Varanasi

Varanasi

Just posted some Varanasi pictures from last year. Boat trip along the ghats at sunrise is highly recommended for anyone visiting this ancient cultural hub of India. You will have to get up well before sunrise to get there and find an unoccupied and willing kewat (केवट). He can be a great guide to history and facts about the city and he might even let you steer his boat for a minute if you want to get an idea on rowing the ancient wooden boat. Please do not forget to tip for his hard work. After experiencing one of the best moments of your life on Ganga, get over to the streets to get the local breakfast of jalebikachori (जलेबी कचौड़ी). A rikshawalla can guide you there. Spend some time strolling on the streets of Godowlia Chowk to browse various little indigenous shops displaying local crafts, saris and souvenirs. Varanasi is especially famous for its fine handmade traditional silk saris interwoven with gold or silver threads – called Banarasi sari (बनारसी साडी). After some bargaining you will surely build up an appetite and the salesperson can guide your way (and even get you a rikshaw) to a delicious Banarasi thali (बनारसी थाली). Do try the famous Banarasi paanPaan is a popular after-meal snack that acts as both mouth-freshener and digestive aid — similar to the effects of a chewing gum. It is prepared from betel leaves by adding a combination of various condiments on it such as saffron, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, menthol, dried coconut, fennel seeds, edible camphor, rose water, and so forth. A paan can be customized to an individual's taste depending on the availability of above spices and condiments. It may also contain tobacco and areca nut — both of which are known carcinogens. Chewing paan causes salivation, which helps clean mouth in presence of antibacterial species such as cloves and cardamom. Chewing paan also stimulates production of digestive juices, and in presence of fennel seeds, a paan also acts as carminative. (बनारसी पान) after the meal.

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Although temple(s) should be visited early morning after cleansing the body, but if you are short on time, you should visit at least three main temples of Varanasi: Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, Durga Mandir and Sankatmochan Hanuman Mandir since they are in close proximity. Do not take this warning lightly: be careful of the monkeys around. They can snatch food and sweets from your hands. Also be careful of the priests inside. They will try various attempts to get money from you; do not fall for that. Stay at a traditional dharamsala (धर्मशाला) if possible. These are locally owned guest houses that provide room and serve fresh in-house prepared traditional food at meal times for a reasonable cost. Streets of Varanasi are narrow and crowded with cars, motorcycles, auto-rikshaws, cycles, rikshaws, pedestrians, cattle, monkeys and stray feral dogs. Keep your belongings close to you or lock valuables in secure locker at your hotel or dharamshala. Try not to miss the evening grand aarti of the river Ganga at the Dashashvamedh ghat – the main ghat in Varanasi and closest to Vishwanath mandir. Ganga is worshiped as the life-providing holy river and she cleanses sins of anyone who takes a dip in her waters.

Varanasi (वाराणसी), also called Banāras (बनारस) or Kashi (काशी), is located in southern Uttar Pradesh along the river Ganges. The river Ganges or Ganga (गंगा) is considered sacred by the Hindus as it considered to have descended to the Earth from the heavens. Varanasi is also the holiest of all pilgrimage sites for Hindu and Jain, and in the Hindu belief, leaving your body (dying) in Kashi (काशी) results in salvation of the soul or Moksha (मोक्ष). The name “Varanasi” originates from the names of two smaller river tributaries of Ganga encapsulating the old city on two sides: Varuna and Assi. Varuna + Assi = Varanasi (वरुणा + अस्सी = वाराणसी). The city population has spread alongside the flow of Ganga. There are about 100 ghats along the river among which the popular ones are: Dashashwamedh Ghat (दशाश्वमेध घाट), Manikarnika Ghat (मणिकर्णिका घाट), Man-Mandir Ghat (मन मंदिर घाट), Tulsi Ghat (तुलसी घाट), Harishchandra Ghat (हरिश्चन्द्र घाट) and Assi Ghat (अस्सी घाट).


View The Stretch of Varanasi in a larger map. Varuna (green marker) and Assi (red marker) merge into Ganga. Blue line represents the stretch of Ghats between the two rivers – about 4.4 mi (7 km).

According to Hindu mythology, Shiva (शिव) himself established the eternal city and it is the oldest continuously populated city in India. In the Skanda Purana, Shiva says, “The three worlds form one city of mine, and Kashi is my royal palace therein.” According to archeological finds, it is estimated that the city was established in 11-12 BCE by early Vedic settlers. Mark Twain commented on Varanasi:

Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together. —Mark Twain (1897)

The city is rich with ancient temples, stone alleys, important religious sites of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist origins. The most famous temple, dedicated to the lord of the city — Shiva, is the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir (काशी विश्वनाथ मंदिर) and it is the seat of one of the twelve Jyotirlinga (ज्योतिर्लिंग). Other important temples include Durga Mandir and Sankatmochan Hanuman Mandir. Buddha gave his first sermon at Deer Park, Sarnath (सारनाथ) – just outside of Varanasi. Varanasi has also been the seat of knowledge and literature since the Vedic period. Rig Veda (ऋग वेद) calls Kashi “the luminous one” reflecting the city’s historical status as a centre of learning, literature, art and culture.

