Heritage Tales of India: Kashi, a Holy-Heritage City, it’s development in different eras.

Varanasi is perceived as site of ‘vigor and rigor’ where religious culture, people and society get interconnected deeply as mosaic called “microcosmic India”, or the ‘Cultural Capital of India’ (see Fig. 1.1). The city’s population (1.45 million in 2011; and estimated over 2.57 million including surrounding peri-urban areas in 2020) consists of Hindus (63%), Muslim (32%) and other religious groups. There are ca. 3000 Hindu temples and shrines, and ca 1400 Muslim shrines, 55 churches, 19 Sikh Gurudvaras, and innumerable shrines. The vividness and multiplicity, and diversity and unity are easily envisioned in its religion, culture, society, economy and landscape – altogether making a mosaic in which festivities play a major role. Existence of seven Universities and similar institutions, one Indian Institute of Technology (in the premises of B.H.U.), 150 Muslim schools, ca 120 Sanskrit schools/colleges, and 55 Inter and Degree colleges make the place as “City of Learning”. The universities or deemed universities include the Banaras Hindu University, Indian Institute of Technology (B.H.U.), the Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth, the Sampurnanand Sanskrit University, the Central University of Higher Tibetan Studies, the Parshvanath Jain Institute, and the Darul Ilam (Arabic) University; additionally, there are two autonomous colleges, viz. the Udai Pratap PG College, and the Agrasen PG College.

Fig. 1.1. Varanasi: Location in India

Fig. 1.2. Varanasi: Geographical Setting

The city is also known as the “City of Good Death” and the place where ancestral souls could gain final release. The fires of cremation remind one of eternity, and Lord Shiva whispers the sacred verse of liberation to the soul of the dead. Along the ghats (stairways) pilgrims perform ancestor-rites to the Ganga and give donations, a rite by which they are said to get ‘reservation’ in Shiva’s heavenly abode — not only for their own soul, but also for the wandering souls of their ancestors. For the living there are many varieties of monasteries where one can satisfy his/her spiritual quest.

Varanasi is located along the left crescent-shaped bank of the Ganga river [Fig. 1.2]. By railway route it is well connected from New Delhi (764km), Calcutta (677km) and Bombay (1476km); also, it is connected by roads and air services from different parts of India. The City is a part of ‘Varanasi Urban Agglomeration’ (VUA; 82º 56’E – 83º 03’E and 25º 14’N – 25º 23.5’N, covering an area of 144.94 sq. km, since 1 July 2018) constituted of 22 urban units of different characteristics and status as defined by the Census of India 2011, which was only seven in 1991. For the 2031 Master Plan the VUA is planned to expand over an area of 165.92 sq. km. The average height of the city from mean sea level is 77m which is around 72m in the south along the Asi stream, and 83m at the high ground near the confluence of the Varana to the Ganga river in the north (known as Rajghat plateau). The nature and the character of the bank of the Ganga has made the position of Banaras so stable and enviable that it is amongst the few cities of the world which shows little shifting in its site. The city proper is built on a high ridge of kankar (lime concretion) that forms the left bank of the Ganga for a distance of 5km, being quite above normal flood level. 

The city enjoys sub-Tropical monsoon climate, recording three distinct seasons: the cold from November to February, the hot from March to mid-June, and the rainy from mid-June to September, while October is regarded as strictly transitional month. The diurnal range of temperature ranges on average between 13ºC and 14.5ºC in the cold and hot months. The highest monthly temperature is recorded in May, varying between 32ºC and 42ºCA Relative humidity is quite high during the main monsoon months (July to September) amounting to between 82% and 85%, while in August it reaches to 88%. During December to January relative humidity ranges between 75% and 80% due to the approach of western disturbances. In the months of late April and May when hot and dry winds (loo) start to blow, these keep the mean relative humidity sufficiently low and it never exceeds over 50%. Severe dust storms, called locally as ‘Andhi’ and the gusty-dusty hot wind (loo) are among the chief weather phenomena in the area during the dry summer months. The velocity of the wind in this season rises up to more than 50km/per hr. The normal annual rainfall in Varanasi city is around 1000mm. The annual number of rainy days is 48 days, of which 42 days occur during the monsoon season (June to September) recording 84 percent of total annual rainfall. The highest rainfall in the recent history recorded was 1845.06mm in 1948 when flood level also reached to 73.2m crossing the danger limit of 71.26m. On average seven days of thunderstorms are usually recorded during July-August.

