The Varanasi Heritage Dossier/History and Development
The city of Varanasi is archaeologically proven to have been continuously inhabited by humans since ca 800 BCE and is therefore described as one of the ancient most continuously living cities in the world. The leading prophet of Jainism, Parshvanatha, was born in Varanasi in the 8th century BCE. Later, Mahavira (599-527 BCE), the last in the line of Jain prophets (or Thirthankara-s as they are called) also made his imprint on the cultural arena of the city.
The ancient city of Varanasi (popularly called Kashi) was spread between the Varana and the Gomati, the latter meeting the Ganga ca 20km north. The Indian epic Mahabharata has a passing reference to the city, but the Jataka tales of Buddhism, written after the Mahabharata, record vivid descriptions of the city. This is further supported by the literary description given in the Shatapatha Brahamana, dated ca 8th century BCE, which mentions the rich pastoral life and habitation in the northern part, the Rajghat area, of the city. Because of frequent use of clay and mud for building, human habitations were least resistant to the flooding of the river and as such physical and material evidence of earlier occupation appears to have vanished. Such evidence was unearthed at Kamauli village, lying 4km northeast from Rajghat across the Varana river. Here microlithic tools associated with a kind of Red Ware, datable to the 4th and 3rd millennium BCE were obtained underneath the sterile deposits of about 4m, just below the Sunga levels (200 BCE to the beginning of Christian era; Fig. 2).
By the 4th century BCE, the Mauryan dynasty was ruling the city of Kashi. Ashoka (272-242 BCE), the great Mauryan king, had declared Buddhism a state religion and visited Sarnath. Under his patronage, a Buddhist township developed here with many monasteries, stupas and shrines. After the downfall of Mauryas, the prosperity of the city too fell into darkness until the rule of Kushana in the 1st century CE. A number of clay seals discovered at the Rajghat mounds testify to the prosperity of the township. The archaeological laonet of the houses, lanes and drainage channels shows a developed pattern of planning, as is visible even today in the old centre of the city. The city of Varanasi was rich in art, from the Kushana to the beginning of Gupta period, as exemplified by the images of Bodhisattvas, Yakshas, and Nagas. The Gupta period (ca 320-550 CE) was a period of great religious vitality and transformations. It is known as India’s Golden Age. Architectural fragments of this period are scattered in and around the city. The clay seals from this period give evidence of business, educational institutions and the importance of forests.
Varanasi finally was established and recognised as a great sacred place (tirtha). During the first half of the 7th century the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, Hsuan-tsang arrived in the city and described it as thickly populated, prospering and an important seat of learning. He mentions twenty important temples, and one of the Shiva lingas was about 30m high covered with copper plate. This in fact, was the Mauryan pillar, the fragment of which, called the Lat Bhairava, is presently only 1.5m tall. The arrival and preaching of Adya Sankaracharya in 8th century mark the revival of the Brahmanical thought, which finally uprooted Buddhism from this soil.
n the early medieval period, Varanasi had been passed from one ruler to another --- from Maukharis of Kannauj to Gurjara Pratiharas (9th century). Finally in the early 11th century it went under Gangeyadeva, king of Kannauj. The greatest of the Gahadavalas, Govindachandra (1114-1154) is described by historians of the period as the greatest king and praised as an incarnation of Vishnu, who was commissioned to protect Vishnu’s favourite abode, the city of Varanasi. He had defeated the Muslim invaders two times during 1114-1118, and patronised the Hindu religion. Queen Kumar Devi, wife of Govindachandra, came of a Vajrayani (Tantric) Buddhist family. She restored several buildings at Sarnath and built a new vihara (monastery) there. His chief minister, Lakshmidhara is remembered as a great compiler of the most reputable and the most extensive digest of literature on dharma, composed in 14 volumes, known as the Krityakalpataru, “The Magical Wishing Tree of Rituals”. In one of its volumes, he narrates the scriptural references to over 350 shrines in Kashi and described his theory of Hindu tirtha, covering both sides of interiorisation (archetype and body symbolism) and exteriorisation (spatial affinity and orientation).
