KASHI THE CITY OF LIGHT
Varanasi, or Benaras, (also known as Kashi) is one of the oldest living cities in the world. According to the ‘Vamana Purana’, the Varuna and the Assi rivers originated from the body of the primordial Person at the beginning of time itself. The tract of land lying between them is believed to be ‘Varanasi’, the holiest of all pilgrimages. The word ‘Kashi’ originated from the word ‘Kas’ which means to shine. Steeped in tradition and myths, Kashi is the ‘original ground’ created by Shiva and Parvati, upon which they stood at the beginning of time. A city of traditional classical culture, glorified by legend and sanctified by religion, it has always attracted a large number of pilgrims and worshippers from time immemorial. The rays of the dawn shimmering across the Ganges, the highbanks, the temples and shrines along the banks bathed in a golden hue, soul stirring hymns and mantrasbeing chanted alongwith the fragrance of incense filling the air and the refreshing dip in the holy waters by pilgrims at the gently splashing water at the Ghats – the experience of aarti at the ghats and discovery of Hinduism’s spiritual roots reach the ultimate bliss here.
Varanasi is unique, and a walk along the ghats or a boat ride on the river at sunrise or sunset will live long in the memory. Pilgrims come to the ghats lining the River Ganges here to wash away a lifetime of sins in the sacred waters or to cremate their loved ones on huge funeral pyres. It’s a particularly auspicious place to die, since expiring here offers moksha, making Varanasi the beating heart of the Hindu universe.
The old city of Varanasi is situated along the western bank of the Ganges and extends back from the riverbank ghats in a labyrinth of alleys called galis that are too narrow for traffic. Along its winding streets are some 2,000 temples, including Kashi Vishwanath, the “Golden Temple,” dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Popular hotels and restaurants are usually signposted and, however lost you become, you will eventually end up at a ghat and get your bearings. You can walk all the way along the ghats, apart from during and immediately after the monsoon, when the river level is too high.
Varanasi is also renowned for its rich tapestry of music, arts, crafts and education. Some of the world renowned exponents India has produced in these fields were schooled in Varanasi’s cultural ethos.
Luminaries apart, Varanasi abounds in the art of silk weaving, an exotic work of art which manifests itself in precious Banarasi Silk Sarees and Silk brocades with their intricate zardosi embroidery with fine gold thread, which are cherished as collector’s items across the world today.
Dev Diwali is one of the famous festivals in Varanasi celebrated on the occasion of Kartik Poornima, with holy Vedic mantras chanted by priests and aarti performed on the riverbanks to please and welcome the God of light, lighting sparkling fire crackers and distributing sweets, with all the buildings lit up in colourful lights. All the ghats are packed with the great crowds of pilgrims and they float thousands of Diyas (earthen lamps) in the holy river Ganges according to their rituals.
Every year since the early 1800s the Ram Lila, a lengthy version of the Ramayana, has been performed beside Ramnagar Fort in Varanasi. The epic saga is performed mainly by Brahmin youths aided by masks, music, dancing and giant papier-mâché figures.
Surrounding places of interest are Jaunpur, Vidhyanchal ( Vidhanchal Devi Temple), Chandauli (Chandra Prabha Wild Sanctury), Mirzapur (Chunar Fort) , Sonbhadra (ancient Rock Paintings).
Nearby Sarnath is a Buddhist Prigrim Centre . Also known as Vesak, the festival of Buddha Jayanti or Buddha’s birthday celebrates the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha. Sarnath takes on a particularly festive air on this day, when Buddhists from many countries take part in a procession and a fair is held.