The Varanasi Heritage Dossier/Varanasi: The Mosaic of Indian Culture and Universal Significance

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Benares. A lithograph by James Prinsep, 1832.

Varanasi is a city of 1.5 million inhabitants (in 2001), situated along the left crescent-shaped bank of the Ganga river in the middle Ganga Valley. By railway route it is well connected from New Delhi (764km), Kolkata (677km), and Mumbai (1476km); also it is connected by roads and air services from different 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 old areas of the city along with groups of heritage buildings and many heritage properties spread throughout the new city precincts are those being proposed for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Also included is 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 a living example of this culture even today. The cultural heritage of the city is unique and is an exceptional testimony to living traditions, to be seen to be believed, in religious faith, rituals and myriad festivals, traditional forms of worship and belief that are still practised, asceticism, spiritual exercises, education, music, dance, handicrafts and art forms that continue to be transmitted through generations. The old city centre and other important cultural and religious places are today enclosed within the modern city and are seriously threatened by pressures of 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 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.


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 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 wheels. And here it is important to note another uniqueness- that these riverfront ghats are one of the last remaining cultural landscapes and heritage areas in the world where one can reach only on foot.


The ancient association of the Ganga river with the religious, traditional and cultural fabric of the city and its immense influence on the development of economic and social life of the city and 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, and musicians and has slowly become the most important centre for pilgrimage, philosophical dialectics, spiritual quests and related artistic and architectonic expressions.


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 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. 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.


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, both religious and spiritual- traditional medicine (ayurveda), 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, Commissionary, 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 Jain 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. This architectural and cultural heritage is still preserved but its existence is seriously threatened by immense pressures from increasing population, modernisation, economic development and tourism.


The Master Development Plan of the City (1991-2011) has identified heritage zones in the city and has formulated bylaws accordingly for protecting it and for restricting and regulating the development here. The Varanasi Development Authority has recently undertaken the immense task of compiling a comprehensive documentation of the vast architectural and intangible cultural heritage of the city with the aim of formulating a legislative framework for its sustainable preservation and for the conservation of its cultural landscape.


Solar shrines and Cultural Astronomy[edit]

Like many old and sacred cities in the Oriental world, the metaphysical ideology based on cosmological principles has been a dominant force shaping the cultural landscape of Kashi/ Varanasi. In the human process of revealing and rediscovering the dialectic nature of wholeness, man has searched the niches and places of interconnectedness where nature, cosmos, and human psyche form a whole and that whole transform into holy. According to the Manasara, a 10th century CE text of Hindu architecture, the layout of the Hindu city is based on the "Cosmic cross", the cardinal points of which are the corners of the universe, thus the whole city is celestial city -- a cosmogram. Kashi, means ‘where the cosmic light concentrates in circle’, is a well-known example of sacred cosmogram. The symbolic and ritual landscape of Kashi is a paradigmatic example of self-organisation in a pilgrimage system. Pilgrimage circuits of great complexity and variety surrounds its centre and encloses a nest of natural and symbolic cycles, which provide stability for the system and articulate its meaning.


Kashi contains many sacred routes and territories defined and followed by pilgrims in different context, however the five among them are given special consideration in terms of cosmogony and sacred geometry. The four routes form an irregular shape of circle, while the covering and outer route is identical to a circle. The four inner sacred journeys meet at Jananavapi, the axis mundi. The temple of Madhyameshvara serves as the centre for the covering circle, and firstly referred in the Padma Purana (Sristi Khanda, 65.14-20 ), a 7th century text. The pilgrimage to the outer circuit is no more performed. By the existence of the above two axis mundis, the whole system becomes complex. These five sacred territories are mytholised as the archetypal manifestation of macrocosmos (gross elements, e.g. sky/ether, earth, air, water, fire), mesocosmos (the corresponding five sacred routes), and microcosmos (body symbolism, associated with the transcendental power and the sheath, kosha ).


Of course, at present the Sun worship is not so prominent in the ritual landscape of Kashi, the Sun god is regularly visited and worshipped together with other major gods like Shiva, Vishnu and the goddess. Historical evidences refer that during the Gupta period, 4-5th century CE, the sun worship was common and by the turn of 12th century it was well established. The Kashi Khanda, a 14th century text, refers 14 sun images (Adityas) and shrines in Varanasi, expressing the multiple qualities and meanings. All of them exist at present and are part of the ritual landscape. All these temples and shrines together with others were razed in late 12th century by the Mughal invaders. However, the devout people have survived the spirit of place. This way, the sacredscape related to sun god and his shrines refers to a form of 'non-destructive archaeoastronomy'.


Out of 14 Adityas, 10 lie approximately along an isosceles triangles formed by Uttararka (no. 14), Karna (no.3 ), and Khakhola Aditya (no.11). The longest side is established by the Karna and the northern sun, Uttararka (see Fig. 7a); this line represents the cosmic north with a little variation of only 1.14º eastward, which is negligible in human cognition. The two opposite sites of the triangle have sides of 2001m and 1997m, respectively, equal to within 0.2%, which is comparable to the precision of our GPS data (see Singh and Malville, 1995: 71). The shrine of Madhyameshvara lies inside the triangle, a mere 45 meters away from the centre of the 2.5-km long north-south side. The location of Madhyameshvara close to the centre of the Aditya triangle is significant; before the Muslim occupation Madhyameshvara was one of the oldest and greatest temples of Varanasi as site of the Lord of the Centre. Madhyameshvara was the original centre of the city, which would have been symbolically surrounded and protected by the light of Adityas. Today's centre of Varanasi is at a different location, i.e. Jnanavapi, a holy well close to Vishvanatha temple. The geometric regularity of the Adityas combined with our discovery that the centre of the Aditya triangle encourages us to believe that we have recovered the sites of many of the original sun temples (see Malville and Singh, 1998: 6).

