Varanasi is perhaps the oldest living city of the world. While some other old cities of the world like Baghdad, are seeing their reconstruction for the 13th time, it is important to remember that Varanasi has been inhabited continuously and perhaps in the same shape for the last 4000 years. The holiest of the holy cities on the Ganga, its fame is built on two foundations. The first is the large number of old and mortally sick who come here to die, in the hope to see their ashes dispersed in the Ganga in order to escape the perennial cycle of life and death and to reach the Paradise directly. The other speciality of Varanasi is its silk. An art that has developed since the era of the Mughals in the 15th century and the business is still controlled by the ancient families of merchants and artisans who follow the age-old model where the merchant supplies the primary material and who pick up the finished goods for selling all over the world.
The Eternal Fires of Mannikarna Ghat
From afar in the inextricable streets of Varanasi, a strong smell of something burnt advances and becomes more powerful as you move. At the beginning of the street leading to the Ganga, down the stairs, smoke rises in unequal spirals on blackened facades. The odour attacks my nose and the suspended dust hits me in the eyes. The activity is indeed hectic on this bank of the Ganga. On the steps move untouchables whose sole purpose is to keep the sacred fires alive, allowing others to climb higher, faster towards a paradise that is far removed from all the cycles of reincarnations. People here are hurried, pushing each other, screaming, spitting and the dead remain quiet, without a murmur. They wisely await their turn, in their queues, on their bamboo stretchers. There are several dogs as well at the Ghats, trying to steal a bite from the bodies, but risking the batons of the ever watchful guards. The entire Ghat is enveloped in a suffocating heat, smoke, dust, actions and voices. It is like an intense sensation of having been projected ahead of oneself.
The land of Varanasi (Kashi) is the famous pilgrimage spot for Hindus for ages. The holy city is situated on the banks of the river Ganges in Uttar Pradesh. Ganges in Varanasi is believed to have the power to wash away the sins of mortals. Often referred to as Banaras, Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world. It is said to be the abode of Lord Shiva and Parvati.
The name Kasi (another name for Varanasi) is mentioned in the Rig-Veda. It is often also referred to as “city of temples and learning”. Buddha preached his first sermon after enlightenment at Sarnath, just 10 km away from Varanasi. Knowledge, philosophy, culture, devotion to Gods, Indian arts and crafts has all flourished here for centuries.
Vaishnavism and Shaivism have co-existed in Varanasi harmoniously. Jainism is also a part of the different religions followed here. Varanasi is believed to be the birthplace of Parsvanath, the twenty-third Tirthankar therefore it is a famous pilgrimage centre for the Jains. With a number of temples, Mrs. Annie Besant chose Varanasi as the home for her ‘Theosophical Society’. Being a prosperous city, the place was invaded by many Muslim rulers therefore, the muslim influence is also present here.
The Benares Hindu University, the biggest University in Asia built by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya is also situated in Varanasi. Ayurveda is said to be originated at Varanasi and is believed to be the basis of modern medical sciences. 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. Varanasi is associated with promotion of spiritualism, mysticism, Sanskrit, yoga and Hindi language. Aptly called as the cultural capital of India, Varanasi has provided the right platform for all cultural activities to flourish. Varanasi has its own style of classical Hindustani music, and has produced prominent musicians, philosophers, poets, and writers in Indian history, including Kabir, Prem Chand, Tulsi Das, the famous saint-poet who wrote Ram Charit Manas, Jaishankar Prasad, Pandit Ravi Shankar, and Ustad Bismillah Khan. The language spoken in the city is Bhojpuri, a dialect of Hindi.
The history of Varanasi is very old but it however lives in the form of old manuscripts and the folk traditions but most importantly through its people.