The Varanasi Heritage Dossier/Justification

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Dashashwamedh Ghat, Varanasi

“The Ganga River and the Riverfront & Old City Heritage Zone of Varanasi” being proposed for nomination to the World Heritage List of UNESCO fall mainly into the second category of cultural properties, i.e: “groups of buildings, groups of separate or connected buildings which, because of their architecture, their homogeneity or their place in the landscape are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art or science.” These groups of buildings identified in Varanasi fall into the category of a historic inhabited town, now enclosed within the modern city precincts, i.e., according to UNESCO, those “historic towns which are still inhabited and which, by their very nature, have developed and will continue to develop under the influence of socio-economic and cultural change, a situation that renders the assessment of their authenticity more difficult and any conservation policy more problematical.” Furthermore, the Ganga river with its riverfront ghats also fulfil the criteria of Cultural Landscapes as designated in Article 1 of the Convention and specifically that of a cultural landscape “that retains an active social role in contemporary society closely associated with the traditional way of life, and in which the evolutionary process is still in progress“ and an associative cultural landscape “by virtue of powerful religious, artistic, cultural associations of the natural element.”

The principal grounds for including “The Ganga River and the Riverfront & Old City Heritage Zone of Varanasi” in the World Heritage List rests on the unique outstanding universal value of its architectural heritage, symbolising and linked strongly to the living cultural and religious traditions of three of the major religions of the world- Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, for whom the city is the most important destination for religious pilgrimage. The proposal to inscribe Varanasi further rests on the rare and unique living expression of the religious and cultural importance of the Ganga river whose sacredness has led to the settlement and growth of the ancient city and which still continues to be the main reason for the religious and cultural importance of the city in the country and in the world.

Once Mark Twain famously commented (1898): “Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”.

And says M. A. Sherring (1868) while introducing the history of Banaras- “The history of a country is sometimes epitomised in the history of one of its principal cities. The city of Banaras represents India, religiously and intellectually.”


The further justification of the above zone, according to the relevant criteria laid down by UNESCO, is as follows.

A Unique Testimony to the Living Traditions of Indian Culture: A City like No Other in the World[edit]

On the banks of the Ganga river, a faith in itself, stands Hinduism’s most sacred city--- Varanasi. A city like no other in the world, Varanasi has outstanding universal value, in that its architectural heritage is linked strongly, since centuries, to the living cultural and religious traditions of three of the major religions of the world- Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism for whom the city is the most important religious pilgrimage destination. There are few cities in the world of greater antiquity and none have so uninterruptedly maintained their ancient celebrity and distinction. In fact, Alberuni, who wrote around 1000 CE, and had heard the holy fame of Banaras, compares it to Mecca. The living cultural heritage of the city together with its extensive built heritage and its unique natural landscape is an inimitable asset, continuing to contribute to the traditional, religious and cultural knowledge of the world.

Varanasi, even today, is the only city in India that could be said to epitomise Indian culture. Surviving several destructive attacks of invaders and intense pressures of modernisation, the city still gives one the strong and real feeling of what traditional Indian culture is.

The presence and sacrality of the Ganga river has always attracted sages, philosophers, travellers, mystics to this place. Mystics and sages have stayed on once they reached the river banks and here they have discovered new realms of the spiritual being. The old city has been the meeting place, for centuries, of leading philosophers and religious thinkers of India, who have participated in and promoted philosophical dialectics and debates, accepting defeat and even adopting the new victorious philosophical and logical axioms and reasoning. The city has always possessed a strong force of spiritual magnetism for those desiring to cross over from this world to the world beyond. It is for this that the city has found its place in all the great Indian epics, Puranas and other ancient Hindu and Buddhist literature.

Religious rituals, beliefs and traditional worship are still practised. It was in Banaras that Buddhism was first promulgated and in Banaras that Hinduism has had her home. The city has thus given vigour and support to the two religions that to this day spiritually govern half the world. Ancient meditative practises and studies are still pursued here. From the ceremony of shaving off the hair of the new-born to the immersion of ashes, the city still witnesses the rituals and sacraments that existed in the Vedic period. The city continues to be the centre for disciples, followers and groups of all major Indian philosophical and theistic schools of thought. Contemporary Indian spiritual gurus too desire having at least one base in Varanasi, such is still the spiritual, sacramental and cultural vibration and importance of the city. Varanasi is also considered to be a veritable jungle of fairs and festivals with respect to variety, distinction, time, sacred sites, performers, overseers and side-shows. The popular saying that 13 festivals happen in 7 days of a week, express this richness. “Every day is a great festival in Banaras” – so says tradition.