Considering the weather condition, the winter (November to early March) is recommended for visiting the city of Banaras and the region. During the period between December and January fog is a common phenomenon. The period between January and February records the finest weather when the temperature varies between 13ºC and 17ºC. Sometimes when there is a snowfall in the northwest Himalaya the wind blowing down is particularly cold and this makes the temperature falls to around 5ºCA Relative humidity reaches a maximum of 80% at 0830hrs and minimum to 24% at 1730hrs. Occasionally, the area faces severe hailstorms in the winter, more commonly in February. The weather is generally mild and dry with light and pure air and azure-blue sky. The patches of stratocumulus clouds are driven away from the sky. The serenity of weather is, however, broken by the passage of “western disturbances”, which give some rainfall in the winter.

2. Human Landscape

According to the earlier estimates by CE 1300 the population of Banaras had already crossed 100,000 persons. The first census was made in 1828-29 by James Prinsep recording 181,482 persons. Since 1921 the city has recorded constant growth of population. The heavy influx of migration from rural to urban in search of better livelihood has supported the high growth rate of population, recording around 32.5% in 1991-2001. A little less than one-thirds of the population is Muslim, while their share was only 17 per cent in 1828-29. Muslims are mostly engaged in weaving saris and carpets. The latest census (2011) records 1.45 million inhabitants, which is expected that it would cross 2.8 million by 2031. Varanasi appears to be one of the most densely populated Indian cities with the average density of 400 persons/ha. 

Owing to different immigrants who came to this city for solace, peace and sacred merit, and as a consequence of various invasions, Varanasi developed a diversified community structure while preserving its regional characteristics. In this manner Varanasi has evolved a mosaic of social-cultural space, representing the whole of India. Brahmins from different parts of the country came and settled around the important Hindu temples. 

Muslims settled mostly in the suburban areas in the north, i.e. Alaipur, Jaitpura, Adampura, Kamalpura, Machhodari and Nakhighat. During the Muslim rules the military officers destroyed the notable Hindu temples and converted them into mosques, and the neighbouring areas have been settled by them. The neighbourhoods of Lallapura, Nawabganj, Bhadaini, Daranagar, Alaipura, Aurangabad and Madanpura are the other concentrations of the Muslims.

The opening of missionaries and churches in the early 19th century attracted a Christian population to settle down around those centres. Of course, the earlier churches had been established in Sigra and the Cantonment, but the main concentration of Christians are at Ramkatora near Queen’s College and the other in Sigra on Aurangabad road.

3. Names and Tales

The city of Varanasi has been denoted by different names at different times in different contexts, of course the two names, i.e. Kashi and Varanasi are more common and refer to early antiquity. By the turn of 2nd century CE, the words Kashi and Varanasi became synonymous for the holy city, however for administrative territory only Kashi had been used. To make it clear in the puranic era the word Kashipuri was used to denote the city of Kashi. 

Kashi. The word Kashi means ‘concentration of cosmic light’. Kashi is the oldest symbolic name and first used in the Atharva Veda (5.22.4), a ca.15th century BCE text: “Kashi shines and illumines the universe. Kashi makes moksha (liberation) dawn on everybody by giving wisdom”. Kashi refers to the sacred city and its territory, which is comparable to the present area of ‘Kashi Kshetra’ delineated by the Panchakroshi Yatra circuit. Kashi is also interpreted as derivation of ‘Kasha’, who was the 7th king of the earliest known dynasty ruling over Kashi and supposed to have given Kashi its name. 

Varanasi. The capital city lying between the Varana river in north and the Asi stream in south is known as Varanasi (Varana + Asi). A myth refers that the two rivers Varana and Asi are respectively originated from the right and left legs of Vishnu lying at Prayaga (Allahabad). The northern one was named “The Acceptor” (Varana) and the southern river was named “The Sword” (Asi). In the early Puranas Varana river is called Varanavati or Varanasi, and the old city got its name as it was settled along the river. 

