BY PANCHALI SINGH ANAND
3 Different eras, 3 different names
Kashi in ancient Sanskrit, Benaras in Hindi or Varanasi as its now widely known is one of the oldest cities in the world, dating as far back as the 11th century BCE. It is regarded as the spiritual capital of the Hindus and is located on the banks of the revered river of Ganga or Ganges.
Kashi is the oldest documented name and is derived from the word “kashya” which means light; Kashi being the ‘City of lights’. As the city of Kashi flourished it needed to expand and people moved further inland from the hallowed banks of Ganges. With limited space available beside the meandering Ganges, it expanded towards the tributaries Assi and Varuna and in this process Varanasi (Varuna-Assi) assumed a life of its own.
With the advent of the British Raj came the inevitable Anglicization of the name to “Benaras”. Some even theorize that the name changed due to the strong Bengali presence in the city and for most Bengalis their mother tongue, Bengali as a language does not have the letter “V” and gets substituted by “B”. Either way the city came to be known as Benaras from then on. The name Varanasi however stuck on cartographically.
Varanasi is surely not for the faint-hearted and can be an assault on the senses. Overcrowded, chaotic and terribly noisy it may first appear to be a daunting mountain challenging the visitor to dare the summit. I urge you to be brave and take the plunge. You will find a strange but organized method in all its madness. Its crowded ancient serpentine alleys, tiny colorful shops, breathtaking ghats, historic temples, delectable snacks and the much sought after ‘Benarasi Sarees’ will be your excuse to return. Varanasi beguiles you, enchants you, mesmerizes you and never lets you go.
The Ghats of Varanasi
Ghats are basically riverfront steps leading to the holy river Ganga. The city has no less than 88.
Most ghats are used for bathing, offering prayers and most importantly taking a dip to wash away one’s mortal sins. There are two of these ghats which are reserved for only the most devout who are assured instant salvation by having the good fortune of having their last rites performed there. These couple of ghats are known as the ‘burning ghats’ popularly and as far Hindu beliefs are concerned only the few fortunate have the privilege of having their corpses cremated here; a privilege earned through good and pious deeds in this lifetime.
Dashwamedh Ghat – This is the most important of all the ghats in Varanasi. Dashwamedh Ghat literally translates into the ghat of the 10 sacrificed horses. These ten horses are said to have been sacrificed by Lord Bhrahma to allow for the return of Lord Shiva after a period of banishment. It is not just beautiful but also spotlessly clean. The Dashwamedh ghat is best known for its spectacular daily Ganga Arti. A few other ghats also have a similar Arti, arti being a Hindu ritual of performing prayers with brightly lit lamps which involve circulating of a ‘arti lamp’ around a deity and is accompanied in the background by ringing of bells, blowing of conch-shells and chanting of holy prayers. There are few other ghats in Varanasi which also have a similar Arti ceremonies.
This Dashwamedh ghat is peaceful, quiet and almost serene which will make you want to sit on the steps and surrender to your thoughts. Boats of all shapes and sizes are available here to take a trip down the river and be privy to a completely different vista of the City and its Ghats. You can take a boat and glide down the river and regale in the stories narrated by your boatman. Our boatman Rajesh knew both his history and city very well and gave us a wonderful and informative joyride. Rajesh drove his boat along with us right in front of the evening’s Ganga Arti which most had to see only from a distance. Rajesh is very helpful and you can contact him on # 9984136978.
As evening sets in, the lights of Kashi glimmer alive with a surreal appearance of being reflected in the waters of the Ganges creating a magical aura. The famed Ganga Aarti will enrapture you, whether you watch from the comfort of a private boat, the jetty or even while jostling amongst the crowds on the steps. The entire atmosphere becomes a heady but delightful vista filled with the chanted mantras, ringing bells and the daze of the swirling fire and smoke emanating purposefully from the whirling prayer lamps. It is nothing short of a treat for all your senses.
The famous Kashi Vishvanath temple is close by and the Government has embarked on an ambitious project to have riverine corridor leading from the ghat to the temple built in concrete.
Assi Ghat- This is the southernmost ghat and can be reached after walking through narrow, serpentine lanes and alleys, past shops selling famed wooden toys, bangles and knick-knacks. On reaching the riverbank of the holy river you are greeted by a colourful melee of humanity. Little children run after you with diyas and marigold flowers for setting afloat on the Ganges with a whispered prayer to the almighty. Children and adults splashing gleefully in the water while older people who have been there and done all that sit in groups sharing their wisdom. The pious ones will be offering prayers to the holy river. There is so much more to describe and capture that one is at a loss of words. This entire picture will surely give you a sense of what Varanasi truly is. In and around Assi ghat is where one finds many foreigners who have come to seek sanctuary in Hinduism and salvation therefrom. As a fallout of the international tourist crowd, in and around this Ghat you will find numerous delightful little Cafes offering food perfectly suited to the western palate. Take some time out, give into sin, tuck in to the most wonderful pizzas and lasagne while delving into the serenity of the Mighty river which has been the lifeline of most of Northern Indian for millennia.
Manikarnika Ghat – Manikarnika is the main burning ghat. According to the Hindu philosophy it is said that death is considered as a gateway to another life, the proverbial next life decided by the result of one’s own karma. This ghat provides a one stop shot at Moksha or freedom from the cycle of life and death. It is believed that the Soul whose last rites are performed here attains Moksha. There are many stories of the elderly spending their last days in the ghat just so that they may be cremated here. Legend has it that when Sati sacrificed her life and set her body ablaze, Lord Vishnu saw the pain that Lord Shiva was in and sent the Mythical Sudarshan Chakra to cut her body into 51 parts which fell on different parts of earth. These are referred to as Shakti Piths in Sanatam Dharma. It is believed that Sati’s earrings fell here on this Manikarnika Ghat.
Chet Singh Ghat – This Ghat is named after the regal fort built here by Raja Balwant Singh, the founder of the Kashi state. This ghat was witness to a fierce battle between Chet Singh and Warren Hastings, the first British Governor-General of the Bengal province in 1781. Chet Singh later escaped and took shelter in Awadh. This once Royal Palace now houses a sect of Naga Sadhus.