Varanasi - The Mystic city


The Burning Ghats of Varanasi
The Burning Ghats of Varanasi

 Varanasi – The Mystic City

            Can you recall any city in the world, which has so many other names than its popular names? This city is also known as Brahma Vardha, Anandakanana, Avimuktaka, Mahasmasana, Sudarsana, Surandhana, Ramya and Kashi. This is Banaras or currently known as Varanasi for you. This quote of Mark Twain has already been overused, but still very apt, which says that “ Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”

Varanasi is The place, which you need to experience it, not just see it. Varanasi is not only old and historical but also is the seat of spirituality, knowledge, art, and culture. Do we have any example of a place in the world, where people come to breathe their last? This city has a Gharana of its own in classical music known as Banaras Gharana. A land of biggest names in Art and music ranging from Ustad Bismillah Khan ( celebrated Shehnai Player ), Pandit Ravi Shankar ( Sitarist), Birju Maharaj, Chnnulal Mishra, Girija Devi, Rasoolan Bai, Sitara Devi, and the list is endless, have brought the highest number of awards in a city. In the land of Kabir and Tulsidas, the literature runs in the veins of the people and has produced eminent poets and writers like Bhartendu Harishchandra, Munshi Premchand, Jaishankar Prasad, Baldev Upadhahy, Kashinath Singh and many more. The social reformers like Annie Besant and Pt. Madan Mohan Malviya made it their karmbhoomi and established the largest university in the world the “Banaras Hindu University”

Devotees taking a dip in Holy Ganga at the Ghats of Varanasi
Devotees taking a dip in the Holy Ganga at the Ghats of Varanasi

History of Varanasi

Varanasi was originally known as Kashi. Kashi is derived from the word Kasha meaning brightness. Varanasi is derived from the two rivers Varuna and Assi flowing into Ganga. The land lying between these two rivers came to be known as Varanasi. Banaras is the distorted form of Varanasi.

This is the city of Shiv. People say that Shiv is balancing Kashi on the tip of his Trishul (Trident). A legend says that Shiv Ji's mother-in-law was worried about him not having his home and kept wandering in the Himalayas with her daughter Parvati. When she expressed her concern, Shiva ji asked Nikumbh to build a home for him in Kashi. Since then he resides here as the presiding deity of the city – Kashi Vishwanath.

Another form of Shiv is Kaal Bhairav and he is the guardian deity of Kashi. As per legend, Vishnu and Brahma had a tussle about who is supreme and they went to Shiv for resolution. Shiv ji appeared in the form of a light pillar ( Jyotirling) passing through all the three loks. He said that whoever finds the end of the pillar will be supreme. Vishnu in the form of boar started digging the earth and set out to find the end towards Paataal Lok, while Brahma ji went to find the end towards Swarg Lok. As Shiv Ji has no Aadi( beginning) nor Ant(and), they could not find the end to the light pillar. Vishnu ji accepted his defeat, but Brahma ji said he had found the end and presented Ketki flower as his witness. Shiv ji was enraged at this. He cursed the Ketki flower to never be used in his Puja. Since then ketki flower is never used in Shiv ji's worship. He also cursed Brahma ji that he will never be worshipped on earth. There is no temple of Brahma ji except for one at Pushkar. Enraged Shivji took the form of Kaal Bhairav and also chopped off one of the five heads of Brahma ji. Because of this sin of Brahm Hatya, the fifth head clung to his hand. He wandered on the banks of River Ganga. At Kashi, he dipped his hand in Ganga and was liberated from his sin and the head unclung from his hand. So he stayed here as Kotwal of Kashi.

Sunrise at Ganga - Varanasi
Sunrise at Ganga - Varanasi

Evening Ganga Aarti at Dashashwmedh Ghat Varanasi
Evening Ganga Aarti at Dashashwmedh Ghat Varanasi

As per studies done by archeologists by excavating the area, firstly Aryans settled in this area and it was a centre of knowledge and also a flourishing business hub for muslin and silk cloth, ivory, perfumes and sculptures. In the sixth century, Varanasi became the capital of the kingdom of Kashi. During this period, Kashi rose meteorically to one of the best learning centres. Bhagwan Buddh delivered his first sermon at Sarnath just 10 km away during this period. Kashi became a hub of learning and attracted people from far away in quest of knowledge. Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang also visited during this period.