Living traditions in Indian Sciences and Arts. In this city, one finds as nowhere else in the country, experts, researchers, students and practitioners of ancient Indian sciences like astrology, Vastushastra (traditional architecture), teaching of Sanskrit and religious texts (in existing traditional Sanskrit schools), yoga, ayurveda and massage techniques. Dhanvantari or Divodasa, the father of traditional Indian medicine, or ayurveda, was one of the earliest kings of this city and Shushruta, the father of Indian surgery too was educated in Varanasi.

The Banarasi music and dance traditions are manifested in a special local style known as the Banaras Gharana (style). Many great musicians and performing artists have been born here and still regularly return to visit and to perform for the public as their tribute to the spirit of the soil. Besides renowned artists of the last century like Sharda Sahai and Anokhe Lal for tabla, Pt. Mahadev Misra for vocal singing, some of the most internationally famous contemporary names in Indian music and dance belong to this city- like Ravi Shankar, the maestro of Sitar, Bismillah Khan maestro of Shehanai, Girija Devi and Siddheshwari Devi acclaimed as vocalists, Kishan Maharaj for Tabla, Sitara Devi for Kathak dance forms and many others known for their contributions in the field of music and performing arts.

Handicrafts. The city is famous not only as a seat of learning and art, but also as a centre of cottage industries and textile manufacturing even in Pre-Buddhist times. Silk weaving and sari making, metal, wood and terracotta handicrafts, toy making, particular painting forms, etc., comprise the continuity of the historico-cultural tradition. The silk of Varanasi is famous in India and people come here from all corners of the country to buy this silk for marriages and for special religious festivals. Saris are still woven on handlooms through indigenous methods and are still in demand. Also famous are the intricate metal works in bronze, especially the statues of Gods, wooden work for making toys and special pink enamel work for wall paintings.

Unparalleled Value of the Philosophical and Intellectual Contribution of the city to the Indian and World Culture. The city has played a special role in promoting education, debates and dialectics both religious and spiritual, and manifestation of holy centres, of pan- India sites. Despite the repeated destruction of the city during the past centuries, Varanasi continued to be an important centre of intellectual life and religious thought. The age-old traditions of learning and discourses for which the city was famous could not easily be broken, for they were independent of the rise and fall of temples. Various reformers and mystics like Kabir and Tulsidas received inspiration from this city. Teaching and training of Sanskrit and Ayurveda (traditional system of Indian Medicine) has been here since at least 5th century BCE. Further, the pattern of spatial transposition of holy sites is unique in a sense that all the important holy centres of India are replicated here before the 12th century. This way it represents a mini-India, perceived as Cultural Capital of India. There are presently, five universities, several institutes and around hundred traditional Sanskrit and Islamic schools.


Evidence of a disappeared civilisation[edit]

The city has two remnants of a holy past: the first one being Sarnath where Buddha gave his first sermon, “Turning the wheel of law” in ca.528 BCE. Later during 3rd century BCE, king Ashoka built a monastery township there that continued its existence till 12th century CE and was later destroyed. The second one is Rajghat Plateau, where the archaeological findings and the C14 dating of some of the wares excavated from the earliest level (upper part of IA layer, sample No. TF-293) refer the existence of urban settlements in the period during 800-500 BCE.

An Outstanding example of a river front associative cultural landscape[edit]

The riverfront of the Ganga river, forming the eastern edge of the city, possesses a unique history, and presents a specific vision of a magnificent architectural row of lofty buildings and holy sites. The city represents a unique natural shape along the Ganga river which flows northerly in crescent shape for about 7km and the city has grown on the left bank in circular form around it. The area along the right side is a flood plain, preserving the natural ecosystem. The natural heritage of the city, in the form of the river, predominates and strongly influences the nature and characteristics of the religious and sacred importance of the city. Thus, together the two sides represent the cultural and natural heritage, which is unique in whole of India and the aesthetic harmony between the river and the city is rare in its presentation.