A number of the Adityas are associated with specific astronomical events and solar symbolism. Khakhola Aditya (no. 11) is associated with a fascinating story involving two sisters, Vinita, the mother of birds, and Kadru, mother of snakes. As a result of competition, Kadru sent coiled black snakes onto the surface of the sun. When they left the sun due to actions of Vinita, the snakes fell in flames. The story may refer to two major astronomical events that occurred at the end of the 11th century: a major outbreak of sunspots starting around CE 1077 and unusual intense showers of meteors in CE 1060-1090 (Malville and Singh, 1995). Further south, Mayukha Aditya (no.9) describing an event when the sun left sky, with only his rays remaining, may be associated with the total solar eclipse that was visible in Varanasi in 1054 CE. The southern edge of the triangle, Karnaditya is associated with Karna, a major figure of the Mahabharata who was the son of Surya (sun god) and Kunti. He was distinguished by an extraordinary generosity, always giving away whatever was asked of him. Karnaditya symbolizes the generosity of the sun, which provides unlimited energy to the earth and its creatures, asking nothing in return. The southernmost of the Adityas, Lolarka, is one of the most ancient sacred places in Varanasi and is the location of the great festival of Lolarka Shashthi when couples come to bathe in order to conceive a son, at which time the meaning of sun as the source of human fertility is fully demonstrated.


It is tempting to identify movement through outermost circuits as circulation around the Lord of the Centre, Madhyameshvara, and movement through the innermost regions as that of merging with the centre of Jnanavapi. The cardinal and inter-cardinal directions are referred as reference points describing routes, however they rotate at different degrees. This can be explained with comparison of 56 Vinayaka ("elephant-headed god", son of Shiva) shrines which are located on the spiral route ( 7 rounds) and following upon the cardinal bisecting points ( 8 directions). The size (17.6 km from Jnanavapi to Dehli Vinayaka) and explicit directionality of the Vinayaka mandala provide an opportunity for comparing the ideal geometry with the real geography (see Singh and Fukunaga, 1999). The exact locations of the Vinayakas have been measured with the help of GPS receivers (see Fig. 7b). The radial alignment of shrines on the outermost circuit of the spiral is suggestive of an attempt at large-scale organisation, where exists multiple centres; in case of Kashi there are two, i.e. Madhyameshvara and Jnanavapi. Respectively, they define the limit of outer territory, and the merger of the innermost segment. By this one finds a state of non-equilibrium, however it is a dynamic and functioning, what Cambel (1993: 4) has expressed “Complex systems are dynamic and not in equilibrium; they are like a journey, not a destination, and they may pursue a moving target”.

See also : Sacred time & Temporal Site for Cultural Integration

The Ganga riverfront catches up the historically developed socio-religious ideals, values, place consciousness of pilgrims and their faith- altogether help to form a unique faithscape. This provides the hope for belonging, the firm belief among the residents; and pilgrims, or visitors' thought and feeling to realise the cultural milieu of Hinduism. The Ganga does have a deep sense of place because it has a history of divine attachment since ancient past as eulogised in mythological literature. In Varanasi the riverfront Ganga provides a site-series of 84 ghats (stairways to the bank) as the special chain of sacred places. The first rays of sunrise reaching upon the water current of the Ganga and their reflection on the magnificent buildings along the ghats compel to remind the Hymn to the Dawn of the Rig Veda (1.113);

"Arise; The breath of life hath back to us, the darkness is gone, the light approacheth".

Other quotations[edit]

Says Havell (1905 : 94) :

"It seems, at first, as if the whole amphitheatre, about two miles (in fact, four miles) in circuit, glittering in the sunlight, were one vast sun-temple: the priests, the Brahmins who are muttering the holiest of their mantras, the mysterious sun-invocations from the Rig Veda -the famous Gayatri – the priestesses, the women whose saris repeat the colours of the dawn, fast fading now in the white light of day; the votive-offerings, the golden marigolds and rose- petals which are piled in baskets on the ghat steps, and float on the surface of the water".


Says Greaves (1909 : 32) : " All and many features contribute to make the complete view, one which stands quite alone, and possibly could not be surpassed in the whole world for genuine picturesqueness".


Says Sherring (1868: 9) : "For picturesqueness and grandeur, no sight in all the world can well surpass that of Benares as seen from the river Ganges / Ganga".


In archetypal connotation the 84 Ganga ghats represent 8,400,000 organic species according to Hindu mythology, thus each ghat gives merit of becoming purified in 100,000 life-species. Further, 12 months/zodiacs x 7 layers of atmosphere comes to 84; thus annual cycle of cosmic journey is completed with taking sacred baths at the 84 ghats

See also w:Ghats in Varanasi


According to the Prayaschitta Tatva (1.535), a ca 9th century text “One should not perform fourteen acts near the holy waters of the Ganga river, i.e., excreting in the water, brushing and gargling, removing all clothes from the body, throwing hair or dry garlands in the water, playing in the water, taking donations, performing sex, having sense of attachments to other holy places, praising other holy places, washing clothes, throwing dirty clothes, thumping water, and swimming”.

The Padma Purana (Bhumikhanda, 96.7 - 8) states that persons who engage in such unsociable activities and engage in acts of environmental pollution are cursed and will certainly go to hell.


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