The Varanasi Heritage Dossier/Summary

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Varanasi , also known as Benares,[1] (Banaras) or Kashi, is a city on the banks of the Ganges (Ganga) in Uttar Pradesh. It is considered the holiest of the seven sacred cities (Sapta Puri) in Hinduism and Jainism, and played an important role in the development of Buddhism. It is considered one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the oldest in India.[2]

The Ghats of Varanasi

It is a city of 1.5 million inhabitants (as of 2001), situated along the left crescent-shaped bank of the Ganga river in the middle Ganga Valley. It is well connected by railway route with the metropolitan cities of New Delhi (764km), Kolkata (677km), and Mumbai (1476km); it is also connected by roads (being situated on one of the country’s main road highways- the GT Road) and air services with most parts of India. The city is known the world over as the “sacred city” of India and is recognised as the “most ancient continuously living city of the world”, a fact discovered and proven through excavations, historic documents and chemical analyses. “The Ganga River and the Riverfront & Old City Heritage Zone of Varanasi”, are those being proposed for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List. The old city heritage zone also includes the unique associative cultural landscape formed by the Ganga river, the riverfront ghats (stone steps that lead up from the river to the city) and the related cultural, religious and social life.

The city of Varanasi is unique in the architectural, artistic and religious expressions of traditional Indian culture and is, even today, a living example of this culture. The city--- in the past and in the present--- is an exceptional testimony to living traditions--- to be seen to be believed--- in religious faith, rituals and myriad festivals, traditional and ancient forms of worship and belief that are still practised, in the varied expressions of asceticism, spiritual and meditative exercises, in traditional education, music, dance, handicrafts and art forms that still continue to be transmitted through generations. The old city centre and other important cultural and religious places are today enclosed within the modern city precincts and are seriously threatened by pressures of population, modernisation and development. The religious, philosophical and cultural heart of India, Varanasi, or Banaras as it is popularly called, or Kashi, as the ancient centre of the city was and is still called in the religious context- is the most important pilgrimage destination of the Hindus. The Sarnath zone, which is within the wider city precincts, is extremely important for Buddhists, the world over. The culture as seen and lived here is a rare heritage asset for Indians and for the citizens of the world, contributing to the cultural, philosophical and intellectual knowledge, of Indian culture and the cultural community of the world.

In the city of Varanasi have been found, underneath the sterile deposits of about 4m, microlithic tools associated with a kind of Red Ware, datable to the 4th and 3rd millennium BCE. The city has two main historic 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. and the second one being the 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) confirm the existence of urban settlements in the period during 800-500 BCE. Both these sites have been included in the heritage zones identified for nomination to the UNESCO heritage list. Archaeological investigations, supported by Robert C. Eidt (1977) on the basis of scientific analysis of the chronosequence of non-occluded/occluded phosphate ratios of the vertical profile of anthrosols in the Rajghat area of Varanasi, confirm the existence of the city from 800 BCE to CE 800. The results support the fact that residential settlement during this time span was uninterrupted. This further supports a claim that the site is the original centre of one of the oldest continuously occupied modern cities in the world. Moreover, the results of phosphate fractionation further indicate that the residents combined small farming with pastoral life.

The archaeological remains (e.g. pottery, terracotta, iron implements, artefacts, seals, etc) found in the area are datable to the ca. 9th century BCE, and include evidence of Black Slipped Ware Culture. Since at least 6th century CE, the city started growing as a pilgrimage site and by 12th century, it became the most popular holy centre for the Hindus. During this period, various deities and their images were established. Their number at present reaches over 3000 Hindu shrines and a few Buddhist, Jain and Sikh shrines. Later Muslim shrines also became prominent and now their number has reached over 1300.

Varanasi owes its existence to the Ganga river, or Gangā-ji (as the river Ganges is called in India) considered to be the most holy river for the Hindu people and especially sacred in Varanasi where its course towards the Bay of Bengal suddenly turns north. Symbolically, the flow from south to north refers to the life cycle from death (south, the realm of death, Yama) to life (north, the realm of life, Shiva, i.e. Kailash). This unique directional change of the river course led to the development of the ancient city, Kashi, on the west banks of the river, facing the rising of the sun and making thus the ghats of Varanasi sacred for all Hindu rituals. The beautiful narrow lanes behind the riverfront ghats in the old city are unreachable on four-wheel vehicles, making these riverfront ghats one of the last remaining cultural landscapes and heritage areas in the world where one can reach only on foot. Furthermore, the Ganga river has never been utilised for the purposes of navigation. Boatmen still use oars for rowing their boats and there are still very few motor boats on the river, giving the riverfront an unsurpassed atmosphere of tranquillity and magic.

The ancient association of the Ganga river with the religious, traditional and cultural fabric of the city and the immense influence of associated activities on the development of economic and social life of the city and on the related tangible and intangible cultural expressions is unique in the world. The Ganga river is rich in clay that is a natural absorbent of organic polluting substances. For centuries, the Ganga river and this ancient city have attracted philosophers, writers, poets, sages, musicians- Hindus, Muslims, Sufis, Buddhists, Jainism, alike, and it slowly became the most important centre for pilgrimage, philosophical dialectics, spiritual quests and related artistic and architectonic expressions.

The city today boasts of 5 universities, hundreds of active cultural institutes and religious establishments, traditional schools, music, dance and art forms that have spread to the world, local artisan and handicraft products in textiles, wood and metal work. The city has always played a special role, at least since 5th century BCE in promoting education--- debates and dialectics, religious, spiritual and scientific--- traditional medicine (aired), yoga, astrology. Further, the pattern of spatial transposition of holy sites is unique in the sense that all the important holy centres of India are replicated here before the 12th century. Varanasi can, in fact, be considered 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 traditional schools where Sanskrit and the sacred texts are still taught and in its multicultural and multi-linguist population.

The headquarters of an administrative division, Commissioner, comprising 6 districts, Varanasi today is a bustling city with wholesale and retail centres for diverse commercial activities. Varanasi, considered the microcosm of Hindu pilgrimage, visited by thousands of Hindu, Buddhist and Join pilgrims and foreign visitors each day, is extremely rich in architectural, artistic and historical buildings (temples, palaces, maths, mosques, ashrams, etc.). Besides being an indelible part of the city’s 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.

Since Varanasi has always been important for religious purposes, kings, rich merchants and others who could afford, built houses in Varanasi so that their members could come and stay here in the auspicious city. So most properties either belong to trusts, or are divided among many successors, or belong to people who presently live in other cities. While, on the one hand, this has led to little personal investment in the renovation of old buildings, on the other, it has prevented new architecturally disharmonious construction work to spread its roots. The few instances of demolition of old buildings and new construction activities have, however, been garish enough for the present conscious and sensitive city administration, local citizens and media to become immediately active. The Varanasi Development Authority has already drawn out a Master Development Plan of the City (1991-2011) and has identified heritage zones in the city therein. Although the architectural heritage of the city is still preserved, its existence is seriously threatened by immense pressures from increasing population, modernisation, economic development and tourism. The Varanasi Development Authority has, with the aim of achieving a sustainable development of the city based on its architectural preservation and the conservation of its cultural landscape, recently undertaken the creditable and immense task of compiling a comprehensive documentation of the vast architectural and intangible cultural heritage of the city and its surrounding region and of formulating a legislative framework to protect the same.



References[edit | edit source]

  1. The name that appears on the official map of the Indian Empire
  2. "Varanasi". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 30 October 2012.