With the advent of Mughals in India started a difficult period for Varanasi. Starting in 1194, this tyranny continued for three centuries. Thousands of temples were destroyed and desecrated. Scholars were made to flee. The Muslim invasion affected the culture and socioeconomic fabric of Banaras. With the invasion of Muhammad Ghazni, Muslims started settling in Varanasi and this increased during the Mughal medieval period. This is the period, which saw the city ravaged four times, but every time, the tenacity in ambition to sustain the spiritual merit through architecture made the people of Varanasi revive those ghats and temples.

A Morning at the Ghats of Varanasi
A Morning at the Ghats of Varanasi

Sights of Varanasi – Some known some unknown

Ghats of Varanasi

If one wants to see the real Varanasi, one has to roam on the Ghats of Varanasi and in the bylanes of Varanasi. A Ghat is a flight of steps built over the riverbank to access the river easily. They are one of the most valuable assets of Varanasi. Whenever one says Varanasi, the first image that flashes in anyone's mind is that of ghats. This shows that the city of Varanasi can not be imagined without its 85 ghats spread over a riverfront of 7 KM between the confluences of Varuna and Assi river with Ganga . I am working on a separate detailed post about the Ghats of Ganga, however, we will talk about five ghats, known as Panch Teerath. Every ghat has its own significance. Dashashwamedh ghat is famous for Evening Aarti, Assi for its laid-back atmosphere, and Harishchandra Ghat and Manikarnika ghat also known as burning ghats are the largest crematoriums.

Munshi Ghat Varanasi
Munshi Ghat Varanasi

Beautiful buildings and palaces were also built on ghats displaying the architectural finesse. A lot of them have been converted into heritage Hotels. Above is a palace on Munshi Ghat now a Luxury Heritage Hotel Brij Rama Palace.

Assi Ghat

This Ghat is one of the most happening places in Varanasi. It is at the the confluence of river Ganga and Assi. Because of its proximity to BHU and hostels, it has become more of an hanging place for the youth. A lot of cafes have sprung up here to cater to these youngsters and also foreign tourists. This ghat was purchased by the queen of Muksudpur Tekri state of Bihar and a palace was built here. Presently it is a family-run heritage hotel. Subah-E-Banaras is held here daily, which stages classical music performance and morning Ganga Aarti.

Assi Ghat Varanasi
Business as usual at Assi Ghat Varanasi

A stall at Assi Ghat Varanasi
A stall at Assi Ghat Varanasi

A Cafe at Varanasi
A Cafe at Varanasi

Dasaswamedh Ghat

If Assi is the host to morning aarti, it is Dhahaswmedh ghat, which hosts the evening Aarti, one of the most spectacular events held daily in Varanasi. As per the legend, Brahma ji sacrificed ten horses here and performed Ashvmedh Yagya here and so the ghat got its name. This is a very sacred ghat, close to Kashi Vishvanath temple and has great spiritual value.

Dashaswmedh Ghat at Night
Dashaswmedh Ghat at Night

People offering prayers for the departed souls at Dashwashmedh Ghat
People offering prayers for the departed souls at Dashwashmedh Ghat

Ganga Aarti at Dashaswmedh Ghat
Ganga Aarti at Dashaswmedh Ghat

Adi Keshav Ghat

This Ghat is at the confluence of Ganga and Varuna River. As per the legend, when Bhagwan Vishnu came to Kashi, he set his first step in Kashi at This Ghat. At the top of the Ghat is the Adi Keshav temple. Keshav is a name for Vishnu and Adi means old, so the name is very apt.

Panch Ganga Ghat

This ghat is considered to be the confluence of five rivers namely Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Kirana and Dhutapapa Near this ghat is a mosque known as Alamgir Mosque, which was built over a Vishnu temple known as Bindu Madhav temple. Bindu Madhav temple was one of the largest temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu. It used to extend from Panch Ganga ghat to Rama Ghat. It is on This Ghat Sant Kabir took Diksha from his Guru Ramanand. 

Shri Kashi Vishvanath Temple

Kashi Vishwanath is one of the twelve Jyotirlings. Kashi Vishwanath temple has been a living embodiment of our high spirituality and timeless cultural traditions for centuries. The Shivling here is swayambhu meaning, which appeared on its own, as all Jyotirlings produced by Shiv Ji's manifestation as a pillar of light to settle truce between Lord Brahma and Vishnu ji as detailed above.

