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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 archaeological evidence.

Vidula Jayaswal

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.

Cosmopolitan spirit

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.

Id worship

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.

Foreign rule

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.

Indian election

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.

Eternal city

"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.

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