THE ABODE OF LORD SHIVA AND PARVATI
The land of Varanasi (Kashi) has been the famous pilgrimage spot for Hindus for ages. The holy city is situated on the banks of the river Ganges in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Ganges in Varanasi is believed to have the power to wash away the sins of mortals. Often referred to as Benares, 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.
The city’s life revolves around its seven km long sweep of about 100 bathing ghats that skirt the west bank of the Ganges. Most of them are used for bathing. Some are used for cremating bodies. The most sacred ghats are the Asi, Dasashwamedh Ghat, Manikarnika and Panchganga. Pilgrims who bathe in each one consecutively believe their prayers will be fulfilled. A short boat trip from Manikarnika Ghat can be an interesting introduction to the river.
It is believed that cremation at Manikarnika ghat ensures a safe place in Heaven, as the cremators of this ghat are believed to have the patronage of Shiva. The furthermost upstream ghat is Assi Ghat, which marks the confluence of the Ganges and the Assi rivers. It is said that after striking down demon Shumbha and nishumbha, Durga’s sword fell and created a curved ditch, which later became the Assi Channel. This Ghat is one of the five special ghats which pilgrims are supposed to bathe at in sequence during the ritual route called ‘ Panchatirthi Yatra’ ending in the Adikeshva ghat in the north. Nearby is the Tulsi Ghat, where Goswami Tulsidas lived till his death in 1623A.D.
The Bachra Ghat is used by Jains and there are three riverbank Jain Temples. The Dandi Ghat is used by fakirs , yogis and ascetics and nearby is the very popular Hanuman Ghat. Dashashvamedh Ghat, Varanasi’s liveliest bathing place was constructed by Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao. It’s name indicates that Brahma sacrificed (medh) 10 (das) horses (aswa) here. It’s one of the most important ghats and is conveniently central. Nearby is the grand Man Mandir Ghat (1637) and an observatory both built by Sawai Raja Jai Singh of Jaipur in 1710. Mir Ghat leads to a Nepalese temple, which has erotic sculptures.
Dattatreya Ghat bears the footprint of the Brahmin saint of that name in a small temple nearby. The Ram Ghat was built by the Raja of Jaipur. Panchaganga Ghat, where India’s five holy rivers are said to merge. The Trilochan Ghat has two turrets emerging from the river, and the water between them is especially holy. Another important cremation ghat is the Hirishchandra ghat, named after the king Harishchandra who worked as a cremator at the cremation grounds. The best time to visit the ghats is at dawn when the river is bathed in a magical light and pilgrims come to perform puja to the rising sun.
The best view of the Ghats can be had from a boat midstream or from the Malviya bridge. Burning pyres, people getting their hair shaved off, the chanting of sacred slokas, giving of alms to Brahmins, Pandas (Brahmin Priests) sitting under huge umbrellas offering prayers for their clients, devotees praying and drinking water from the holy river are the common sight at these ghats.
Vishwanath temple (Golden Temple)
The most sacred temple in Varanasi is the Vishwanath temple, located at Vishvanath Gali dedicated to Lord Shiva. Hindus believe Shiva lives here, so it’s far too holy a place for non-Hindus to view, the followers of other religions are permitted a view from the Naubat Khana (seat of temple choir). The shivalinga at the Vishwanath temple is among one of the 12 Jyotrilingas. The current temple was built in 1776 by Ahalya Bai of Indore with about 800 kg of gold plating on the towers, which gives the temple its colloquial name, Golden Temple. The gold plated spire, was the gift of the Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore in 1835, more than 50 years later. The well of wisdom or ‘Gyan Vapi’ which is nearby is believed to have been built by Lord Shiva himself to cool the ‘linga’ of Vishwanath with water.
The Buddha came to this hamlet, 10 Km. north-east of Varanasi, to preached his message “Maha-Dharma-Chakra Pravartan” (in Buddhist terminology, ‘turned the wheel of the law’) after he achieved enlightment at Bodhigaya. Later, the great Buddhist Emperor Ashoka built here the Dharmarajika Stupa and near it erected a pillar surmounted by the magnificent capital of four adored lions, which today forms the national emblem of India. Ashoka erected several memorial towers or stupas.
Saranath probably derived its name from one of Buddha’s title, Saranganath, Lord of the Deer. The Chinese Buddhist pilgrims, Fa-hsien and Hiuen Tsiang who visited in the 5th and 7th centuries respectively, both recorded impressions of their stay. The huge swastika (110ft) covered Dhameskh Stupa dates from AD 500 and is thought to mark the place where Buddha gave his sermon. Sarnath has been a premier centre for Buddhism. It is a rich collection of ancient Buddhist relics and antiques comprising numerous Buddha and Bodhisatva images on display at the excellent Archaeological Museum (open 10am to 5pm except on Friday).
The residential place of Kashi Naresh (Former Maharaja of Varanasi) across the Ganges at Ramnagar houses a museum with the exhibits of palanquins, costumes, swords, sabres, etc. Dussehra celebration of Ramnagar is an interesting event to witness.14 km. from Varanasi. The fort at Ramnagar houses a museum displaying the Royal collection which includes vintage cars, Royal palkies, an armoury of swords and old guns, ivory work and antique clock.
The Durga Temple and Chhinnamastika Temple are also located at Ramnagar. Ramnagar Fort which was built in 1750A.D by the Maharaja of Banaras, is on the right bank of River Ganga. Built of red stones, it provides strength and stability to the city. Visit : Daily from 0900 t0 1200 and 1400 – 1500. It is the residential palace of the former Maharaja of Varanasi. The palace is an astronomical and astrological wonder. Inside the giant walls of the palace, there is a big clock. Besides showing year, month, week and day, it baffles the onlooker with astronomy of the sun, moon and constellation of stars.
This wonder clock or Dharam Ghari was made by the court astronomer of Banaras in 1852A.D. The palace has a temple dedicated to Ved Vyas and a museum set up by the last Maharaja of Banaras, Vibhuti Narain Singh. The museum has a collection of brocade costumes, palanquins, weapons and has expensive coaches made of ivory. The palace is decorated majestically and it vibrates with colour and life, during Dussehra festival. The celebrations comes to an end on Vijayadashmi, when the huge effigies of demon king Ravana and his kinsmen are sent up in flames, signifying the victory of good over evil.