Banaras. The Buddhist literature like the Jatakas frequently referred Varanasi as Banarasi or Banaras. Britishers misperceived the name and spell it as Benares, Bunarus etc. In both Muslim and British India, the city was called as ‘Banaras’. One of the etymologies refers the word Banaras as: ‘Bana’, “readymade”, and ‘ras’, “the juice of life”; thus, Banaras means ‘the place where juice of life is always readymade’ – high and low, both. 

Avimukta. Said Lord Shiva “Because I never forsake it, nor let it go, this great place is therefore known as Avimukta (‘never forsaken’)”. Refers the myth that the city was never abandoned, even in the cosmic dissolution and additionally the spirit of city itself is bestower of liberation to everybody. 

Anandavana. The Kashi Rahasya (14.39) mentions that Shiva himself explains: “My lingas are everywhere there, like little sprouts arisen out of sheer bliss” (Skanda Purana, VI.26.35). Thus, it is called the Forest of Bliss (Anandavana, or Anandakanana). The remnants of the five old forests are now preserved as the names of the neighbourhoods. 

Mahashmashana, The Great Cremation Ground. The whole of Kashi is a cremation ground. Shiva is the controller and divinity of the cremation place. The Skanda Purana (4.30.103-104) explains the word: “Maha’, the great, ‘shma’ means a corpse, and ‘shana’ means final rest; when the dissolution of the universe comes, even the great beings lie here as corpses and therefore this place is called Mahasmashana”. 

During the colonial British rule, the popular name Banaras was distorted as ‘Benares’, or ‘Benaras’, and to a great surprise and shame that still people in the West prefer to spell in its distorted form. On 24th May 1956 the Govt. of India has officially restored and declared the name of the city as Varanasi. Nevertheless, millions of pilgrims and devout Hindus in all parts of the country continue to name the holy city as Kashi.

4. Historical Background

Ancient Period 

Reading the pages of the historical growth of this city gives an understanding of the growth of Indian civilisation. Archaeologically it has been proved that since ca. 1500 BCE the city has continuously recorded the human habitation; that is how the city is known as one of the “oldest living cities in the world”. While a number of cultures have risen high and fallen down, a number of cities disappeared in the abyss of time, Banaras continued to grow and to follow its ageless traditions of religious discourses, learning, arts and crafts. According to mythological sources Kashi has been an Aryan settlement at least since the post-Vedic period (about 1500 BCE); this is further approved by scientific study of phosphate changes in Rajghat area (Fig. 1.3).

Fig. 1.3. Varanasi: Ancient site and archaeological structure (after and @ the authors).

Walking near the confluence of the Varana and the Ganga, the area known as Rajghat plateau (Fig. 1.3), one can have a glimpse of the ancient site. Presently the area is occupied by grounds of the Annie Besant College, the Krishnamurti Foundation, and the Gandhian Institute. The older city was spread between the Varana and the Gomati, the latter meets the Ganga ca 20km north. 

The archaeological findings and the C14  dating of some of the wares excavated from the earliest level (upper part of IA layer, sample No. TF-293) confirm the existence of urban settlements in the period during 800-500 BCE. Because of frequent use of clay and mud for building, human habitations were least resistant to the flooding of the river and as such physical and material evidence of earlier occupation appears to have vanished. Such evidence was unearthed at Kamauli village, lying 4km northeast from Rajghat across the Varana river. Here microlithic tools associated with a kind of Red Ware, datable to the 4th and 3rd millennium BCE were obtained underneath the sterile deposits of about 4m, just below the Sunga levels (200 BCE to the beginning of Christian era; Fig. 1.3). 

