The Vande Bharat Express, with its sleek, modern and futuristic design, shunted its way to Varanasi Junction Railway Station. At first glance, it did seem to paint an ironic picture. This settlement towards the very east of Uttar Pradesh is known to be as old as time itself, being the epicenter of Hinduism. Nevertheless, the train’s arrival was greeted by the wrath of Lord Indra, as torrential downpours almost bludgeoned the corrugated roofs of the platform. The impact was cacophonous, which only accentuated the pandemonium at the gates of the station, a characteristic feature of some of the bigger stations of the ubiquitous Indian Railways.
The traffic movement in this city is no less than a miracle, with most of the roads winding narrower towards the interior areas. Varanasi has a long-standing reputation of its silk sarees, with tourists flocking outside shops. It was, consequently, not a surprise to see retail establishments selling sarees almost everywhere. But the air that wafts over speaks of a very anomalous tale, of an India which somehow, is still untouched by the marvels and perils of technology despite its presence. The city is best explored by auto-rickshaws and e-rickshaws, but it is impossible not to get caught in a traffic jam.
Varanasi is situated on the banks of Ganges, which holds a pivotal position in Hindu mythology. The ghats around the erstwhile Benares have myths and legends which date back to the pre-Christian era (It is believed that Shiva, the destroyer, founded the city). However, the structures present on the sites belong to the 18th century, owing to the constant assaults and loot by the Islamic raiders, including Mohammed Ghori and the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. What makes these ghats picturesque and something synonymous with Varanasi is that each ghat represents a particular architectural style of the erstwhile princely states. Be it the Dashashwamedh Ghat, made in the style of the Maratha Empire by Ahilyabahi Holkar, the Queen of Indore. The Maan-Mandir Ghat represents the architectural prowess of the Rajputana Empire, by Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur, along with his signature Jantar Mantar complexes. The King of Nepal, Rana Bahadur Shah, made a replica of the famous Pashupathinath Temple on the banks of this holy river, at the Lalita Ghat.
The Kashi Vishwanath Temple is one of the holiest Hindu shrines. The temple dedicated to Lord Shiva is one of the 12 Jyotirlingas of India, and its presence has been mentioned in the Puranas. However, following the two bombing incidents in 2006 and 2010, it is also the most heavily guarded places in the city. Even at five in the morning, where most cities are still transitioning from the revelries of the night, Varanasi sees a congregation of devotees, sweet-makers, paan-wallahs, hawkers and beggars on the streets, especially around the temple complex. Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple, which was established by poet-saint Tulsidas in the 16th century, also attracts a huge number of followers, despite the extensive and painstaking security measures. The phrase “sankat mochan” associated with monkey god Hanuman means “reliever from troubles”.
The city has been pretty secular, with its culture and heritage branching to other faiths as well. The Alamgir Mosque was built by Aurangzeb in the 17th century, above the famous Panchganga Ghat after razing a Hindu temple that existed earlier. Similarly, Aurangzeb demolished the last structure at the Kashi Vishwanath Complex to build the Gyanvapi Mosque.
Sarnath is located 10 kilometers from Varanasi. Along with being the place where Ganga and Varuna rivers confluence, it is also the place where Lord Buddha first taught the Dharma. The Mauryan emperor Ashoka built the magnanimous Dhamek Stupa near the site, which is an embellishment to the previously known sites. The temple complex is also the resting place of a tooth, which is supposed to be of Lord Buddha after him achieving parinirvana. There is some debate among historians whether it actually belongs to him or not. Nevertheless, that doesn’t seem to dwindle the sanctity of the shrine, with Buddhist pilgrims flocking from across the world. It also houses a museum where a fantastic collection of historical artifacts are housed.
Varanasi is an aesthetic that cannot be encompassed in words or images, it is something which needs to be felt. It is almost incomprehensible to imagine what we do not know about this city where art, history, culture, and mythology intersects.
Written by Rishi Kant for MTTN
Featured Image by Yashovardhan Parekh
Photographs by Rishabh Kant