The city of Varanasi, colloquially called Banaras, is one of the oldest living cities in the world. Situated on the banks of the sacred river Ganges, the city is considered holier than anything. It’s a place of sizable religious importance in Hinduism, Buddhism, and to some extent, Jainism. Scores of Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims from across the globe arrive in Varanasi throughout the year for aesthetic and religious purposes.
Regardless of the massive information on social media, heavily loaded Wikipedia pages to a series of the intellectual thesis available on the internet on the holy city, lucid information in common language was still missing, which I have tried bringing it up here.
The prominent places of attraction and worship are the revered Ghats on the banks of the river Ganga, the Ancient Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Sankatmochan Temple, Sarnath and many more (often the city is called the land of temples). A day in Varanasi starts as early as the sun rises in the morning with the celebration of the city as “Subehe Banaras”.
It starts with people enjoying kachori sabzi, launglata (a sweet), tea in mud cups, and continues day long with people enjoying tamatar chaat, lassi, Bengali sweets, chewing paan, and so on. The energy level in the morning is on a different level. It often seems like the river Ganga, the old walls and the narrow lanes of Varanasi wait eagerly for the morning to arrive.
The food of Varanasi, particularly street food, is a living example of diversity and richness. The city has probably one of the richest street foods and munches in the region.
Banaras is a known center of various art, education and cultural prosperity. The famous Banaras Hindu University (BHU) founded by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, Sampurnanand Sanskrit University, Central Hindu School and Besant Theosophical School established by Annie Besant are located in the heart of the city.
The city has a living tradition since ancient times for various forms of classical music like Banarasi Thumri, Dadra, Chaiti, Sargam and many more. The two renowned Bharat Ratnas, Shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan and the great Sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, are from Banaras.
Banaras has one of the finest handloom industries, known for its finely-woven Banarasi saris that are worn across the globe.
Having spent my entire childhood in Varanasi, all I can express is that the city has provided me with life learning experiences, emotions and memories. From riding bicycles in the narrow lanes of Varanasi, swimming in the Ganga, kite flying, learning the art of bargain from shrewd vendors and shop owners to trying different sweets and roadside eatables at every corner of the city. These life experiences have instilled a great sense of belonging with the culture and the place. By growing up in Banaras, one is also introduced to the idea of harmony and tolerance between different communities.
There is a famous religious place for Buddhists in Banaras, Sarnath, where the Dhamekh Stupa is situated. It’s here that Lord Buddha preached for the first time after gaining enlightenment. As I can remember, Sarnath was just another hangout place where I could go and roam in the park and feed deers. Its historical, national and cultural significance was better known to me when I moved to Delhi and learnt more about Buddha and his teachings.
Throughout my life, like many other students from Varanasi, I take a sense of pride in the fact that the great national emblem (Ashoka Pillar) is taken from this place. Inscribed on it are the golden lines “Satyameva Jayate” which means truth alone triumphs, taken from the Mundka Upanishads. Like many others, I try my best to imbibe the teachings and values learnt from the city.
Being called a Banarasi is a bewildering experience at first, but later, it becomes a satisfying and accomplishing experience.
At last, Banaras is neither a city of dreams like Mumbai or Delhi nor a city of buzzing businesses and posh localities. The city will never be measured by its industrial indicators or the number of malls and showrooms it has, but by the cultural significance, its values of devotion and religious importance, its magnetic essence, its hundreds of years old tradition, its food and its heritage.
A more honest description was given in 1897 by American writer Mark Twain: “Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.“