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Last Updated Saturday January 21 2017 03:30 AM IST

Varanasi, the city older than history

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Varanasi Tourists ride on boats on the River Ganges in Varanasi. Photo: AP

Varanasi stands dazzling against the splash of colours. The streets are painted green, red, dark blue, and yellow. Even the food sold by street vendors boast of different hues. From the girl who sells flowers in the street to the weavers who make silk saris, they all have colours on their bodies. The boatmen in the Ganges wear turbans of different colours, and one can see the light of lamps in the eyes of devotees who offer ‘arati’ and float them in the river as an offering to Lord Shiva. The streets are flooded with kids selling flutes and other toys. Sari shops are lit up with sparkling lights. The clustered streets have become a river of different hues that flows in quiet tranquillity, towards the bank of the Ganges.

In Varanasi, Holi is not merely a celebration; it is a group dance of colours. There are those who come in search of salvation at the feet of Lord Vishwanath, and also foreign tourists who comes to watch the array of colours. People who come in search of enlightenment that was once received by Buddha, Asoka, Surdas and Kabir, and locals who pass by the streets chewing betel leaves and eating sweets—they all have one music, one voice, and different colours. People immerse themselves in colours that welcome the spring, losing themselves in it.

Older Than History

Varanasi Devotees take a boat ride in the River Ganges during Karthik Purnima festival in Varanasi, Photo: AP

India’s history is incomplete without a mention of Varanasi, also known as Banaras or Kashi, one of the oldest cities in the world. American writer Mark Twain once said that this city is older than history. In Hindu mythology, it is said that Kashi is Lord Siva’s favourite city, and it is believed that if one dies in the city, they attain salvation.

It is believed that the name Kashi means Lord Siva’s city. This place has contributed a lot in the growth of Buddhism and Jainism. Even though the colours of many old cities across the world have faded away in time, the streets of Kashi still bear the proud history and stands in all its flourished glory even now.

Varanasi Devotees light lamp on the occasion of Kartik Purnima at the bank of river Ganges in Varanasi. Photo: PTI

People believe that the name Kashi originated from the two rivers that flow from the Ganges, Varuna and Asi. Despite dirt and plastic choking them, they still flow through the city. This city was also called by the names Kashi, Kashika, Avimuktha, Anandavana, and Rudravasa, and over time came to be known as Varanasi. Even the Skanda scriptures that talk about the birth of Siva and Parvathi’s son Karthikeyan have mentioned the name Kashi in them. Even though the city’s name was first mentioned in ‘Adharva Veda’ that was written in 1500 BC, it has been proved from the scriptures that this city was alive and flooded with people before the said period. It is said that there has been roads from the city to Takshashila, that was once part of the Maurya dynasty. Roads from here go all the way to to Pataliputra as well.

Kashi Vishwanatha Temple

This Siva temple is one of the main attractions of tourists and believers who flood Varanasi. A dome that is situated inside the temple, which is 15.5m tall and weighs 1000kg, is a wonder in itself. ‘Arati’, one of the main rituals conducted on the banks of the Ganges, is held here. The sight of lamps that are lit and let to sail in the Ganges makes one happy and evokes devotion in minds. The belief among the devotees is that Lord Siva is the saviour of the world. It is believed that out of the twelve sacred stones, one is placed at Kashi temple. There are many debates on the origin of the temple. It is believed that the old temple was destroyed during the reign of Aurangazeeb. And later, Maharashtra ruler Malhar Rao Golkar’s niece Ahalya Bhai Holkar built a new temple in the place of the old one in 1780. Adishankar, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda, Dayananda Saraswati, were some of the prominent people who used to frequent the temple.

Varanasi A vendor sells flowers during Dev Deepawali festival on the banks of the River Ganges in Varanasi. Photo: AP

The age-old congested lanes or ‘gallis’ near the temple are just as amusing. You can go through these ‘gallis’ only by walking or in a rickshaw. There are different kinds of shops on either sides of the lanes. People who sell Banaras silk saris, sweet shops, small statues and pictures of Kashi Vishwanath, toys, and the tourists who scatter about looking to buy them flood these ‘gallis’.

Saranath

Saranath, which is located 13km away from Varanasi, has an important place in history as well. It is believed that Buddha gave his first public speech after enlightenment in Saranath. Dhamek Stupa, 43.6m tall and 28m broad was built between 150 and 500 years BC. The Ashoka pillar and Ashoka Chakra, which are the national symbols of India, originates from here. There are many Buddha shrines in this area. It is also believed that Lord Buddha visited Varanasi in five weeks after he received enlightenment, and spent an entire monsoon season here. Lord Buddha gave lessons on enlightenment to 60 saints and sent them to different parts of the world to spread the message.

