Varanasi (Banaras) :
The eternal city on the Ganges' banks
"Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than
legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together".
- Mark Twain
Varanasi is also known as Banaras and Kashi is one of the seven holy
cities for Hindus where they can attain liberation.
Archaeologists believe that the first settlement in Varanasi happened
in the 11th or 12th century BC. That makes the city one of the oldest
continually inhabited cities of the world.
Legend has it that Varanasi was founded by Lord Siva. In the
Mahabharat, the Pandava Princes, after the battle of Kurukshetra, are
said to have gone there in search of Siva. The Buddha delivered his
first sermon at nearby Sarnath, 15 km away from Varanasi.
While archaeologists excavating sites in Varanasi to ascertain its
antiquity, they have also started to dig at Sarnath. The idea of
excavation at Sarnath was that although there is literary evidence that
the Buddha delivered his first sermon at Sarnath there isn't any
Professor of Archaeology at the Banaras Hindu University says, "The
oldest artefacts which we found are of the Mauryan era and the latest
belong to the 12th century AD." The Buddha is believed to have visited
Sarnath at least 300 years before archaeologists are trying to trace the
lost years. The antiquity of Varanasi can be pushed back to 1800 B.C. As
Mark Twain had said this could well be the truth.
When you think of Varanasi, you think of Banaras silk saris in
brilliant hues and the majestic panorama of the Ghats (stairs at leading
to the river) at sunrise. But perhaps more powerful imaginations in
one's mind are images associated with Hinduism. Temple spires dotting
the skyline, pilgrims crowding the Ghatsa nd Sadhus dressed in saffron.
Varnasi is known most of all for being 'the holiest Hindu city' yet
to ascribe it with an identity that is only Hindu would be misinformed.
Banaras as its residents prefer to call it has been important for
centuries and continues to matter to modern India, not just because it
is the 'Holiest Hindu City', but also, and more so, because of its
remarkable, secular and cosmopolitan spirit.
Nandini Majumdar, a well-known authority on Banaras' history, writes
in her book on Banaras: "Since ancient times, gods and humans alike
coveted Varanasi. From the 3rd to 6th centuries, the Mauryas, Guptas and
Gahadvalas developed Varnasi as a stronghold of Buddhism and Hinduism.
They built temples, resthouses and monasteries and established
pilgrimage routes." These activities changed after the Muslim invasion
from Central Asia.
The Mughal Emperor Akbar ascended the throne at Delhi in 1556. Akbar
was liberal and syncretic in his religious views and imperial approach.
He collaborated with the Hindu Rajputs and Marathas by appointing
their kings to administrative posts. Two of his senior ministers,
Mansingh and Todar Mal, rebuilt demolished temples and paved sections of
the riverfront. The Siva temple Vishwanath was re-built after being
demolished twice before by the Muslim invaders.
The Kashi Viswanath Temple is the city's most important temple today.
Akbar's great grandson Aurangzeb inherited the throne in 1658. following
the dictate of a Muslim Ruler, Aurangzeb tried to superimpose an Islamic
city over Hindu Varanasi named 'Muhammadabad', by ereting idgahs, or
Mosques for special Id worship, on the foundations of razed temples. The
most striking was the Alamgirl mosque the soaring Minarets of which were
the tallest and most slender in Mughal architecture to date. The mosque
remains a majestic landmark on the city's skyline.
The centuries, from the 12th to the 17th, have often been depicted by
historians, amateur and professional alike, as a time of destruction and
tumult under foreign rule. However, some of the city's most beautiful
monuments, secular and religious, were built during this time.
Today this ancient city, which celebrates conformity and abandon is
deteriorating. Crumbling buildings, rampant defacing of the Ghats,
traffic jams on potholed streets untreated sewage spilling into the
ganges, the stench of burnt flesh from the 30,000 bodies that are
cremated every year, their remains dumped into the river, poverty and
squalor, the list of problems is endless. The truth of Varanasi hits you
starkly in the face is endless. Once the abode of gods, Varanasi today
is a city in decline destined for ruin unless someone rescues it on a
war footing. That someone, residents now believe, will be local MP and
New Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.
Restoration of Varanasi is at the heart of Modi's election promises.
During the Ganga Puja on May 18, two days after his stunning victory,
in the recent Indian election, he said, "I've come before you to make
Banaras shine. When India was a world leader, Banaras was the leader of
India. We have to begin the cleaning of India from Banaras." Modi's
Mission India starts from Mission Varanasi . Perhaps this challenge is
going to be Modi's first tangible test.
"There is a lot of hope if Modi can save Banaras while retaining its
heritage," a resident said. He feels the city is teetering on the brink
of collapse due to decades of negligence, I can do anything."
What will Varanasi become in the New India? And what can Narendra
Modi do for Varanasi? Only time can answer these questions. But one fact
is certain the holy city of Varanasi is an eternal city. It has survived
time. It will always remain in the collective consciousness of the
people of India and eternally.