Varanasi or Kashi, India's most sacred city is situated on the West bank of the Ganga. It is also known as Benaras. Varanasi derives its name from two streams; the Varuna on the north side of the city and the Assi, a small trickled on the south. The word ‘Kashi’ originated from the word ‘Kas’ which means to shine. Steeped in tradition and mythological legacy, Kashi is the ‘original ground ‘created by Shiva and Parvati, upon which they stood at the beginning of time. Varanasi is the microcosm of Hinduism, a city of traditional classical culture, glorified by myth and legend and sanctified by religion.
Varanasi has always attracted a large number of pilgrims and worshippers from time immemorial. It is said to combine all the virtues of all other places of pilgrimage and anyone dying within the area marked by the Panch Kosi road is said to go to heaven. It is also an important pilgrimage centre for Buddhists as it was at Sarnath (10 km from Varanasi), Lord Buddha gave his first sermon after enlightment. Varanasi today, is also a centre of education, art and craft.
Geography of Varanasi
Situated in Uttar Pradesh, in northern part of India, Varanasi is located on the banks of the holy river, Ganges. During summers, weather can be as hot as 45°C and humid too as Varanasi lies at the Tropic of cancer. Torrential rains and high humidity accompanies the monsoons that usually come in late June or early July for about two months. Delicious and juicy mangoes offer little relief from the sweating weather. On the other hand, winters are pleasant and temperature dips down to about 7°C. In Varanasi, the climatic conditions are most favorable for the tourists between October and April.
History of Varanasi
Varanasi is said to be the most holy city in Hinduism. It is the site of the holy shrine of Lord Kashi Vishwanath (an incarnation of Lord Shiva), one of the twelve revered Jyotirlingas of the Lord Shiva. Kashi Vishwanath Temple, which in its present shape was built in 1780 by Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore, is located on the banks of the Ganges.
The land of Varanasi (Kashi) has been the ultimate pilgrimage spot for Hindus for ages. These few lines by Mark Twain say it all: "Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together".
Ganges is said to have its origins in the tresses of Lord Shiva and in Varanasi, it expands to the mighty river that we know of. The city is a center of learning and civilization for over 3000 years. With Sarnath, the place where Buddha preached his first sermon after enlightenment, just 10 km away, Varanasi has been a symbol of Hindu renaissance, Knowledge, philosophy, culture, devotion to Gods, Indian arts and crafts. Also a pilgrimage place for Jains, it is believed to be the birthplace of Parsvanath, the twenty-third Tirthankar.
Project for Cleaning up River Ganga
Varanasi has also been a great center of learning for ages. It is associated with the promotion of spiritualism, mysticism, Sanskrit, yoga and Hindi language and honored authors such as the ever-famous novelist Prem Chand and Tulsi Das, the famous saint-poet who wrote Ram Charit Manas. Many exponents of dance and music have come from Varanasi. Ravi Shankar, the internationally renowned Sitar maestro and Ustad Bismillah Khan, (the famous Shehnai player) are all sons of the blessed city or have lived here for major part of their lives.
Tourist attractions of Varanasi
The city's life revolves around its seven km long sweep of about 100 bathing ghats that skirt the west bank of the Ganges. Most of them are used for bathing. Some are used for cremating bodies. The most sacred ghats are the Asi, Dasashwamedh Ghat, Manikarnika and Panchganga. It is believed that cremation at Manikarnika ghat ensures a safe place in Heaven, as the cremators of this ghat are believed to have the patronage of Shiva. The furthermost upstream ghat is Assi Ghat, which marks the confluence of the Ganges and the Assi rivers. It is said that after striking down demon Shumbha and nishumbha, Durga's sword fell and created a curved ditch, which later became the Assi Channel. This Ghat is one of the five special ghats which pilgrims are supposed to bathe at in sequence during the ritual route called ' Panchatirthi Yatra' ending in the Adikeshva ghat in the north. Nearby is the Tulsi Ghat, where Goswami Tulsidas lived till his death in 1623A.D. The Bachra Ghat is used by Jains and there are three riverbank Jain Temples. The Dandi Ghat is used by fakirs, yogis and ascetics and nearby is the very popular Hanuman Ghat. Dashashvamedh Ghat, Varanasi's liveliest bathing place was constructed by Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao. Its name indicates that Brahma sacrificed (medh) 10 (das) horses (aswa) here. Its one of the most important ghats and is conveniently central. Nearby is the grand Man Mandir Ghat (1637) and an observatory both built by Sawai Raja Jai Singh of Jaipur in 1710. Mir Ghat leads to a Nepalese temple, which has erotic sculptures. Dattatreya Ghat bears the footprint of the Brahmin saint of that name in a small temple nearby. The Ram Ghat was built by the Raja of Jaipur. In Panchaganga Ghat, India's five holy rivers are said to merge. The Trilochan Ghat has two turrets emerging from the river, and the water between them is especially holy. Another important cremation ghat is the Hirishchandra ghat, named after the king Harishchandra who worked as a cremator at the cremation grounds.
In this place, the Buddha preached his message "Maha-Dharma-Chakra Pravartan" (in Buddhist terminology, 'turned the wheel of the law') after he achieved enlightment at Bodhigaya. Later, the great Buddhist Emperor Ashoka built the Dharmarajika Stupa and near it erected a pillar surmounted by the magnificent capital of four adored lions, which today forms the national emblem of India. Ashoka erected several memorial towers or stupas.
Saranath probably derived its name from one of Buddha's title, Saranganath, Lord of the Deer. The huge swastika (110ft) covered Dhameskh Stupa dates from AD 500 and is thought to mark the place where Buddha gave his sermon. Sarnath has been a premier centre for Buddhism. It is a rich collection of ancient Buddhist relics and antiques comprising numerous Buddha and Bodhisatva images on display at the excellent Archaeological Museum.