There are 84 ghats (stairways to the riverbank), forming a symbolic chain of holy sites. In archetypal terms, each ghat represents 100,000 organic species (yonis) as described in Hindu mythologies. Thus by taking holy dips in the Ganga at all the ghats, it is said that the individual soul gets purified in all the 8,400,000 species. This number also refers to the annual cosmic journey, i.e. 12 zodiacs multiplied by the 7 layers of the atmosphere, or 7 chakras (sheaths). The Puranic mythologies refer to 96 sacred water spots (jala tirthas) along the Ganga bank, which is also considered to be a cosmic symbol, i.e. a product of 12 zodiacs and 8 directions. However, by the turn of 16th century the 96 jala tirthas get concentrated around the 84 ghats. Every morning, around quarter of a million people take a holy dip, but the bathers number near to over a million on special occasions like the full moon in October-November (Karttika Purnima) and on solar and lunar eclipses.

Since ancient times, the natural and cultural landscapes of the city have retained an active social role in contemporary society closely associated with the traditional way of life. The city is a place of pilgrimage and a holy site for taking sacred baths in the Ganga River, to have a good death, to get relief from transmigration, to learn and receive spiritual merit, etc. The city has still maintained its traditions. In spite of invasions and political downfalls, traditions are fully alive even today in the presence of “dying homes”, charitable homes, pilgrims’ rest houses, ghats (stairways) along the Ganga that are some of the city’s unique characteristics.


Unique Geological formation of the Ganga river in Varanasi[edit]

The Ganga river, considered the most holy river for the Hindu people, is especially sacred in Varanasi where its course towards the Bay of Bengal suddenly turns to north. From its source in the Himalaya to its mouth in the Bay of Bengal, covering a course of about 2525km, only in Varanasi does the Ganga river flow in a crescent shape meander from south to north (length 6.5km). This peculiar shape is the result of fluvial process through which the coarser sediments get deposited on its western bank between Raj Ghat in the north and Samne Ghat in the south. The portion between these two points a hillock-like geologic feature, called natural levée, consists of nearly 60m bed of clay with coarse-grained sand, limestone concretion (kankar) and gravel. Another similar ridge like formation exits other side at Ramanagar where exists the fort. This peculiar geological formation changes the flow of the Ganga in a half-circular shape. This sharp-bend meander is only observed in Varanasi throughout its course (cf. Kumar, G. 1999). This unique geological formation has provided the base for the growth of the city in a crescent shape, symbolically described as crescent moon on the forehead of Lord Shiva. In terms of river ecology, this characteristic is also considered as the unique aspect of energy quantum and direction of the energy flow. In fact, this whole bed of the Ganga river is an example of natural heritage.

The rich abundance of clay has kept the eco-system of the Ganga river still intact but increasing urban and industrial pressure and pollutant agricultural run-offs are stretching sustainable limits of the river system to the maximum. The sacrality of the river water is also said to be related to the reinvigorating medical qualities of the abundant clay present in the river.


A Mini India[edit]

The city considered as the microcosm of Hindu pilgrimage, is visited by thousands of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain pilgrims and foreign visitors each day and known the world over as the “sacred city”, is rich in architectural, artistic and historical buildings (temples, palaces, maths, mosques, ashrams, etc.). Besides being an indelible part of our heritage, these buildings, along with the local religious and cultural life, constitute an immense resource for tourism (both religious and cultural tourism, Indian and foreign) that is one of the major economic activities of the city. Varanasi is a living symbolisation and a living expression of Indian culture and traditions in all its religious rituals, in its multi-ethnic artistic traditions, in its architectural treasures, in its life-expressions, in its particular relationship with life and death, in its ancient educational forms and methods and in its multi-ethnic population.


Varanasi is the mosaic of Indian culture with respect to representing the diversity and the distinctiveness of the regional cultures of India. Superimposition of various traditions have been added one upon the other in the course of time. People from all parts of India, speaking different languages and dialects and carrying their own traits, taboos and traditions have settled in this city for solace, peace and sacred merit and also as a consequence of different invasions, while inwardly preserving their own culture and outwardly becoming part of the mosaic culture of the city. This synthesis of diversity in regional identity, language and tradition converges to form the personality of an all-India city, Varanasi. In this manner Varanasi has evolved as a mosaic of social-cultural space, representing the whole of India. Brahmins from different parts of the country came and settled around the important Hindu temples. Sikhs, Sindhi, Bengali, Tamil and Telegu, Gujarati, and other small groups too from various parts of India have occupied many pockets of the city and maintained their regional cultures. Muslims settled mostly in the suburban areas in the north. Mythology says that even those who came to disturb the city, ended up settling here and became an integral part of its culture. This is the only city where textually described cosmogonic frame and geomantic outlines are existent in their full form and totality, thus making the city universally significant.