Jayachandra, the grand son of Govindachandra, was a rival against Chahamans king Prithaviraja. Taking advantage of their internal conflict, Qutb-ud-din Aibak, slave-general of Muhammad Ghori, defeated Jayachandra in 1194 and beheaded him. His army sacked and looted the city, destroying nearly one thousand temples in Varanasi City alone and raised mosques on their foundation using the debris of the temples. The glorious century of the Govindachandra ended in catastrophe. The second invasion by Qutb-ud-din Aibak in 1197-98 that records the deafeat of King Harishachandra, son of Jayachandra, marks the end of the glorious of the Gahadavalas.
In 1206 Aibak became the emperor at Delhi and reigned till 1210. The Delhi Sultanate was thus established. Duirng Muhammad Ghori’s attack, temples were destroyed again in 1300s under Firoz Shah Tughlaq (1351-1388). In the 1400s, the city came under the rule of Sharqi kings of Jaunpur, and temples were again destroyed, and their blocks hauled away for the construction of a mosque in Jaunpur. During the moments of calm, the Hindus rebuilt temples and lingas but they were again destroyed by the next wave of invaders. After the passage of time, the city came under the rule of Lodis (1451-1526), who seized power from the Sharqis, and again a major part of the city got destroyed by Sikander Lodi. A great sigh of relief was surely heaved in the late 16th century when Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) granted more religious freedom. The Rajputs Man Singh and Todarmal, the two senior ministers in the court of Akbar, participated actively in repairing, rebuilding and in new construction of temples and Varanasi ghats during this part of the Mughal period.
During 11th to 17th centuries Muslim invaders destroyed the city at least four times. However, it survived and was repeatedly revived; the sites and holy spots were re-searched, the monuments were repaired and re-built. Traditions survived in spite of several ‘superimpositions’, or attempts to submerge it. The Kashi Khanda (35.10) says “The Ganga River, Lord Shiva, and the divine city of Kashi, make the Trinity of grace and perfect bliss”. The Trinity is symbolised by the three hillocks as the three forks of Shiva’s trident on which the city exists, viz. Omkareshvara in the north, Vishveshvara in the central part, and Kedareshvara in the south.
With the passing of time, during the reign of Akbar’s grandson Shah Jahan (1628-1657), the imperial policy changed again. By his order, about seventy-six temples under construction were destroyed. By the order of his successor, Aurangzeb (1658-1707), in 1669-1673, once again around thousand temples including the city’s greatest temples like Vishveshvara, Krittivasa, and Vindu Madhava, were razed and their sites were forever sealed from Hindu access by the construction of mosques. In 1665 the French Traveler Jean Baptiste Tavernier, a dealer in jewels, paid a visit to Varanasi and described the grand temple of Vindu Madhava at the riverside, which he called a “great pagoda”. His account is notable because the temple was demolished in 1673 by the armies of Aurangzeb.
Despite its reputation as stronghold of Hindu orthodoxy and conservatism, Varanasi participated in the vibrant devotional resurgence during 14th to early 17th centuries. Among the active poets and reformers the most notable were Ballabha, Ramananda, Kabir, Raidas, Tulasi, Caitanya and Guru Nanak. Kabir, indeed, was one of the greatest in all of Indian literature, whose colloquial songs are still sung today. Tulasi retold the epic story of the Ramayana in vernacular Hindi, naming it the Ramacharitamanasa and it remains today the single most popular classic, the Bible of the Hindi-speaking people.
It was from the 17th century that larger colonies of Maharashtrian Brahmans began to settle here, and with them came Vedic learning as well. After 1680 the Marathas replaced the Rajputs as major donors to the three holy places, Varanasi, Allahabad and Gaya. A fresh wave of cultural renaissance overtook Varanasi during the 18th century under the influence of the Marathas (1734-1785) who substantially rebuilt the city. The city, which had sheltered the rebel Maratha hero, Shivaji, in his challenge to Mughal power, now became the recipient of the gratitude, the wealth, the skill and energy of the Marathas. Writes a noted historian Altekar (1947: p. 24), “Modern Varanasi is largely a creation of the Marathas”. Bajirao Peshva I (1720-40) has patronised construction of Manikarnika and Dashashvamedha Ghats and nearby residential quarters. A number of ghats, water pools and noted temples of Vishvanatha, Trilochana, Annapurna, Sakshi Vinayaka and Kala Bhairava were rebuilt under Maratha patronage. Queen Ahilyabai of Indore built the present Vishvanatha temple in 1775-76. As one after another ghat was added, the temples rose, the city regained its gaiety, and its educational system was revitalised.
