddha gave his first sermon in the 6th Century BCE at Sarnath, situated right at the outskirts of Banaras.

Our history books mention a phase of stagnation in the city’s prominence during the early centuries of the Delhi Sultanate period. However, the Mughal Emperor Akbar revived the city to its former glory. Later, it assumed the status of an independent kingdom in the 18th century, Under the British, it remained one of the most significant commercial and religious centres of the Indian subcontinent.

The Architecture of Varanasi

The Architectural pattern of temples in Kashi is based on the ancient ‘Nagara’ style of temple building. The Spiritual Capital of India boasts of over 23000 temples, the most famous one being the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. The sprawling and magnificent temple complex comprises a series of shrines, while the quadrangular-planned major temple sits in the centre.

Manikarnika Ghat spaces Ratneshwar Mahadev Temple, built with a nagara shikhara that leans about 9 degrees towards the north-west side. The ‘garbhagriha’ or sanctum sanctorum of the temple is submerged below the water for the whole year except summers. The iconic city is also famous for an array of mosques, reflecting the bright composite culture of the Spiritual Capital. A classic example of Mughal Architecture of Varanasi is the Ramnagar fort. Built in the 18th century, the fort has extensive carved balconies, pavilions and courtyards.

Along with its religious significance, the city of Varanasi also boasts of housing the largest residential university in Asia. Banaras Hindu University was established in 1916 by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya to merge modernity with ancient knowledge. The spectacular results of his efforts are alive today in the multi-faceted campus of BHU. Presently, it also houses the prestigious IIT-BHU, where a pedagogy in modern global technology meets ancient Indian roots.

The Tangible and Intangible Heritage of Varanasi

On the front of Arts & Crafts, Varanasi is well-known for its manufacture of silks and brocades. The much-celebrated, evergreen Banarasi Saree is among the finest pieces of ethnic wear in the country. Its silver and gold zari or threadwork have been dazzling onlookers since times immemorial.

Similarly, Bhadohi Carpets have a pronounced mark on visitors. The special weaving techniques have a pinch of Mughal designs such as floral and foliate motifs. Brassware, copperware, glass bangles, and ivory work are other trades of Banarasi craftsmen.

Varanasi has been the epitome of Hindu learning for ages. Numerous Banarasi Pandits specialize in ancient scriptures and hymns, besides hundreds of rituals. The tradition of Vedic Chanting was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (ICH) by UNESCO in 2008.

The Musical Sounds of Varanasi

The cultural setup of Varanasi is incomplete though, without a mention of its Music. ‘Dhrupad’ is the speciality of Banarasi music along with ‘Dhamar’, ‘Hori’ and ‘Chaturang’. They have all made their presence felt across the royal courts of India for years. Besides, the dozens of Gharanas prevailing in Varanasi have preserved their art through centuries on end.

Musical festivals like ‘Kajri’, ‘Dangal’ and ‘jhoola’ are major points of attraction for tourists. Also, you would be surprised to know that almost all major names in Indian classical music hail from Varanasi itself! Ustad Bismillah Khan, Pt Ravi Shankar, Madan Mohan, Bhola Nath, and Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan are all associated with the city.

varanasi people

A confluence of the ancient and modern, traditions and technology, and ultimately life and death; Kashi or Varanasi is am embodiment of every extreme. The burning pyres on the Ghats of Ganga also remind us of the mortality of human beings. Besides, the joyful moods of the natives chewing on the famous Banarasi Paan, teach us that the shortest breath inhaled should be enjoyed to the fullest. This is the message that grey walls of temples of Varanasi and its accompanying art and culture convey. Perhaps the connotation of calling it the oldest “living” city in the world has more to it. Varanasi embodies every colour of life!

Abhishek Yadav
Abhishek Yadav

Abhishek is the founder of Dehradun based Infotainment Channel Circuitpedia. He is a first year SRCC student. India and Indianess are his main interests with special focus on exploration, heritage and culture

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