What makes Varanasi the ultimate destination for seekers, culture vultures and history buffs

Ashutosh Mishra

“Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together,” wrote Mark Twain, American author and humourist. Known to be one of the oldest living cities in the world, Banaras or Varanasi or Kashi, as some prefer to call it, never fails to amaze visitors with its antiquity and the myriad colours of its culture. It was not for nothing that the city that stands by the holy Ganga was declared the first Cultural and Tourism Capital of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), an international alliance, for 2022-23.

What makes Varanasi so important in terms of culture and history? Its antiquity, undoubtedly, is one of the reasons. The origin of the city has multiple theories. But most importantly it has been a cultural melting pot which has amalgamated so many streams of knowledge and given so much to the rest of the world. A centre of learning and civilization for more than 3,000 years, Varanasi is home to knowledge, philosophy, culture, devotion, arts and crafts of a bewildering variety.

It is a significant place of pilgrimage for Hindus and the followers of Buddhism and Jainism as well. Vaishnavism and Shaivism have co-existed harmoniously in Benaras. It is widely believed by Hindus that death on the soil of Kashi leads to the attainment of salvation and freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth. Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon in Kashi, now precisely at Sarnath. Kashi is believed to be the birthplace of Parshvanatha, the 23rd Jain Tirthankar, as well.

Kashi is also believed to be the land where Ayurveda, widely believed to be the basis of modern medical science, originated. Maharshi Patanjali, the founder of Yoga, was also connected with the city. Varanasi has produced master craftsmen and earned a reputation for its sarees, handicrafts, textiles, toys, ornaments, metal work, clay and woodwork, and leaf and fibre crafts.

Varanasi has its own ‘Gharanas’ (style of music) in classical Indian music and has produced some of the most well-known musicians, philosophers, poets, and writers in Indian history such as Kabir, Munshi Premchand, Jaishankar Prasad, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Pandit Omkar Nath Thakur and Ustad Bismillah Khan.

Kashi is also known for its monumental ghats, which are steeped in history. From Assi to Dashashwamedha to Manikanirka, each one tells its own stories which are part of India’s folklore. The city was the most ancient seat of education in India and famous the world over for its scholars and their `Shastrarthas’. It still has some of the greatest scholars, universities, colleges, schools, Madrasas and Pathshalas and continues to preserve the Guru Shishya tradition.

Kashi has its own dialect which is so enchanting. It is a land of cultural pluralism and multiple linguistic and ethnic groups. It continues to preserve the tradition of folk music and drama (especially Ramlila) and also patronizes Akharas and similar games and sports.

But for the devout Hindus Varanasi remains the eternal city of Moksha, that is liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth. According to one observer more than 20,000 ailing pilgrims visit Varanasi every year to breathe their last in the holy city. Facilitating their stay are salvation homes. On a rough estimate, there are more than 200 such homes, some set up way back in 1920, like the Mumukshu Bhawan, Kashi Laabh Mukti Bhavan and Moksha Bhawan. The number of visitors keeps growing with each passing year. However, the people of Benaras would rather like their city to be known for its lively vibrancy, its literature, culture and spirituality.

The city, which many believe to be older than time itself, has traces of history at every step. Some historians believe that the very first civilisation in history settled at Kashi. There are countless instances to define the glorious timeline of the city. Close by is Lamahi, where the greatest Hindi novelist Munshi Premchand was born. An annual mela is organised here to celebrate his literary contribution every year.

Due to the existence of many ancient temples in Varanasi, Annie Besant chose this as the home for her Theosophical Society and Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya for establishing the Banaras Hindu University, the largest residential university of Asia and a great seat of learning.

Myth and history remain intertwined in the city. One such myth is that Varuna and Assi rivers (which in conjunction give the city its name) flowed out the first person when the world was created. Guided by this story, Varanasi (the area between these two rivers) came to be regarded as the holiest area of land. The vision of Varanasi as a religious centre is further enhanced by the belief that it stands on the tip of lord Shiva’s trident. Devout Hindus believe bathing in the Ganga at Varanasi will rid them of all sins and impurities.

Buddhists believe that Sarnath is the place where Gautama Buddha gave his first lecture on the guiding tenets of Buddhism. After delineating the goals of the philosophy, Buddha declared the park as a pilgrimage site. For the followers of Jainism the historical significance of the region draws from the belief that it is the birthplace of Parshvanatha, an important figure in the religion.

As a religious centre, Varanasi is dotted with a wide variety of temples and other places of worship. The most important of them all is, of course, the Kashi Vishwanath temple which attracts lakhs of Hindus to the city every year. Durga temple, Sankatmochan and Manas Mandir are among the other important shrines in the city which attract visitors.

Life in Varanasi thrives along its ghats which represent spiritual cleansing. Among the cremation ghats, Manikarnika is the most famous. It is believed that fire of the pyre never gets extinguished at this ghat where Hindus prefer to cremate their dead.

Due to the wide variety of cultures that intersect in the religious city, Varanasi has long been considered a centre for cultural development and artistic expression. Most notably, the art of the city represents the diversity of its inhabitants, ranging from traditional handicrafts like woodcarving to modern expressions of cultural diversity. While physical artistic production is a vital part of Varanasi culture, the city also receives attention for its literary legacy. Varanasi has played host to a wide variety of famous Indian writers, including Kabir, Ravi Das, Tulsidas, Bharatendu Harishchandra, Jayshankar Prasad, Acharya Ram Chandra Shukla, Munshi Premchand, Jagannath Prasad Ratnakar, Devaki Nandan Khatri, Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Vidya Niwas Mishra, Kashi Nath Singh, Namvar Singh and Nirgun.

Varanasi, thus, is a complete city with an unmatched abundance of history, art and culture.

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