With the decline of the government in Delhi in the early 18th century, Varanasi first came under the rule of the Nawabs of Oudh in 1722, and later became the seat of Mansaram (1730-1738), the founder of the present state of Baranas Raj in 1738. His successor Balwant Singh (1738-1770) gained the power cleverly from the Nawab in 1739 and established a fiefdom independent state, which for about forty years remained the centre of attention and source of trouble for the rising East India Company. In 1763 he built a fort on the other side of the Ganga river at Ramanagar. The tension between the two powers reached its acme in 1781, when Chet Singh (1770-1781), son of Balwant Singh, usurped the throne and put Lord Warren Hastings in serious trouble. However in 1775 Varanasi was ceded to the East India Company by the Nawab of Oudh, Asaf-ud-daula, and finally in 1794 Varanasi came under British administration with a limited jurisdiction known as ‘the Banaras State’.
The face of the sacred city also changed considerably under the British rule. The urban area of the city continued to develop along the river southward and westward. Masonry bridges were built on the Ganga and the Varana river, many ponds like Benia, Maidagin and Macchodari and Godaulia Nala (rivulet) were drained and replaced by parks or streets, while many houses were demolished to widen the roads in the centre of the city. Broad roads were cut through the city where formerly there had been narrow lanes. The Dashashvamedha-Luxa Road was built running west from the river toward the Cantonment train station (now called Varanasi Junction). The north-south artery called Chauk was cleared through the business district. Slowly the city came to have its present shape. James Prinsep (1799-1840), who was the British Assay Master of the Mint in Varanasi from 1819 to 1830, published the first reliable census of the city, and also made the first and the most authentic map of the City in 1822. Moreover, on the map he has also given the latitudes and longitudes of 90 important temple and plotted over the map the Vishvanath Antargriha journey route and the temples and shrines along. In English for the first time James Prinsep (1831) has published a pictoral book.
British rule brought a major change in the ancient pandit-student pattern of learning that had predominated in Varanasi for 2,500 years. By the approval of the British Governor-General Warren Hastings in 1791, Jonathan Duncan, a British resident in Varanasi, founded a Sanskrit College, and in 1853 the present buildings of the college were built in Gothic style. The oldest local educational initiative goes back to Jay Narayan Ghosal, a rich landlord from Bengal, who with the British support founded a school in 1814. On similar lines in 1898 Annie Besant, the founder of Theosophical Society in India started a Central Hindu College, a campus which proved to be only the nucleus of a growing university. In 1916, the Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge, laid the foundation stone of what would become one of the largest and most beautiful universities in Asia, the Banaras Hindu University.Another aspect of the British period was the expansion of the activities of Christian missionaries. In 1816, the Baptist Society became the first Christian body to introduce a mission in the holy city. The Church Missionary Society of the Church of England had started to work in Varanasi beginning in 1817 and opened one churche at Sigra and another in the centre of the city at Godaulia crossing. The London Missionary Society was located in the British Cantonment beginning in 1820. Later in the century, the Wesleyan Missionary Society launched its Varanasi mission, and the Zenana Bible and Medical Mission started a hospital for women. These attempts of the Christian missions never had a chance of gaining momentum in Varanasi.
India received independence from the British rule on the 15th of August 1947, and declared a democratic republic state on the 26th of January 1950. Since 1947 no substantive change in the urban fabric and city morphology is recorded. On 15th October 1949 the district of Varanasi assumed its present form and area by the merger of the erstwhile Varanasi State (Kashiraj), and the city of Varanasi became the district headquarters.
