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Saturday, April 30, 2011

The world's oldest city : Banaras/ Varanasi


The world's oldest city : Banaras/ Varanasi

Varanasi - also known as Benares or Banaras and Kashi - is an important holy city for both Hindus and Buddhists, also a pilgrimage place for Janis. Situated on the west bank of the Ganges, plays an important role in day-to-day lives of the people of Varanasi. According to legend it was founded by the Hindu deity Lord Shiva 5,000 years ago, though modern scholars believe it to be around 3,000 years old. Being the oldest living city, Varanasi has been a mute witness to many great historic upheavals and events. 

The land of Varanasi (Kashi) has been the ultimate pilgrimage spot for Hindus for ages. Hindus believe that one who is graced to die on the land of Varanasi would attain salvation and freedom from the cycle of birth and re-birth. Abode of Lord Shiva and Parvati, the origins of Varanasi are yet unknown. Ganges in Varanasi is believed to have the power to wash away the sins of mortals. 

Banaras is known as the cultural capital of India, One of the seven holiest cities, famous for its religious and spiritual lifestyle. 

The city is a centre 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 has all flourished here for centuries. 

Mythology reins the city and there are many religious places and institutions and places of worship throughout the city where people visit every day, especially in the mornings and the evenings. On closer look, one can still find the primitive worship cults that are still in practice in the city. The religiosity of the region is evident from the fact that Buddha, Jain Tirthankars, several Shaiva and Vaishnava saints, Kabir and Tulsi were either born here or were associated with the place in a significant way and have spent a long time here. Varanasi is believed to be the birthplace of Parsvanath, the twenty-third Tirthankar.

Vaishnavism and Shaivism have co-existed in Varanasi harmoniously. With a number of temples, Mrs. Annie Besant chose Varanasi as the home for her 'Theosophical Society' and Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, to institute 'Benares Hindu University, the biggest University in Asia. Indian medical science of Ayurveda is said to be originated at Varanasi and is believed to be the basis of modern medical sciences such as Plastic surgery, Cataract and Calculus operations. Maharshi Patanjali, the preceptor of Ayurveda and Yoga, was also affiliated with Varanasi, the holy city. Varanasi is also famous for its trade and commerce, especially for the finest silks and gold and silver brocades, since the early days. 

Varanasi has also been a great center of learning for ages, is associated with promotion of spiritualism, mysticism, Sanskrit, yoga and Hindi language and honoured authors such as the ever-famous novelist Prem Chand and Tulsi Das, the famous saint-poet who wrote Ram Charit Manas. Varanasi has provided the right platform for all cultural activities to flourish. 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 .

People of Banaras are known for being the exponents of literature, music, Vedic philosophy, arts, crafts and architecture. Socio-economic aspects of the city are highly influenced by the Ganges and on most of the Hindu festivals people can be seen using the bathing Ghats (river fronts) even before daybreak as an important part of their rituals. In Varanasi, the atmosphere is relaxed in general and we can see people chewing the famous 'paan' and chatting in a laid-back manner. That does not keep Varanasi behind, as is evident from the growing modern industries in the city. Varanasi is also the most ancient seat of education in India (Sarva Vidya ki Rajdhani) and Banaras Hindu University is still famous throughout the world for its scholars. The city is also a seat for Sanskrit and one can still see the Guru-Shishya tradition being followed here at certain places.

Several social and religious customs co-exist in the city and the caste system is still prevalent here. People wear 'Gamchha' (a cotton towel), as they go bathing in Ganga and drink Thandai (a coolant with milk as its base), which have become a part of the cultural identity of traditional ways of Varanasi. Music, drama and entertainment have found a place in the lives of the people. Its dance traditions and vocal and instrumental music is highly developed and one can catch the glimpses of folk drama in the 'Ramlila' organized before Dussehra. Traditional games and sports include 'Akharas', where wrestling or 'kushti' competitions are organized. Foreign tourists love to ride horse-driven 'Ekkas' and cycle rickshaws that are still in use here. 

I visited this holy city many times before and still have the charm than ever before. This time I got the chance to visit here in hot summer month of April-May. During extreme summer, level of river Ganga is low. 
I am spending almost my every morning and evening on the bank of river Ganges in Varanasi. After spending a month here I feel it is not enough to capture the sight and sounds of Varanasi. One need ample of time to truly explore this magical city. 
Varanasi is definitely on top of my list for places I want to visit :) 
Lines by Mark Twain say it all: "Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together".

Sonia Singh
30th April 2011 
Varanasi

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