Archetype of an All-India Holy Place. The process of spatial transposition of holy centres of India has started in the 6th century and reached its climax by the 13th century, the Gahadavala period. All the pan-Indian and regionally prominent sacred sites have been replicated in Varanasi. Mythological literature has been created to manifest the power of holy in those sites, which finally resulted in making this city the “holiest” for Hindus that preserved the cosmic “wholeness”. This together with the mosaic of ethnic and social structure further helped in the formation of Varanasi as the “cultural capital of India”. For example, the sites of the four dhams (abode of gods), the holy centres in the four cardinal directions of the country, i.e. Badrinath in the north, Jagannath Puri in the east, Dvaraka in the west and Rameshvaram in the south, are re-established in Varanasi in archetypal form as their representative around the nuclei of the presiding deities at Matha Ghat (Badrinath), Rama Ghat (Puri), Shankudhara (Dvaraka) and Mir Ghat (Rameshvaram). Similarly other sacred centres are spatially manifested in Varanasi where there are over 3000 Hindu shrines and temples, about 1400 Muslim shrines and mosques (more than any Muslim site), 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.


Jains and their temples. After the Mahabharata War (ca 1400 BCE), changes and transformations in Hinduism had took place. At this moment Jainism appeared as an alternative reformation movement. The Jain literature refers to Banaras as a Jain Tirtha (holy place) because here were born 4 of the Jain Tirthankaras (the “ford-makers”). In the 8th century BCE Parshvanatha was born around Bhelupur in Varanasi who established the triad-principle of the Mahavratas (‘great vows’): Ahimsa (non-violence), Asteya (non-stealing) and Aparigraha (non-accumulation). The main Jain images excavated at this site belong to the 9th-11th centuries. Parashvanath was followed in the 6th century BCE by Mahavira, a younger contemporary of the Buddha, who also visited Varanasi during his 42nd year of itinerant teaching. The birthplace of Suparshvanatha, the 7th Tirthankara, is also described in the Jain literature, though its location and identification have still not been confirmed. The temple of Suparshvanatha in Bhadaini (house no. B 2/ 89) commemorate that incident. It is believed that the present Jain temple in Sarnath, near the Dhamekha Stupa, was built to commemorate the birthplace of Shreyamshanatha, the 11th Tirthankara. He was born in the nearby village of Simhapur. The birthplace of the 8th Tirthankara Chandraprabhu, is identified with Chandravati. This is an ancient village lying on the Varanasi-Ghazipur road at 23km northeast from Banaras at the western bank of Ganga River. There are two Jain temples belonging to the Svetambara and Digambara groups of the Jains. These temples were built in 1892 and 1913, respectively.


Sikhs and their holy shrines. Sikhs are known as a special community called into being through the work of Guru Nanak (1469-1539), the founder, and his successors. Legends suggest that Nanak visited Varanasi two times; firstly when in his oneth when he was on pilgrimage as described in the janam-sakhis. Later he came to have discourses with saints living in Varanasi and also to convey his messages in 1506 on the day of the Maha Shivaratri festival and stayed in a garden at Luxa, which later came to known as Guru Bagh. The Adi Granth consists of the hymns of Guru Nanak and of the first five gurus as well as poems by great earlier saint-poets and singers such as Kabir and Raidas. The Guru-ka-Bagh (Gurudvara at Gurubagh) commemorates the locality where Guru Nanak stayed and the Asu Bhairava Sangat, the place where the 9th Guru Tegh Bahadur (1664-1675) had stayed in 1666. Asu Bhairava had also been the residence of Guru Govind Singh (1675-1708), the 10th and the last guru.