In 1948 The Banaras Improvement Trust was constituted for making ‘Master Plan of Varanasi’, and in 1951 the first such plan was prepared. Its revision and modification were made in 1973 and 1982 when the revised plans were prepared. Not a single one of these plans was implemented; all of them were delayed and recommendations were made for further revision. The latest plan was submitted on 26th February 1996, when for the first time the concept of heritage planning and preservation of heritage zones was proposed. This plan was approved and accepted by the State Government in July 2001. In this plan five cultural zones have been identified with the purpose of a special handling of these zones.
In 1960s and 1970s, the Sarnath Institute of Tibetan Studies, and many Buddhist monasteries like the Chinese, Thai and Japanese were established. In 1990s many star hotels, mostly in the Mall area, were constructed to respond to the increasing influx of foreign tourists. Diesel Locomotive Works (DLW) was set up in 1961 with technical collaboration from USA; this is the only heavy industry unit in the district. In 1992 a new Hindu Observatory was opened in the compound of Sanskrit University. The five institutions, viz. Sampurnanand Sanskrit University, Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapith, Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, the Parshvanatha Jain Institute, and Jamia Salfia Darul-Islamia have been given the official status of Deemed University by the University Grants Commission.
Names and Tales
The city of Varanasi has been denoted by different names at different times in different contexts. Of course, the two names Kashi and Varanasi are the most common and were in use in early antiquity. The word Kashi means ‘concentration of cosmic light’. Kashi is the oldest name and was first used in the Atharva Veda (V.22.4), a ca.15th century BCE text: “Kashi shines and illumines the universe. Kashi makes moksha (liberation) dawn on everybody by giving wisdom”. In the period of the Mahabharata Kashi refers to the sacred city and its territory, which is comparable to the present area of Kashi Kshetra delineated by the Pancakroshi Yatra circuit. The name Varanasi refers to the capital city of the historical past, lying along the western bank of the Ganga river. The city lying between the Varana river in north and the Asi stream in south is known as Varanasi (Varana + Asi). According to a myth of the 15th century, the two rivers were created by the gods and placed in position to guard against the entrance of evil. In the early Puranas Varana river is called Varanavati or Varanasi, and the old city got its name as it was settled along the river. The Buddhist literature like the Jatakas frequently referred to Varanasi as Banarasi or Banaras. This is in fact a Pali version that became more popular and is still frequently used.
According to the puranic literature Lord Shiva said “Because I never forsake it, nor let it go, this great place is therefore known as Avimukta (‘never forsaken’)”. This refers to the myth that the city was never abandoned, even in the cosmic dissolution and additionally suggests that the spirit of city itself is the bestower of liberation to everybody, irrespective of caste, creed, hierarchy or class. The Kashi Rahasya (14.39) mentions that Shiva himself explains: “My lingas are everywhere there, like little sprouts arisen out of sheer bliss”, called the Forest of Bliss (Anandavana). The remnants of the five old forests are now preserved as the names of the neighbourhoods. The whole of Kashi is a cremation ground (Mahasmashana). Shiva is the controller and divinity of the cremation place. The Skanda Purana (IV.30.103-104) explains the word as follows: “Maha’, the great, ‘sma’ means a corpse, and ‘shana’ means final rest; when the dissolution of the universe comes, even the great beings lie here as corpses and therefore this place is called Mahasmashana”. People from different parts of India came here to die with a view to receiving liberation from the transmigration. Here death is a festival and auspicious.
The spiritual magnetism of Varanasi had attracted the Buddha here in the 6th century BCE to ‘Turn the Wheel of Law’. By the turn of 3rd century BCE, the great Buddhist king Ashoka had built a monastery township that flourished till 11th century CE. Now, the restored Sarnath has become a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists, and a place of spiritual tourism for others. The sense and spirit of holiness embedded in Varanasi has attracted people from various sects and religions like Vaishnavites, Shaivites, Tantrics, Buddhists, Jains, and even Muslim Sufis. In Varanasi alone, there are over 3000 Hindu shrines and temples, about 1400 Muslim shrines and mosques, 12 churches, 3 Jain temples, 9 Buddhist temples, 3 Sikh temples (Gurudvaras) and several other sacred sites and places. This is the only place in the world where such a huge number of Hindu and Muslim sacred places co-exist. The city is also known as the “City of Good Death & Liberation” and the place where ancestral souls could gain final release.
- See also: w:Varanasi#History