Kashi Vishwanath temple was destroyed by Mughals. There is a well, known as Gyanvapi well in the temple premises. Aurangzeb destroyed the original temple and built a mosque in its place known as the Gyanvapi mosque. The original shivling was hidden in the Gyanvapi well to save its desecration at the hands of Mughals. Folklore says that the chief priest jumped into the well carrying the Shivling with him.

Gyan Vapi Well
                                          Gyan Vapi Well                               source

Gyan Vapi Mosque built over Kashi Vishwanath temple
         Gyan Vapi Mosque, built over the Kashi Vishwanath temple       source

A sketch by James Princep of Gyanvapi mosque, which he sketched as "Temple of Vishveshwur" above clearly shows the remains of the demolished Kashi Vishwanath temple visible from under the walls of Gyan Vapi mosque.

Rani Ahilyabai Holkar, the Queen of Indore, had a dream one night, in which Shiv ji asked her to build the temple. She took up this cause and built this temple at its present place in 1777. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, king of Punjab undertook the task of covering spires with gold.

Kashi Vishwnath Temple
                                  Kashi Vishwanath Temple   image source            unknown author - wiki commons

Lolark Kund

This Kund is a stepwell, found mostly in Rajasthan and Gujarat, however, it has three flights of stairs which are very steep. A temple of Aditya Lolark is situated nearby. It is believed that women who bathe in the Kund are blessed with a male child. So a lot of couples come here to take a dip and seek a male heir.

This kund also has an interesting legend attached to it. Once upon a time, there was a severe drought on earth. Sage Ripunjay was asked to take control of the things and restore normalcy on earth. He agreed to take control on the condition that none of the gods will interfere with his orders. He ordered all gods to leave Kashi. When Shiv ji wanted to return to his home Kashi, he also was not allowed. 64 yoginis were asked to help, but their efforts proved futile.They fell in love with this place and stayed here. Shiv ji, then approached Sun God – Surya for help, who readily agreed. When he set his sight first time on Kashi, he started trembling with excitement and dropped his semen. The place, where he dropped his semen is known as Lolark Kund. Lolark in Language means trembling.

Lolark Kund
Lolark Kund

Lolark Aditya Temple
Lolark Aditya Temple

It is also said that this Kund was created when a meteor struck the earth. Whatever may the even responsible for the creation of this kund, it is a beautiful Kund and is also maintained well and has also survived the onslaught of modernisation. The kund is very close to Tulsidas Ghat due to which Tulsidas Ghat was once called Lolark Ghat

Pakistani Mahadev

The name of this small temple near Shitla Ghat invokes interest. In 1947, when India was divided into two countries, a large scale migration of Hindus to India and Muslims to Pakistan happened amidst violence. Two diamond merchants Nihal Chandra and Yamuna Das of Lahore came to India. They landed in Varanasi and decided to make it their abode. Being devout Shivbhakts, they had brought with them, a Shivling from Lahore. They wanted to submerge it in Ganga and took a boat to do so, but soon locals started calling the back. They had been called back at the behest of King of Boondi, who was taking an evening stroll. On listening to the entire story, The king of Bundi advised them to establish the Shivling instead of submerging it. They established the Shivling on Shitala ghat, which came to be known as Pakistani Mahadev.

Ratneshwar Mahadev Mandir – The leaning temple of Varanasi

Everybody knows about the leaning tower of Pisa, which leans by 4degrees and is 54 meter high. If I tell you that there is a building in our own courtyard, which leans by 9 degrees and is 74 meters high. I think no. This is the irony The wonders of India have not been promoted well. This is the Rataneshwar Mahadev temple at Kashi or Varanasi. Normally the temples are built on a high plinth, but this temple has intentionally been built in such a way that a large part of it is submerged in water during most of the year and the Abhishek of Shivling is done by Ma Ganga herself. 

There are legends about how did the temple lean. It is said that a servant of Raja Man Singh had brought his Mother Ratna Bai for pilgrimage to Kashi. He wanted to pay back the Matri Rinn so he built this temple and told her mother that he had paid back his matr Rinn by building a temple and naming it Ratneshwar Mahadev. His mother did not like this as Matr Rinn can never be paid back. On completion, when he brought his mother to perform Puja, She did not enter the temple, rather bowed from outside and turned back. When the son asked why she did not go inside the temple, the mother replied how can she enter a temple with a defect. On hearing this the son turned back towards the temple and saw it had been tilted. 