The epic Mahabharata has a passing on reference to the city, but on the other hand the follow up Jataka tales, written after the Mahabharata, record vivid descriptions of the city. This is further supported by the literary description given in the Shatapatha Brahamana, dated ca 8th century BCE, which mentions the rich pastoral life and habitation in the Rajghat area. It was at this stage that Jainism was introduced as a reformation movement. In 8th century BCE Parshvanatha, the leading prophet of Jainism was already born in Varanasi and influence of Jainism was recorded. Later on, Mahavira (599-527 BCE), the last Thirthankara had also made his imprint on the cultural arena of the city. The Jataka tales, 6th to 5th century BCE, refer Banaras as the site of manifestation of previous Buddhas, the last one was the Gautama Buddha. The older city was spread between the Varana and the Gomati, the latter meets the Ganga about 20km north.  

By the end of 5th century BCE for shorter period Shishunaga and Nandas also ruled over the kingdom of Kashi. However, by 4th century BCE the Mauryan dynasty took the rule. Ashoka (272-242 BCE), the great Mauryan king, had declared Buddhism a state religion and paid visit to Sarnath. Under his patronage developed a Buddhist township having many monasteries, stupas and shrines. After the downfall of Mauryas, the prosperity of the city has gone into darkness till the rule of Kushanas in the 1st century CE. The inscriptions of Kushana king Kanishka, dated 3rd century CE, refer the persistence of Buddhism together with animistic religion of Yaksha. During the Mauryan period this was the famous route and continued its importance; later in the Muslim rule this road was renovated and revived, and presently known as Grand Trunk Road, National Highway No. 2. The Buddha also walked on this great path. The city was a known centre of trade and commerce. The archaeological layout of the houses, lanes and drainage channels shows a developed pattern of planning, as it is visible even today in the old parts. The city of Banaras from the Kushana to the beginning of Gupta period was rich in artistic finds, as exemplified by the images of Bodhisattvas, Yakshas and Nagas.

The Gupta period (ca. 320-550 CE), marks the period of great religious vitality and transformations – known as India’s Golden Age. The Vaishnava tradition of Hindu religion was introduced, and cults like Skanda, Surya and folk and village guardians also revived and had given recognition. Architectural fragments of this period are scattered in and around the city, especially on the Panchakroshi road. The clay seals from this period show signs of business, educational institutions and importance of forests. Varanasi finally had been established and recognised as a great sacred place (tirtha). The association among the Shiva lingas, the Ganga river, and a few of the ghats has been given religious meaning. During the first half of the 7th century the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang, ca. 635 CE) arrived in the city and described it as thickly populated, prospering and important seat of learning and trade. The arrival and preaching of Adya Sankaracharya in the 8th century mark the revival of the Brahmanical thought, which finally uprooted Buddhism from this soil.

Medieval Period 

In the early medieval period, Banaras had passed from one ruler to another, from Maukharis of Kannauj to Gurjara Pratiharas (9th century). Finally, in the early 11th century it went under Gangeyadeva, king of Kannauj. The greatest of the Gahadavalas, Govindachandra (1114-1154) is described by historians of the period as the greatest king and praised as an incarnation of Vishnu, who was commissioned to protect his favourite city of Varanasi. He had defeated the Muslim invaders two times during 1114-1118, and patronised the Hindu religion. Queen Kumaradevi, wife of Govindachandra, came of a Vajrayani (Tantric) Buddhist family. She restored several buildings at Sarnath and built a new vihara (hostel for the monks) there. His chief minister, Lakshmidhara is remembered as a great compiler of the most reputable and the most extensive digest (nibandha) of literature on dharma, composed in 14 volumes, known as Krityakalpataru.

Following the sack of the city by the forces of Muhammad Ghori, temples were destroyed again in 1300s under Firoz Shah Tughlaq (1351-1388). In the 1400s, the city came under the rule of Sharqi kings of Jaunpur, and temples were again destroyed, their blocks hauled away for the construction of a mosque in Jaunpur. During the moments of calm, the Hindus rebuilt temples and lingas but they were again destroyed by the next wave of invaders. After passage of time, city came under the rule of Lodis (1451-1526), who seized power from the Sharqis, and again Sikander Lodi destroyed a major part of the city. A great sigh of relief was surely heaved in the 1500s when Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) granted more religious freedom. The Rajputs Man Singh and Todarmal, the two senior ministers in the court of Akbar, participated actively in repairing, rebuilding and new construction of temples and Banaras ghats during this part of the Mughal period. 