Statue of GangaGoswami Tulsidas (गोस्वामी तुलसीदास) penned the most popular epic poem of India, the Ramcharitmanas (रामचरितमानस), mainly in Varanasi. The Tulsi Manas Mandir (तुलसी मानस मंदिर) in Assi is a commemoration to the famous saint and his epic poem. Ramcharitmanas, written mostly in Awadhi (अवधी) — the local dialect at the time, brought Ramayan (रामायण) to the masses in India because the orginial epic composed by the great sage Valmiki (वाल्मीकि) was authored in Sanskrit (संस्कृत), which had become mostly a ceremonial language. Other great personalities from Varanasi include: Maharishi Suśruta (महर्षि सुश्रुत) – who wrote Sushruta Samhita (सुश्रुत संहिता) – a core Sanskrit text of Ayurveda medicine on surgical procedures and techniques; Swami Ramanad (स्वामी रामानंद) – a teacher to the following personalities and a social reformer; Sant Kabir (कबीर) was a weaver by trade but a mystic poet and a saint who tried to reject religious and social absurdities from mindless and superstitious practices at his time and bring Hindu and Muslim populations together; Sant Ravidas (also Raidas) (रविदास) was a cobbler by profession and heritage, but known as one of the greatest devotional poet and songwriter. His writings we assimilated into Guru Granth Sahib (गुरु ग्रंथ साहिब), the holy book of Sikhism, and he inspired Meerabai (मीरा बाई). He struggled against the degraded Hindu caste system throughout his life; he believed that a man’s spirituality and deeds define a man, not his caste.

“Between the poles of the conscious and the unconscious, there has the mind made a swing: Thereon hang all beings and all worlds, and that swing never ceases its sway. Millions of beings are there, the sun and the moon in their courses are there, millions of ages pass, and the swing goes on. All swing: the sky and the earth and the air and the water; and the Lord Himself taking form: and the sight of this has made Kabir a servant.” —Kabir

 

From: Songs of KabirSongs of KabirTranslated by Rabindranath Tagore New York, The Macmillan Company 1915

“The Lord is one, but He is diffused in many forms. Bring in, bring in, that all-pervading Lord.”

“The palmyra palm and its leaves are considered impure. But if devotional prayers are written on paper made from its leaves, then people bow in reverence and worship before it.”

“Through the way of devotion, the intellect is imbued with truth; doubts, entanglements and vices are cut away.”

“When I am in my ego, then You (Lord) are not with me. Now that You are with me, there is no egotism within me.” —Ravidas

In addition to spirituality, Varanasi has housed one of the biggest universities in India – The Banaras Hindu University (कशी हिन्दू विश्वविद्यालय). According to the University, BHUBanaras Hindu University today has nearly 20,000 students including 2500 research scholars and 650 foreign students from 34 nations around the world enrolled in 4 institutes and 14 faculties and more than 140 academic departments. Resident students are accommodated in more than 60 hostels. The main Varanasi campus is spread over 1300 acres (about 5.3 km2). BHU was conceptualized by Madan Mohan Malviya (पंडित मदन मोहन मालवीय), along with Annie Besant, and founded the university in February of 1916 with assistance from the king of Banaras at the time – Kashi Naresh Prabhu Narayan Singh.

“The millions mired in poverty here can only get rid (of it) when science is used in their interest. Such maximum application of science is only possible when scientific knowledge is available to Indians in their own country.” —Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya (1905)

Ecologically, Varanasi has lost its richness over time and pollution is chocking on its environmental health. Although the city has always been an great attraction to tourists and pilgrims, past five decades have seen exponential population growth in inhabitants. This population increase has caused great pressure on upkeep and maintenance of the natural resources. The most obvious effect is on the river: the amount of solid pollutants and sewage waste levels have risen significantly. The water treatment plants are overburdened since there has been no major investment in the infrastructure. In addition, there is lack of regulation on disposal of toxic wastes from textile and leather industry. Today’s Ganga contradicts the Hindu mythology of the river as divine, pure, and cleanser of souls. Illiteracy and poverty lead people to use contaminated river water to use for every purpose: from bathing in the river to doing laundry on the ghats – causing various diseases such as cholera, dysentery, hepatitis, typhoid and even cancer.

Overpopulation, pollution and numerous dams along the river have endangered the indigenous aquatic animals such as the Ganges river dolphin (Platanista gangetica gangetica), mugger crocodile (Crocodylus palustris), ghariyal (Gavialis gangeticus) and Ganges shark (Glyphis gangeticus). People must be educated and infrastructure must be developed regarding waste disposal in the river to save these native species, to save the sanctity of Ganga, and to improve public health of people depending on her waters. Bhagirath’s savior of the souls must not become a sewer!

Varanasi is a great spiritual experience – for Indians and foreign travelers. Please tip generously to underpaid hardworking laborers for their assistance and service. Explore local culture but be careful of what and where you eat. Enjoy responsibly and please do not pollute.