Another legend states that Rani Ahilyabai Holkar's maid Ratna Bai borrowed money from the queen and got this temple built. She gave the name Ratneshwar Mahadev to this temple. Rani Ahilyabai was upset over this and it was her curse that the temple got tilted.

Some historians attribute the building of this temple to Rani Baija Bai of Gwalior. James Princep, who was the assay master of Banaras mint painted a lot of paintings of the Ghats of Varanasi. This temple can be seen in his paintings confirming it to be before 1825 – 30 and also is upright, indicating its date of construction and also suggesting that it leaned at a later date. Another painting  shows multiple leaning structures, but this is the only surviving structure.

During Monsoon, when Ganga ji swells, the water reaches even the spires of the temple and the priest has to dive in to perform Puja.

Ratneswar Mahadev Temple, the Leaning temple of Varanasi
                    Ratneshwar Mahadev Mandir, the leaning temple of Varanasi               source

Sketch of Manikarnika Ghat, The Burning Ghat by James Princep, showing Ratneshwar Mahadev Temple
     Sketch of Manikarnika Ghat by James Princep, showing Ratneshwar Mahadev Temple source

The Eternal Fire

              The two ghats of Kashi namely Harishchandra ghat and Manikarnika ghat also known as burning ghats are the crematoriums. People from far away come to cremate their loved ones here as it is believed that cremation here will liberate his soul. The cremation is performed by a community called doms and their head is Dom Raja. They are also the custodians of the eternal fire, which has been burning for the last 3500 years uninterrupted. It is believed that Shiv ji himself made doms the custodians of this fire. As per legend, Parvati's earring fell at Varanasi at the place, where Manikarnika ghat stands presently. A brahmin named Kallu tried to hide it. When Shiv ji came to know about this, he cursed him and to be dropped to the lowest ladder of cast system and the food in his house will be cooked from the leftover woods of the pyre. So a new order of doms was formed. Kallu repeatedly asked for forgiveness. As the curse could not be reversed, Shivji made him the custodian of holy fire and said that the pyre lit by doms with this fire will open the gates of heaven for the deceased. Since then the doms are the custodians of this fire.

The Eternal fire at Harishchandra Ghat - The Burning ghat of Varanasi
The Eternal fire at Harishchandra Ghat - The Burning ghat of Varanasi

Akhadas of Kashi

The people of Varanasi or the Banarasis as they call themselves, instead of sweating in the gym, prefer a more traditional route to fitness. That is Akharas. Using traditional equipment, like mugdar and classic exercises like dand Baithak, they build their bodies and then bout it out in the wrestling area, where the soil is softened and things like ghee and curd are mixed into it.

Wrestlers bout it out in an Akhada at Varanasi
Wrestlers bout it out in an Akhada at Varanasi

Actually, Akhadas are the training places, with boarding and lodging facilities, just like modern colleges, based on Guru-Shishya tradition. Apart from wrestling and Martial art training, this applied to spiritual training also. There are known akhadas of Naga Sadhus ( a sect of sadhus, who have taken a vow of celibacy and stay Naked) in Varanasi like Juna Dashnami Akhada, Niranjani Akhada etc. 

Dashnami Juna Akhada - Varanasi
Dashnami Juna Akhada - Varanasi

Kashi – The cultural Melting pot

Varanasi is not about the local population here. Being the spiritual seat of Hinduism, it has attracted people from all the corners of India and embraced them with open arms. Whoever came to Varanasi, stayed here and became a Bnarasi as locals prefer to call themselves.

Muslims and Varanasi

The advent of Muslims started in Varanasi with Muhammad Ghazni. Initial settlement might not have gone very well, as it was tyranny. Forced conversions, razing, looting and desecration of temples was the order of the day. Aurangzeb like a good Muslim ruler, he observed the dictated to build mosques by razing temples. He tried to superimpose an Islamic city on Varanasi, by naming it as Muhammadabad. The efforts to Mughalizing the city were made by Mughals and then Nawab of Awadh. In physical form, it reflected as buildings with Mughal architecture mainly mosques, creation of Mohallas and mushrooming of Muslim shrines. However in the early Nineteenth century, with the decline of Mughal power, the Hindu traditions were reestablished and new socio-economic order emerged, which saw the revival of the religious architecture, arts and crafts, trade, in Varanasi and Muslims became an integral part of the society.

