Revered as the incorruptible land of Kashi in Amish Tripathi’s Meluha trilogy, it is also the color of celebration in Raanjhanaa’s Benaras, but equally susceptible to darker hues in Masaan’s Varanasi.
Three names for a single city of multiple facets, it is a little wonder that Varanasi has been a place of much intrigue for scholars and commoners alike.
Mark Twain famously described Varanasi as
older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together
It is the oldest and most continually populated city in India. Perched on the banks of the holy river Ganga, it hosts a million pilgrims every year. Every pilgrim visits the city with the prime purpose of getting absolved from his/her lifetime of sins and ultimately attain salvation.
Boiling pot of culture
Often referred to as the ‘spiritual capital’ of the country, the city has been the longest standing testament to Hinduism and Buddhism along with Jainism and Islam. It plays a core role in the formation of Buddhism and has seen a huge bout of Mughal rule. The city is also held in high esteem by the Jains who worship it as the birth place of their twenty-third Tirthankara Parsvanath.
Varanasi was believed to have been the abode of Lord Shiva and his ardhangini, Parvati before he relocated to Kailash.
Lord Shiva’s city
This is the city of Lord Shiva, known as the Destroyer, whose symbol is the unmistakably phallic lingam. The funeral pyres symbolize Shiva’s dance of destruction, leaping flames copying the frenzied ecstasy which releases the soul. Shiva is believed to be the God of destruction and humility. Therefore, people prefer to breathe their last in the city of Varanasi in order to transit from this life-time to another.
Among the estimated 23,000 temples in Varanasi,the temples most popular for worship are: the Kashi Vishwanath Temple of Shiva; the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple; and the Durga Temple, known for monkeys that reside in the large trees nearby. Nearly two tons of beaten gold cover the dome of Lord Shivas temple, called Vishwanath, in the old city. In the dark womb of its interior, beneath enormous bells, stands the simple black lingam, adorned with flowers, and gleaming with the milk and honey poured over it. It is also one of the 12 jyotirlings of Shiva.
Ghats of Varanasi
The ghats that line the waterfront, each honoring Shiva in the form of a linga—the rounded form of male anatomy, are the place where tourists seek redemption and salvation. The Manikarnika Ghat on the banks of Ganges near to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple is considered as a Shakti Peetha, a revered place of worship for the Shaktism sect. Many ghats were constructed under the patronage of the Marathas, Shindes (Scindias), Holkars, Bhonsles, and Peshwas. Some ghats serve as bathing sites while others are cremation site. A morning boat ride on the Ganges across the ghats is a popular tourist attraction. The extensive stretches of ghats in Varanasi enhance the riverfront with a multitude of shrines, temples, and palaces built “tier on tier above the water.
Mahashivratri is the night that Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati came together in a sacred union. Known as the night of lovemaking, it is advised for couples to remain in-doors on this night and recreate the magic of their romance. Young men, on the other hand, take to the streets to celebrate in full-swing.
The multiple intriguing and mysterious aspects associated with Varanasi, lend it the magical edge. Being the city of Shiva, it is, therefore, the bearer of past, witness of present and the curator of future.