The residential place of Kashi Naresh (Former Maharaja of Varanasi) across the Ganges at Ramnagar houses a museum with the exhibits of palanquins, costumes, swords, sabres, etc. Dussehra celebration of Ramnagar is an interesting event to witness.14 km. from Varanasi. The fort at Ramnagar houses a museum displaying the Royal collection which includes vintage cars, Royal palkies, an armoury of swords and old guns, ivory work and antique clock. The Durga Temple and Chhinnamastika Temple are also located at Ramnagar.
The Chunar fort is situated 40 Km. from Varanasi. Chunar Fort, overlooking the Ganges, has had a succession of owners representing most of India's rulers over the last 500 years. Sher Shah took it from Humayun in 1540, Akbar recaptured it for the Mughals in 1575 and in the 18th century it passed to the nawabs of Avadh. They were shorty followed by the British, whose gravestones here make interesting reading. Chunar sandstone has been used for centuries, most famously in Ashokan pillars - and is still quarried, leaving the surrounding hills looking ravaged in places.
Ram Nagar Fort and Palace
Ramnagar Fort which was built in 1750A.D by the Maharaja of Banaras, is on the right bank of River Ganga. Built of red stones, it provides strength and stability to the city. It is the residential palace of the former Maharaja of Varanasi. The palace is an astronomical and astrological wonder. Inside the giant walls of the palace, there is a big clock. Besides showing year, month, week and day, it baffles the onlooker with astronomy of the sun, moon and constellation of stars. This wonder clock or Dharam Ghari was made by the court astronomer of Banaras in 1852A.D. The palace has a temple dedicated to Ved Vyas and a museum set up by the last Maharaja of Banaras, Vibhuti Narain Singh. The museum has a collection of brocade costumes, palanquins, weapons and has expensive coaches made of ivory. The palace is decorated majestically and it vibrates with colour and life, during Dussehra festival. The celebrations comes to an end on Vijayadashmi, when the huge effigies of demon king Ravana and his kinsmen are sent up in flames, signifying the victory of good over evil.
ABC Art Gallery
This gallery is situated opposite of Tulsi Manas Mandir, Durga Kund Road. This gallery exhibits the work of well known artists of India. It gives a picture of the contemporary culture of Varanasi.
B.H.U. & Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum
Banaras Hindu University (B.H.U) founded by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya in 1917A.D is the largest residential University in India. At the entrance, there is the grand statue of its founder and the Vishwanath temple in its centre. The huge temple was built in 1966, under patronage of the Birlas. It has a 677 meter high rising white top and its well carved architecture attracts pilgrims. In the cool and calm surroundings of B.H.U is the Bharat Kala Bhavan which has established in 1920A.D and has a vast collection of paintings, Hindu and Buddhist sculptures and other materials of archeological studies. In the main hall of the Bhawan, there is a figure of a man standing on one leg and one hand on his hip and lifting a mass of stone above his head, with one hand. The figure is said to be of Lord Krishna lifting Govardana. In the halls of the Bharat Kala Bhawan, there are many rare images that testify to the existence of Krishna cult in Kashi in 15th and 16th century Gupta period. It has the miniature paintings from the courts of Mughals and the Hindu Princes of Punjab Hills.
It is at Saranath, 10km north of Varanasi. Sarnath, the place where Buddha gave his first sermon is a popular Buddhist pilgrimage centre. The Ashoka pillar stands in front of the main stupa where Ashoka sat and meditated. The Sarnath Archaeological Museum at Ashoka Marg, houses a copy of Ashoka's lion pillar and some sculptures
Vishwanath temple (Golden Temple)
The most sacred temple in Varanasi is the Vishwanath temple, located at Vishvanath Gali dedicated to Lord Shiva. Hindus believe Shiva lives here, so it's far too holy a place for non-Hindus to view, the followers of other religions are permitted a view from the Naubat Khana (seat of temple choir). The shivalinga at the Vishwanath temple is among one of the 12 Jyotrilingas. The current temple was built in 1776 by Ahalya Bai of Indore with about 800 kg of gold plating on the towers, which gives the temple its colloquial name, Golden Temple. The gold plated spire, was the gift of the Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore in 1835, more than 50 years later. The well of wisdom or 'Gyan Vapi' which is nearby is believed to have been built by Lord Shiva himself to cool the 'linga' of Vishwanath with water.
It was built in the 18th century by a Bengali maharani and is stained red with ochre. The Durga Temple is commonly known as the Monkey Temple due to the many frisky monkeys that have made in their home. Non-Hindus can enter the courtyard but not the inner sanctum.
It is the most important Shiva temple of the city. The stone linga here is said to have emerged spontaneously. The myth narrate that a pure hearted devotee of Shiva prayed for a chance to visit the famous Kedareshvara Shiva temple in the Himalayas. Shiva, who is the god of destruction is always kind to his bhaktas (devotees). Shiva was touched by his bhakta's piety and instead of bringing him to the mountain, Shiva brought his image to the bhakta. This image (linga) emerged out of a plate of rice and lentils. It can be still seen by the believers on the rough surface of the natural stone linga.
Sankat Mochan Temple
It is at Durga Kund Road. The word Sankat Mochan means deliverer from troubles. The temple belongs to Hanuman (monkey God), an incarnation of Vishnu. The best time to visit this temple is in the early evening.
This white temple is dedicated to Shitala, the smallpox goddess. It is situated at Shitala Ghat. The Santoshi Mata (Mother of Contentment) shrine is added to this temple.
Chausath Yogini Temple
This temple is situated just above the Chausath Yogini Ghat. It was originally devoted to a tantric cult. Now it is devoted to Kali. The deity here is known as 'Ma' (mother).
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