Tuesday, 24 April 2018
V for Varanasi
Mark Twain, being enthralled by the legend and sanctity about Benaras once said: “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Thus to gauge and fathom the legend of Benaras in itself is an awe-inspiring and mammoth task. There are innumerable legends, myths and tales surrounding Benaras, spread across many ancient texts, mythology and historical accounts, in both Hinduism and Buddhism as it is across different eras of Indian history.
The Legend of Varanasi’s origin and its etymology
Varanasi or Benaras was known as Kashi in the ancient texts and mythological tales. In Sanskrit, Kashi means ‘the city of Shining Light’, an epithet that the city has truly lived up to, being a luminous centre of religion and learning from time immemorial. The name Varanasi comes from the city’s location, being based at the confluence of two of Ganga’s tributary rivers, Varuna and Assi. The name is therefore attributed to these rivers: the Varuna still flows as a channel in the northern part of Varanasi, while the extinct Assi River is remembered by the famous Assi ghat in Varanasi on the Ganges.
Varanasi or Kashi is believed to be the ‘city of Lord Shiva’. The ascetic that he was, Shiva decided to settle down in the plains (leaving his Himalayan abode) after his marriage to Parvati, and chose Kashi as his new home. Shiva therefore is known and worshiped as ‘Kashi Vishwanath’ (the Lord of the world in Kashi) in Varanasi.
The legend of King Divodasa who with the boon of Brahma established the utopian rule of the ‘Dharma’ in Varanasi and consequently banished Lord Shiva and all other Gods from the city, is very popular in mythology. Lord Vishnu finally managed to skilfully depose the righteous king Divodasa and return the city of Varanasi to Lord Shiva.
The oldest archaeological evidences found from the region of Varanasi dates back to about 1000 BC, but mythological references to Kashi take us back much earlier. In the Mahabharata, Bheeshma abducts the princesses of Kashi, Amba, Ambika and Ambalika to be the brides for his brother Vichitra Virya, who was the reigning king of Hastinapur at the time. The Mahabharata also mentions that the Pandavas came to Kashi in search of Lord Shiva to atone for their sins of fratricide and Brahmanhatya (killing of Brahmins) which they had committed during the Kurukshetra war. Kashi is considered as one of the seven holy cities as per Hindu beliefs, along with Ayodhya, Avanti, Mathura, Hardwar, Kanchi and Dwarka.
Varanasi as a centre of religion and learning
The city over the eras has emerged as a prominent centre of religious exuberance and entrenched learning. Lord Buddha is said to have founded Buddhism in Varanasi in 528 BC when he delivered his first sermon “The Setting in motion of the Wheel of Dharma” at the nearby location of Sarnath. The Chinese monk and pilgrim Hieuen Tsang wrote about Varanasi when he visited the city in 635 BC, “a centre of religious and artistic activities...” He referred to Varanasi as ‘Polonisse’ in his accounts.
In the 8th century Adi Shankaracharya established Shaivisim, the cult of Shiva, as the official sect for Varanasi, adding to the religious prominence of the city. Varanasi’s religious importance and celebration of Hindu culture continued even through the medieval period when India came under the dominance of Muslim rule. Tulsidas composed the Ram Charita Manas in Varanasi, and several luminaries of the Bhakti movement, viz., Kabir and Ravidas, were born here. An important Maha-Shivratri festival was hosted in Varanasi in 1507 which is said to have been attended by Guru Nanak, which gave an impetus to the founding of Sikhism as a new religion.
At the same time, Varanasi also suffered heavily during the invasions by Muslim armies, viz., Mahmud of Ghazni and Muhammad Ghori who destroyed and looted many temples in the city and killed and enslaved many of its people. Also during the reign of different Muslim dynasties of the Delhi Sultanate, Varanasi was often attacked and ransacked by the invading armies. Such frequent attacks and plundering gave temporary setbacks to the city and its spirit of culture and learning.
Later history of Varanasi
During the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar, Varanasi experienced a revival of Hindu culture and religion. Akbar invested in the city and built two large temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu, while other kings also contributed to building and restoring temples and promoting classical Hindu learning in Varanasi. The city saw another setback and lull during the reign of Aurangzeb who ordered the destruction of many temples and imposed restrictions on religious practices of the non-Muslims.
However, by 1737 the Mughals accorded official status to the Kingdom of Benaras under the ruling of the ‘Kashi Naresh’ (king of Kashi). Much of the modern Varanasi was built and developed by the Maratha and Brahmin rulers in the 18th century. Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore and of the Sikh confederacy fame got the tower of the Kashi Vishwanath temple gilded in gold leaves. The sanctity of Varanasi continued during the British Raj with the British establishing colleges and modern institutions of education and learning. The Sanskrit College of Benaras, founded in 1791 by Jonathan Duncan was foremost among such institutions. The Central Hindu College founded by Dr Annie Besant later became the foundation of the creation of the Benaras Hindu University.
While the British technically ruled over the region and also transferred the capital of the Kingdom of Benaras to Ramnagar, across the Ganges, the ‘Kashi Naresh’ continued to remain the religious head of Varanasi and was much revered by its people.
The epitome of Varanasi
While Varanasi continues to be the cultural capital of North India since a long time, the epitome of its fame lies in its close association with the Ganga River on the banks of which the city is situated. The ‘ghats’ (embankment of stone steps going down to the river) of Varanasi are world famous, with the ‘Dashashwamedh Ghat’ being the most popular of them all. Other important ‘ghats’ are Panchganga ghat, Assi ghat, Manikarnika ghat and Harishchandra ghat; the latter two being where Hindus cremate their dead. It is a popular belief amongst Hindus that death in the city will wash away all earthly sins and bring salvation (moksha).
Varanasi also remains as an important centre for culture and music and is the place where the ‘Benaras gharana’ form of Hindustani Classical Music was developed.
Photo: The ghats of Varanasi on the Ganges.
Photo credit and source: Wikimedia Commons
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