Christianity and Churches. Varanasi came under the direct political control of the East India Company in the time of Warren Hastings by end of the 18th century. By serving the cause of Sanskrit teaching and Hindu theology through establishing a Sanskrit School in 1791 (by Jonathan Duncan), the East India Company has established a strong foothold for Christianity in the city. The first English Seminary, named Anglo Indian seminary, was established in 1830, and this encouraged the development of Christian missionaries. Presently, there are eleven important churches in Varanasi, viz. St. Thomas (at Godaulia), Red (Nadesar), St. Paul (Sigra), David’s Church (Teliabagh), St. Mary (Cantt.), Bethlehem Gospel (Mahmoorganj), Evangelical Church of India (D.L.W.), St. Mary Cathedral (Cantt.), Church of Varanasi (at Sunderpur and Kakarmatta), and Pilgrims’ Mission (Cantt.).


Muslim Heritage Sites and Monuments. Muslims constitute 35.7% of the total population of Varanasi City and have earned a significant place in the society, culture, landscape and traditional economy of the city. The invasions of Mahmud of Ghaznawi in 1021-1030 CE had opened the door to Muslim settlement in Varanasi. With reference to spatial, functional and numerical perspectives, the Muslim sacredscapes of Banaras may be grouped into 7 types. They are: Masjid (mosque) 415, Mazar (religious-cultural sites) 299, Imamchauk (the crossing sites for Taziya) 197, Takiya (burial ground) 88, Idgah (place of special prayer) 11, Imambara (the burial site for Taziya) 3, and Others 375. The total number of sacred places reaches to 1,388 of which about 30 per cent fall under the mosque category.

Combining the Spiritual and the Material[edit]

Varanasi in comparison to cities of its size is a balanced multifunctional city with six sporadic industrial areas at Ramanagar, Chandpur, DLW, Lahartara, Lohta and Shivpur. The urban morphology of the city shows a complex pattern where traditions are maintained and modernity is introduced often in a discordant way. The site areas that are the highest in the density of religious heritage properties are also the highest in the density of commercial wholesale and retail outlets. These commercial activities range from gold and silver jewellery, saris, typical food products of the city- and the lanes are still called by the category of wares they trade in- utensils, jute and bamboo carpets, handicrafts, publishers and book shops, stationery articles and handmade paper, etc. And it is here one find some of the oldest and most important shrines of Hindu deities like Kal Bhairava, Dandapani Bhairava, Vishveshvara, Annapurna and the kundas. It is here that one finds products for the enjoyment of man’s material life and here that one is en route to the cremation ghat- life and death, material enjoyment and spiritual quest, immanent and transcendent juxtaposed uniquely together.

The “joie de vivre” Culture[edit]

Banaras: where “always ready” (Bana) is the “juice of life” (ras)! It is the blending or “complex mixing” of these, which makes up the mosaic of culture known as Banaras, the City of Lord Shiva. For several thousand years, pilgrims have cleansed themselves of their sins here and sought release from the cycle of rebirth. This is perceptible everywhere here: in a decorated doorway, in the glimpse of a glittering temple, in the sound of the sacred bell, in the chant of the priests and in the fragrance of flower and incense oblations. The natural setting, the spirit of place, and the continuity of cultural traditions have all blended together to create and preserve a unique lifestyle known as Banarasi. The life style of Banaras is distinct in nature, and referred to as Banarasipana. It is an art of living, both passionate and carefree, both relaxed and concentrated, both intense and free, both traditional and modern- what the Banaras dwellers call masti (“joie de vivre”), mauj (“delight, festivity”) and phakarpan (“carefreeness”).

Heritage at Risk[edit]

The heritage zones, areas and properties identified above are at the risk of being irreversibly modified or even destroyed due to immense pressures from tourism, economic development and population pressures which are now threatening the unity and integrity of the cultural landscape and atmosphere, and the urban skyline in these zones. This increasing population is over burdening the carrying capacity of the urban environment and the river eco-system and unplanned mass tourism could potentially have a hard impact on the cultural carrying capacity of the old city centre. Social hygiene and sanitation methods too are beginning to bend under the pressure of a growing resident population and a constant large floating population. Unlike the past, very few trees remain today and the green areas of the city too are at a high risk of being depleted. The trees one can still see in the zone being proposed for nomination to the UNESCO list are at the risk of being felled down as constructed areas begin suffocating the tree roots.



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