For years I yearned to visit Varanasi, the oldest and most sacred city in India. Somehow the desire and destiny did not merge till I saw the reports of the government of India’s priority in cleaning Varanasi and its River Ganga to showcase its glorious past. The news stimulated and hastened my decision to visit the “Eternal City.” Fortunately, my nephew Yash Shah, an IIT student at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), helped plan my tour and also arranged my meetings with Varanasi guides; BHU professors of history, religion and archaeology; and experts in culture and commerce.
On Dec. 6, 2014, I took an hour’s flight from New Delhi to Varanasi. Since all my activities and meetings were around BHU, I stayed in a hotel near the university. Prior to my next day’s walking tour of Varanasi — the old city at the Ghat (steps on riverbank) — I took a 6 a.m. boat ride in the Ganga River to cover different parts of the 8-kilometer-long Ghat with some 84 temples. I met with guides and experts and gathered some information.
According to the guide, Varanasi dates back to god Shiva’s life on Earth, many thousands of years ago. The archaeology experts have evidences of human habitation since 1800 BCE (some 3,800 years). Varanasi’s history is an amalgamation of faith and facts. Many of Varanasi’s commoners and intellectuals blend both faith and facts as complementary and not as contradictory viewpoints. In 800 CE, Kashi was one of the 16 states in India. Varanasi was the capital of Kashi. In 1800, British rulers renamed Varanasi as Banaras. India gained its independence in 1947. Later on, the city was given back its original name, Varanasi. There are references in the Puranas, Mahabharata and other Brahiminical scriptures to Varanasi up to probably 3000 BCE. An earlier period of Hinduism flourished well in Varanasi and created many Hindu temples in the area. In 600 BCE Buddha, on achieving enlightenment, gave his first sermon at Sarnath (near Varanasi). The 23rd Jain god, Parshwanath, a prince of Kashi’s king, was born in 800 BCE in Varanasi. In addition to Parshwanath, three other Jain gods (out of a total of 24 gods) — Suparshwanath, Chandraprabhu and Shreyansnath — were also born and preached Jainism in the Varanasi area. Locals speculated that Jesus Christ had visited Kashi. In 600 BCE, the 24th Jain god Mahaveer also visited Kashi. Varanasi, a divine habitat of many gods, is also known as the religious capital of India. Interestingly, all three religions — Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism — prospered in unison in Kashi.
According to Vedic texts, the River Ganga was born out of Shiva’s hair and has godly powers. Ganga is revered as a mother in India. The Ganga originates in the Himalayas, passes through four major states of India and finally flows into the Bay of Bengal. The Ganga touches the lives of some 200 million people on its journey. Varanasi, as Shiva’s abode, was a center of knowledge and power. It is a Hindu’s believe that those who die in Varanasi reach heaven, and hence many Hindus wish to breathe their last in Varanasi and be cremated on the banks of the Ganga. Varanasi is also known as Maha Smashan — a great and sacred cremation ground.
The 6 a.m. boat ride in the mighty Ganga showed us a spectacular bright red sunrise in cloudless blue skies. On the bank, there were many people who were bathing, washing clothes or praying, and the boat owners were bargaining prices with pilgrims for a ride in the Ganga. On the bank, the river water was full of dirt, plastic bags, wooden pieces, food, fruits, flowers, small oil lamps and more.
The Ghat has many steps from the street level down to the riverbank. The steps cover some 30-40 feet from the water level. In the monsoon season, the steps are deluged by the swollen Ganga. I walked in different Ghats as the guide detailed the history of some 84 temples belonging to Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religions. These Ghats were built by various kings of Indian states and religious heads over the last 3,000 years. As these Ghats and temples were built by different people at different times, they are variegated in their structures and appearances, thus creating a magnificent façade on the long riverbank. Behind the Ghat is the old city of Varanasi with many temples. The old city is very crowded with congested buildings and many narrow lanes, some 4 to 5 feet wide. The lanes are occupied by humans, cows, dogs and vehicles. It is tricky and rather difficult to walk around. The city has multiple business centers with hundreds of tourists and shoppers. The lanes are dirtied by cow dung and trash, making it very unhygienic. On two separate Ghats there are continual cremation activities, for around 200 bodies a day. All the remains of the cremation and offerings are diverted into the river. Hundreds of pilgrims perform Ganga worship by standing in waist-deep water after bathing. Offerings of flowers and fruits are thrown in the river.
Over the next two days, I met with BHU professors and experts and learned a lot about Varanasi — its past and present. In the evening, during sunset, we went back to the Ghat for a Ganga “aarti” — worship of mother Ganga — with drums, lamps, music and priests chanting scriptures. Hundreds of people were participating on the steps of the Ghats, and hundreds more joined in the boats. We sat on the top deck of a large boat to get a clear view of the vigorous, hour-long ceremony.
On the following days, we visited temples of four Jain gods who were born in the Varanasi area and Sarnath, all within a two-hour car ride from Varanasi. At Sarnath, we saw an ancient stupa built in 300 BCE by king Ashoka, who followed Buddhism. The famous Ashokan Lion Capital, emblem of the government of India, is kept in a nearby museum along with a collection of other rare, ancient artifacts. The Sarnath area with its temples, stupas and monasteries, is kept in a clean and pious environment.
Varanasi is a center of education with many schools and five major universities, including the famous BHU and Sanskrit University. Varanasi is also a center for arts, crafts, dancing, music and business. Varanasi’s silk and garments woven with embroidery of gold and silver threads are unique and have been exported all over the world for hundreds of years. Varanasi is the home of famous saints (Kabir, Tulsidas, Sankracharya), musicians (Bismillahkhan, Ravishankar), dancers (Kishan Maharaj, Gopikrishna) and scholars, educators,and physicians (Patanjali, Dhawantari, Shushutra, Radhakrishnan, Madan Mohan Malaviya). The present Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, was elected as a member of parliament from Varanasi. During the entire visit, I found local people to be happy and friendly. Most of them had a good knowledge of Varanasi’s history, philosophy and religion and felt very fortunate to reside in Varanasi.
I am glad that the Prime Minister Modi and the government are seriously endeavoring to clean Varanasi and Ganga. These efforts will surely improve the environment and cleanliness for all to enjoy and appreciate this historical city and its culture. I humbly suggested the following measures to a city official towards achieving the government’s goals:
(A) Clean all city lanes by establishing two to three centralized cow care centers (gausalas) on the Ghats to provide better care of cows. This will create a cleaner environment and ease the mobility of locals and visitors.
(B) Keep the Ganga and Ghats clean by installing trashcans all over the Ghats. The city should create cleaner and hygienic ways to cremate bodies with respectful rituals and divert all the remains of the cremation in a specialized zone for proper disposal, especially of the ashes. Also levy strict fines on those who throw anything into the river. Allow river offerings in multiple small pools created on the special areas of the Ghat. This will ease the disposal of offerings.
(C) The local government should clean the city, ghats and the river on a daily basis. Use modern technology to keep this sacred land and mother Ganga clean
The locals and the government owe to the world visitors a clean and enjoyable stay at Varanasi so as to fully appreciate and understand its history and culture. I will surely revisit Varanasi, as a student of history at BHU, to learn more about our heritage. India possesses an exceptional world treasure in Varanasi. Hence, the government and people have a dedicated duty to preserve it for the present and future generations.