Today slightly less than one-third of the population of Varanasi is Muslim. They are majorly involved in the production of Banarsi silk sarees, carpets, gulabi Mina and other crafts.

Bengalis and Varanasi.

Bengalis started to migrate to Varanasi at the time of Rani Bhawani or Bhabani as Bengalis call her, the queen of Natore. She built seven temples in Varanasi, around which the first Bengali settlement emerged known as Bengali Tola. Initial Bengalis migrating were Brahmins, who acted as priests of taught Sanskrit in schools and colleges of Varanasi. A Sanskrit college was set up in Varanasi was much older than that in Kolkata. Later on, the trade with Bengal also flourished and Bengali businessmen shifted to Varanasi established their trade and built sprawling houses in Kashi. 

Another aspect on which the Bengali community had a major effect was Tantra learning. Varanasi and Bengal are both considered to be centres of Tantrik learning. Aghoris, Tantriks and other ascetics practice Tantra vidya in their Akhadas and on the burning ghats of Varanasi, namely Harishchandra Ghat and Manikarnika Ghat. In Bengal Kali worshippers also practice Tantra. With the advent of Bengalis in Varanasi, the knowledge was shared. Kali Mutt was established, which soon became the secret centre for Tantric rituals.

However, now the Bengali population is on the decline and the younger generation is moving out for better career prospects. Though a lot of Bengali associations are trying to keep the Bengali traditions alive, but a large section of young Bengalis speak Hindi and Bhojpuri more fluently than Bangla and cannot read and write Bangla. Once there was a thriving Bengali community, but now only a shadow remains. However, Varanasi still remains the city with the highest number of Bengali community outside Bengal and is also called mini Bengal. Bengalis here leave no stone unturned to deck up their Pujo Pandals as grand as those in Kolkata.

Marathas and Varanasi.

Shivaji had a dream of Hindu Rashtra and Marathas were the only force to stop the Mughal Juggernaut. With the decline of Mughal power in Delhi, Marathas moved up north. Though Marathas never ruled Varanasi, but they were interested in the centres of Hindu pilgrimage. Marathas had put up a condition to The Nawab of Awadh that in return for their military support to Nawab against Rohillas, they will get the control of Mathura, Kashi, Prayag and Gaya. However, this could not materialise as the Nawab was dethroned by the British. Due to their business and intellectual interest in Kashi, Marathas, financed most of the reconstruction in Varanasi in the eighteenth century. 

The most prominent was the Kashi Vishvanath temple reconstruction by Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar. When Peshwa Bajirao visited Varanasi, he built a Ghat as an extension to Tulsi ghat and also dharamshalas for the sanyasis. Bhonsle Rulers of Nagpur built Bhonsle ghat and the beautiful Bhonsle Mahal. Munshi Ghat and the beautiful Brij Rama palace was built by the finance minister of Bhonsles. These beautiful buildings saw the amalgamation of the Maratha architecture with that of the North. The earliest Maratha settlers in the sixteenth-century were Maratha Brahmins. Soon they rose to important positions in Mughal and in the courts of other North Indian kings. Soon they had disputes with the local Brahmin community about the rituals, entitlement and precedence. With the rise of Martha power, a new model of Brahmin community and authority emerged.

South Indians and Varanasi.

Another large chunk of the population who migrated to Varanasi was from South India. When Kumaraswamy established hi Mutt at Kedar Ghat, a large influx of people from the South happened. Like any other community with different culture, they affected leant and borrowed a lot from Banarsis.

Varanasi can not be summed up in words it is a potpourri of cultures, people, traditions and beliefs. This city is the most spiritual, most tolerant, and yet most resilient, the most adaptable, yet most hardliner. Here you can see a Muslim discussing politics with a Hindu Paan wala or a rickshaw-puller enjoying a concert of classical music or a weaver discussing poetry with noted poets at the Ghats of Ganga. Namami Gange.........

Age no bar for spirituality
Age no bar for spirituality


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  1. Good one but too lengthy to read all
    Keep doing good and hope this will help visitors to Varanasi

    1. Thank you for dropping by. Yes it is lengthy, probably the most lengthy post on my blog, but the place is such that you keep on writing and it does not end. Planning a series of post on all 85 ghats on Varanasi will break it into three posts

  2. शानदार जानकारी...👌👌👌

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