During the reign of Akbar’s grandson Shah Jahan (1628-1657), the imperial policy changed again. By his order, about seventy-six temples under construction were destroyed. His successor, Aurangzeb (1658-1707), was even more zealous and fundamentalist in his disdain for the temples and shrines of the Hindus. By his order in 1669-1673, once again around thousand temples, including city’s grand temples like Vishveshvara, Krittivasa, and Vindu Madhava, were razed and their sites were forever sealed from Hindu access by the construction of mosques. There is no major religious sanctuary in the city of Banaras that pre-dates the time of Aurangzeb in the 17th century. The only temple complex got saved by the destruction is at Kandwa (i.e. Kardameshvara) because of its location in the countryside and inaccessible during that period. 

The city of Puranic glory and beauty as was known in 12th century had disappeared by the end of 17th century.  The late medieval period in the history of Banaras saw the rise and spread of a new wave of popular bhakti devotionalism in North India. By this movement the classical Sanskrit literature yielded to a vibrant new poetic literature composed in the languages of the common masses. Despite its reputation as stronghold of Hindu orthodoxy and conservatism, Banaras participated in the vibrant devotional resurgence during 14th to early 17th centuries. Among such poets and reformers, the notables were Ramananda, Kabir, Raidas, Tulasi, Chaitanya and Guru Nanak. 

The Modern and British Period 

In the early 18th century with the decline of the government in Delhi, Banaras first came under the rule of the Nawabs of Oudh in 1722, and later became the seat of Mansaram (1730-1738), the initiator of the present state of Kashi. His successor Balwant Singh (1738-1770) gained cleverly from the Nawab in 1725 and established an independent state, which for about forty years remained the centre of attention and source of trouble for the rising East India Company. In 1763 he built a fort other side of the river Ganga at Ramanagar. The tension between the two powers reached its acme in 1781, when Chet Singh (1770-1781), son of Balwant Singh, had usurped the throne and put Lord Warren Hastings in serious trouble. However, in 1775 Banaras was ceded to the East India Company by the Nawabs of Oudh, and finally in 1794 Banaras came under British administration. 

A fresh wave of cultural renaissance overtook Banaras during the 18th century under the influence of the Marathas (1734-1785) who substantially rebuilt the city. The city, which had sheltered the rebel Maratha hero, Shivaji, in his challenge to Mughal power, now became the recipient of the gratitude, the wealth, the skill and energy of the Marathas. Says a noted historian Altekar (1947, p. 24) that “Modern Banaras is largely a creation of the Marathas”. Bajirao Peshva I (1720-40) have patronised construction of Manikarnika and Dashashvamedha Ghats and nearby residential quarters. A number of ghats, water pools and noted temples of Vishvanatha, Trilochana, Annapurna, Sakshi Vinayaka and Kala Bhairava were rebuilt under Maratha patronage. Queen Ahilyabai of Indore built the present Vishvanatha temple in 1777-79. As one after the other the ghats were added, the temples rose, the city regained its gaiety, and its educational system was revitalised. 

By the approval of the British Governor-General Warren Hastings in 1791, Jonathan Duncan, a British resident in Banaras, started a Sanskrit College, and in 1853 the present buildings of the college were built in Gothic style. The oldest local educational initiative goes back to Jay Narayan Ghosal, a rich landlord from Bengal, who with the British support founded a school in 1814. In 1904, the great pandit and reformer Madan Mohan Malaviya, began campaigning for a modern Hindu university which would provide a platform of good interaction between classical cultural traditions and the modern sciences. In 1916, the Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge, laid the foundation stone of what would become one of the largest and most beautiful universities in Asia. In the passage of time, during late 19th and early 20th centuries many educational institutions had been established. Founded by Pt Madan Mohan Malaviya on 14th February 1916, the Banaras Hindu University is spread over an area of 1370 acres (554.5 ha) and is planned in a semi-circular and radial pattern, thus symbolising the ‘half-moon on the forehead of Shiva’. New Vishvanatha Temple in the campus, in a sense it replicates the old temple of Vishvanatha in the city. Built in 1962, this temple is made of marble mosaic and its tower has a height of 76.5m (252 ft). This tower is one among the tallest monuments in India. 

