In Mark Twain’s words, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Called the spiritual capital of India, this magnificent city of learning radiates endless energy. ⠀
A city as old as time. A city that has seen the world turn, tides change and generations of humans born and die. Varanasi or Kashi, which has been standing the tests of time for over 5,000 years is said to be one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world
Varanasi is a city in Northern India also known as Benares or Kashi. The city is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and is not only the spiritual capital of India, but also the holiest of seven sacred cities in Hinduism, and it played a significant role in the development of Buddhism.
Buddha is said to have founded Buddhism in Varanasi around 528 BC when he gave his first sermon at Sarnath, a nearby city located about 10km away. The city continued to grow in its religious significance and was under Muslim rule for three centuries from 1194, until a tolerant emperor restored some religious respite to Varanasi, which still remains a center of activity for Hindus.
For centuries, education, philosophy, culture, arts and religion have flourished here, and when you visit the religious center of Varanasi, you’ll see that this is what fuels the city and keeps it vibrant.
Walking down the streets
Much of the daily life in Varanasi takes place on its 87+ ghats—stone steps that descent steeply towards the river and stretch northward into a crescent. Most of these ghats were built after 1700 AD and are associated with legends or mythologies, while others are privately owned.
As you take one of the popular boat rides along the shore, you’ll get a better view of all the ghats from the water. Assi Ghat is where the Ganges meets river Assi, and although it is not as popular for tourists and visitors, it is an important ghat for Hindus, as pilgrims bathe here before worshiping Lord Shiva.
varanasi – uttar pradesh – india
Dashashwamedh Ghat is one of the oldest and important ghats and is where the famous Ganga Aarti ceremony takes place every evening. A great place for people watching, this ghat is constantly lined with beggars, sellers, pilgrims, and everything in between.
Manikarnika Ghat is the popular cremation ghat in Varanasi. Best seen at a respectful distance from a boat on the water, you’ll come face to face with death at this ghat, which will leave you with a strange feeling — one that almost makes you appreciate the traditions and celebrations of Hinduism even more.
Scindia Ghat located nearby the Manikarnika Ghat, Schidia is known for its particular site of interest—the partially submerged Shiva temple at the edge of the water that sunk during the construction of the ghat in 1830. Although it’s next to impossible to make it to explore every ghat in Varanasi, the ones above are some that have specific significance and are popular among visitors.
Varanasi’s legends go back some 10,000 years, to the oldest epics of Hindu literature, including the Puranas, the Vedas and the Mahabharata. They say Varanasi is the city of Lord Shiva, who walked here with his wife Parvati at the beginning of time. It could also be the battlefield where the god Krishna set fire to a duplicate but imposter Krishna, or the place where the Lord Rama came to do penance after slaying the demon Ravana.
In a country where most cities have at least two names, Varanasi has over a hundred. The locals still call it Banaras, perhaps after the mythological king Benar. The Jataka Tales, a collection of ancient Buddhist folk stories, refer to the city as Jitwari, the place were business is good, or as Pushwavati, the flower garden city, or as Molini, the lotus garden city.
Under the name Kasi, the city was one of 16 great Indian kingdoms mentioned by ancient Buddhist texts from the first millennium B.C., when the invention of highways and coins first led to a flourishing of commerce. Iron arrowheads and fortified cities discovered by archaeologists suggest violent encounters between the kingdoms, but it was also an age of nonviolence. Gautama, later known as the Buddha, delivered his first sermon during this era. And Mahavir, the founder of the ascetic and nonviolent Jain religion, was born during this period.
I was 16 when I last went there. City life is not so permitting to allow a leave in peaceful, places like Varanasi, neither can you take your life there. Varanasi is the place where you go for death, and not life.
“This is the best city to die in,” Prakash, son of the Pandit, says, smiling, as he looks at the sun rising over the ghats. The bathers are out in full force. Some lather up, while others dance and sing in the water. In the narrow alleys behind them, the city of Varanasi is just waking up.