Varanasi People watch as pyres burn at a cremation ground on the banks of river Ganges in Varanasi. Photo: REUTERS

King Ashoka, who ruled Pataliputra from 269–232 century BC is the one who made Varanasi a world famous Buddhist centre. King Ashoka, who saw the devastation and ruins of ‘Kalinga War’ felt upset and changed to Buddhism. A trip to Saranath evokes the long lost memories of Lord Buddha and King Ashoka, which enlightens the traveller offering paving the way for inner peace.

Tulsi Manas Temple

It is believed that Tulsidas who lived in the 16th century wrote the ‘Ram Charit Manas’, here in this temple. The temple was revived in 1966. The marble temple is built near the Durga temple that was believed to be constructed in the 18th century. The verses of ‘Ram Charit Manas’ are inscribed on the walls of Tulsi Manas temple.

Varanasi Hindu priests perform rituals in front of an idol of Hindu goddess Durga before immersing it into the River Ganges during the Durga Puja festival in Varanasi. Photo: AP

Statistics prove that there are nearly 23,000 small and big temples in Varanasi. ‘Dashashwamedh Ghat’, is believed to be a place where Lord Brahma held a ‘Yaga’ with 10 horses, ‘Manikarnika Ghat’, which is associated with Parvathi, ‘Mandir Ghat’ that was built with stone roofs in 1770 by Maharaja Jaisingh of Jaipur, a Krishna temple called ‘Lalitha Ghat’ that was built by the king of Nepal, ‘Ramnagar Fort’, and St. Mary’s church located in Cantonment are some of the main tourist attractions here. A boat ride in the cool breeze, with enchanting locales in view is something that is unique and lovely, testify the tourists.

Food, Silk and Music

Varanasi Hindu priests perform rituals as they conduct evening prayers on the banks of the River Ganges in Varanasi. Photo: AP

The variety of dishes available in Varanasi is another speciality of this place. The ‘Banaras paan’ is renowned for its unique flavour. There are many food streets in Banaras that have been surviving for years with for their signature flavours. Different kinds of chaats, lassi, thandai shake that is made from masala and bhang, rasgulla and jalebi, are some of the street foods easily available in the streets guaranteed to make you drool. ‘malai’ is a unique sweet that is made during moonlight. It is made from milk. The recipe for this sweet dish is known only to a few people in this area. Crowds throng the street shops that sell aloo chaat, lassi, and sweet gooseberries.

People who're after the gorgeous Banaras saris are large in numbers too. It is said that Gujarati weavers who moved to Banaras in the 17th century are the ones who made Banaras a centre for silk saris. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the sale of silk was at its peak in this area. Mughal emperors encouraged the manufacture of silk. It has been a famed tradition passed on by centuries—handmade Banaras silk that is spun together with golden threads that are still much sought after. Statistics say that there are nearly 12 lakh workers who are part of silk manufacturing in Banaras, directly and indirectly.

Varanasi is also a centre for music and art. Sufi lyricist and Urdu poet Kabir was born here. Many devotional singers and poets who lived in the middle age, like Surdas, Raidas and Mira, have been a part of this city. Though Ustad Bismillah Khan was born in Bihar, he moved to Varanasi when he was 6 years old, and learnt ‘Shahnai’ from here. A believer of Islam, Bismillah Khan, has played ‘Shahnai’ at Kashi Vishwanatha temple and many other temples as well. Ustad Bismillah Khan believed that music can break the barriers inside human minds.

Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar was born in Varanasi. Freedom fighter Pandit Madan Mohan Malavya established the Banaras Hindu University in 1916, one of the pioneer educational institutions in the city. Annie Besant, who was born outside India, had joined hands with Malavya in creating this educational institution.

Varanasi’s history cannot merely be confined to words; it dates back to centuries. The many chapters of the book that is Varanasi would hold the reader spellbound. Even the mud houses here will take us back to history in some way or the other. Generations have passed on beliefs, knowledge, ignorance, surprises, and the curiosity that the city of Varanasi instills in people; it all lingers for a long time.

The Ganges is flowing. Lamps that have been lit by people are floating in the water with all its glory. On my way to the airport the taxi driver Vikas Dubey tells me, “This is Varanasi, world’s oldest city”.

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