Post-Independence Period 

India received independence from the British rule on 15th August 1947, and declared a democratic republic state on 26th January 1950. Since 1947 no substantive change in the urban fabric and city morphology is recorded. In 1990s many star hotels, mostly in the Mall area, have been constructed to fulfil the need of increasing flux of foreign tourists. Diesel Locomotive Works (DLW) was set up in 1961 with technical collaboration from USA; this is the only biggest heavy industry unit in the district. 

In 1975 the Banaras Hindu University acquired the lease for an agricultural farm of 2760 acres (1113 ha) from the Bharat Maha Mandal Trust at Barkachha in Sonbhadra District, about 83 km southwest, with an aim of promoting agricultural innovations and indigenous techniques; this is known as Rajiv Gandhi Campus, where are running several vocational and applied courses. 

In 1948 The Banaras Improvement Trust was constituted for making ‘Master Plan of Banaras’, and in 1951 the first such plan was prepared. In continuation again in 1973 and 1982 the revised plans were prepared. The latest plan has been approved on 10 July 2001, when for the first time the concept of heritage planning and preservation of heritage zones has been proposed. For this purpose, five cultural zones are identified. In lack of public awareness and active participation, the complex web of bureaucracy and increasing pace of individualism and consumerism there is little hope for the proper implementation of these plans. This has been further incorporated in the latest Master Plan of Varanasi 2011-2031. Currently the ongoing programmes are in process to get the city included under ‘Smart City Development Plan’, on the line of Kashi-Kyoto development initiative that was formalised and declared by the Hon’ble PM Narendra Modi on 30 August 2014. Additionally, these development plans are in process under GOI missions of HRIDAY (Heritage city Development and Augmentation Yojana) and PRASAD (Pilgrimage Rejuvenation And Spiritual Augmentation Drive).

5. Archetype of an All-India Holy Place

The process of spatial transposition of holy centres of India has started in the 6th century and reached its climax by the 13th century, the Gahadavala period. All the pan-India and regionally prominent sacred sites have been replicated in Varanasi. Mythological literature has been created to manifest the power of holy to those sites, which finally resulted in making this city the “holiest” for Hindus that preserved the “wholeness”. This together with the mosaic of ethnic and social structure further helped in the formation of Varanasi as the “cultural capital of India”. The sites of the four dhams (abode of gods), the holy centres in the four cardinal directions of the country, i.e. Badrinath in the north, Jagannath Puri in the east, Dvaraka in the west and Rameshvaram in the south, are re-established in Varanasi in archetypal form as their representative around the nuclei of the presiding deities at Matha Ghat (Badrinath), Rama Ghat (Puri), Shankudhara (Dvaraka) and Mir Ghat (Rameshvaram) [Fig. 1.4]

Fig. 1.4. Varanasi: An Archetype of All-India (after and @ the authors).

Other religio-cultural places of India have also been conceived in the different localities of Varanasi – Kedaranath at Kedar Ghat, Mathura at Bakaria Kund or Nakkhi Ghat, Prayag (Allahabad) at Dashashvamedha Ghat, Kamaksha (Assam) at Kamachha, Kurukshetra at Kurukshetra Kund near Asi, Manasarovar Lake at Manasarovar near Shyameshvara, etc. The process of spatial transposition has promoted a sense of awakening and a notion of ‘national consciousness’ among the dwellers of Varanasi to perceive this city as ‘mini-India’ or cultural capital of India [Fig. 1.2]. 

The natural setting, the spirit of place, and the continuity of cultural traditions have all blended together to create and preserve a unique lifestyle known as Banarasi. This lifestyle has manifested itself in a musical tradition known as the Banaras Gharana (style). Many great musicians and performing artists have been born here and still regularly return to visit and to perform their art for the public as tribute to the spirit of the soil. Layers of time and traditions are superimposed one upon the other but the essence of the life has maintained its continuity. Recently some of the old festivals have been revived in the original style, despite some modern touches.

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