INDIAN CITIES: VARANASI
Traditionally known as Benares (Banaras) -Varanasi is the epicenter of Hinduism. This holy city sits in the central region of the Ganges Valley in North India. It is the oldest colonized city in the world. As author Mark Twain rightly wrote of Varanasi, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
The culture of Varanasi is deeply related to the river Ganga and the river’s religious importance. It is said that people come here to die, to break the cycle of life and death to achieve nirvana. This single belief that there is some sort of cosmic loop in the ghats of Ganga has resulted in the entire fabrication of the city. Manifested in its rich Cultural Landscape, Varanasi is an eclectic mix of the Tangible and Intangible heritages. There are more than 300 important monuments scattered in the city. The tangible heritage of Varanasi includes temples, mosques, museums, and ghats. Whereas, intangible heritages have natural landscapes, cultural heritage in the form of music, art, craft, dance, and literature.
Ghats of Ganga:
Ghats are the main attraction of the city. They are basically riverfront steps that lead to the river. There are 88 ghats in Varanasi. They are used for holy bathing and religious ceremonies. Some ghats are turned into public places, used for tourist activities like boating. There are two important landmarks called Manikarnika ghat and Harishchandra ghat which are used to cremate dead bodies. On average 80 bodies are burned per day and fire goes on and on. The ashes and remains are collected and dispersed into the Ganga. Therefore, for obvious reasons, air and water pollution in Varanasi has become an urgent environmental issue.
The map of the riverfront shows the setup of the city along with its ghats
The most important attraction of Varanasi – Ganga aarti can be witnessed on the Dashashwamedh Ghat daily at dusk. It is considered as the most spectacular ghat filled with tourists, monks, Men, Women, and children celebrating the water. It symbolizes that Varanasi is not only about cremation and death, it is also about celebrating the colorful journey of life.
The Tilted Temple:
Manikarnika Ghat is known not only for 24×7 burning fire but also for its tilted temple. Known as Ratneshwar Mahadev Mandir it is one of the most photographed temples of Varanasi. It is built in the classical style of temple architecture with nagara shikhara. It leans at least 9 degrees towards the north-west side. The garbhagriha (sanctum) of the temple is submerged below the water much of the year, except for a few months during the summer.
Kashi Vishwanath Temple:
Among the estimated 23,000 temples in Varanasi, it is most famous for the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. It is one of the twelve Jyotirlingas, the holiest of Shiva Temples that holds a unique significance in the spiritual history of India. Hindus from all over the world try to visit the place at least once in their lifetime. It has been destroyed and reconstructed several times in history. The recent one was built in the 18th century. The temple complex consists of a series of smaller shrines and the main temple sits in the center which is quadrangle in the plan.
The Ramnagar fort is located on the eastern bank, opposite tulsi ghat in Varanasi. Built-in the 18th century, this cream-colored chunar sandstone fort was commissioned by Raja Balwant Singh. The fort is a typical example of Mughal architecture with carved balconies, open courtyards, and scenic pavilions. Today, the fort is cited as an eccentric museum.
Maharajah Sawaii Jai Singh II of Jaipur constructed five astronomical observatories in northern India between 1724 and 1730. One of these observatories is located in Varanasi on the rooftop level of the Mana Mahala (palace). It has a unique equatorial sundial that is functional to date. It was constructed with an aim of measuring local time, altitude (of the place), declination of Sun, stars, and planets and to determine eclipses.
Though Muslims are a minority, there are 15 mosques of significant historical value in Varanasi. Each mosque has a history related to its creation. Two of them stand out for their controversial existence. Gyanvapi mosque is standing on the original site of the destroyed Kashi Vishwanath temple. Another is the Alamgiri Mosque that was built in the 17th century by Aurangzeb over the ruins of another Hindu temple. Both the mosque is architecturally a blend of Islamic and Hindu architecture, particularly because of the lower part of the walls of the mosque having been built fully with the remains of the temple. They are a living example of India’s historic timeline.
Varanasi grew as an important industrial center, famous for its perfumes, carpets, brass and copper wear, glass bangles, ivory works, and a variety of handicrafts. The city is the best producer of silk drapes brocaded with gold and silver thread called ‘Banarsi saree’. Varanasi has its own style of classical Indian music and has produced prominent philosophers, poets, writers, and musicians in Indian history
Varanasi runs purely on tourism, therefore Festivals is another important attraction of the city. In November–December a five-day music festival is organized by the Uttar Pradesh Tourism Department known as Ganga Mahotsav. On this occasion, the celebration of Ganga is attended by thousands of pilgrims who release lighted lamps to float in the river from the ghats.
This heritage city is an outstanding example of an eternal human settlement, that represents a culture and human interaction with nature. The pressures of tourism growth and city expansion have had a definite toll on the rich heritage of the city. Both tangible and intangible heritage are degrading and failing to stand the vagaries of time. There is an immense need to control pollution and develop strategic and sustainable means of preserving the city with one eye on the past and another in the future.