The Splendent


Vishveshwar (Golden Temple), Princeps 1822


Lying on the left bank of the Ganges, in the endless plain of the north, Varanasi is a millenary city, very important for the history and cultural making of India.

Among the many names and epithets they called it in the course of time, Kashi and Varanasi are certainly the oldest ones.


Ghats of Kashi


The kingdom of Kashi appears already on the Atharvaveda, while in the great epic Mahabharata refers to the territory, Mahajanapada, occupied by one of the tribes of the Vedic federation. The myth tells that Kasha, seventh descendant of the line Manu begat, gave the name to both the people and kingdom. After the fall of the kingdom, the name Kashi begin to be used to indicate the ex-capital, Varanasi, too, and both the name soon became synonyms. According to another Purana, Kashi may come from rishi (sage) Kasyapa. Kasha is also a herb (Saccharum spontaneum) which grew abundantly in that area. As religious centrality of the city was becoming established, the name Kashi was linked to the Sanskrit root Kash, to shine. Kashi is the Splendent because she lights up the way towards inner knowledge and this is the name religious literature chose for the city.

Dev Deepavali – Dasaswamedh ghat, 2002


Varanasi, Baranasi in Pali, the name which has always accompanied the city throughout its long history, probably comes from river Varuna, Varana or Varanati in the Mahabharata and Varanasi in several Puranas. The common meaning according to which the name would come from the river Varuna to the north and the little stream Asi to the south seems to be a late addition; a river Asi doesn’t appear on any of the ancient work and Asi Ghat was first mentioned in the 17th century. In the beginning the city occupied the plateau at the confluence of Varuna with the Ganges, as archaeological evidences fully support.

The historian of Moghul emperor Akbar, in 16th century, adopted Banaras that, on English people’s arrival, became Benares until 1956 when the original name Varanasi was restored. Today Varanasi means the city in its geographical position while Kashi refers to the city in spiritual and religious sphere.


Raj ghat, the escavation 1940


In 1940, during renovations of Raj Ghat’s Kashi station, near Malviya bridge, extraordinary settlements came to light. On the plateau between the Varuna and the Ganges, to north-east of present town, stood the ancient city (about 1000-800 B.C. – 1200 A.D.). The excavations was carried out on several occasion until the Seventies but unfortunately the excavation areas were limited while in deeper strata it wasn’t possible to investigate enough.

Limited to the east by the Ganges, to the north and west by Varuna river, Varanasi was a densely populated human settlement and an important economic centre long before Buddhist age. Textiles, perfumes, sandal, essences, cosmetics, ivory, ornaments and copper and iron tools market, it intersected two main routes in east-west and north-south commercial links.

Varuna river, 2009


The epic kingdom of Kashi didn’t managed to keep the independence and fell under the rule of its powerful neighbours: first Kosala, theatre of Ramayana, and then Magadha, patron of Jainism and Buddhism. Varanasi lost its state as capital, obtaining it again briefly almost two millennia later, during Gahadavala age (11th – 12th century A.D.).

Being its political comeback precluded, Varanasi concentrated on its trade activity and consolidated its reputation as centre where to learn Knowledge, whose position soon became absolute, surpassing Taxila and Mithila, the other two cities keepers of Vedic tradition. Nor the Nalanda famous Buddhist university, which became many centuries later the reference point of whole Asia, could never darken the prestige of Kashi.

Confluence of Varuna (sangam), 2009


The city, which in the first period of its existence had occupied Varuna opposite bank, too, was surrounded radially by craftsmen, labourers and peasants villages. Ashrams, that is to say schools and universities of the ancient times, were very numerous near the city. The lowland at the foot of the city, the modern town, was rich in springs, lakes, ponds and trickles of pure water, immersed in luxuriant vegetation that favoured the stay of communities-ashram, hermitages, temples, sadhu camps.


Shri Aghoreshwar Gurukul – School trip on the Ganges


The Vedic order was established since Mahajanapadas age but the ancient cults of the Mother Goddess, of the forces of nature and of fertility were prevailing among most people for many centuries. Many errant orders, among which Samana and Shramana, often critical or outside Brahmanic tradition and that shook a system very much in crisis, used to meet in the forests near the city. From these ascetics, yogins and unhortodox seekers rose new movements and schools of thought that produced among others Jainism and Buddhism.

Jainists, Jina’s (Victorious) followers, were present in Varanasi in a remote age. Parshvanath, the 23rd Tirthankara (Ford maker), son of king Asvasena, was born in Varanasi in the 8th century B. C.. Probably he is the first historical figure of Jainism that, two and a half centuries later, thanks to the support of the Magadha royal family, was made popular by Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankara and contemporary of Buddha. According to Jainist tradition Suparshanath, the 7th Tirthankara, too, would be born in Varanasi in very distant times. Jainists became a rich community thanks to trade and were great builders. They built wonderful buildings and temples that were almost all demolished by invaders. Jainists consider Kashi to be one of the holy and pilgrimage places (Tirtha) of their faith.

Varanasi had already got such an authority in religious and spiritual field that it was indeed chosen for Buddha’s first speech. What was promulgate in the Holy City would have spread far and wide. The Enlightened one (Buddha) covered 350 kilometres to start the “Wheel of Law” in Kashi.
In a forest surrounding the city, in Sarnath, Buddha made his famous first sermon. Since then this place housed a Buddhist settlement and since the 3rd century B.C., with the support of emperor Ashoka Maurya, Sarnath became an important Buddhist centre until the 12th century A.D.. This presence ruled the city for many centuries and its influence affected thought, religion, spirituality, arts, customs, literature enormously. Thanks to Buddhist scriptures, too, precious data about the city, partly confirmed by archaeological researches, have been handed down.


Dhamek Stupa, Sarnath

Until Buddhism had the protection of the rulers its ascendancy over the city was enormous but after the Mauryas his fortune were alternate. Shortly before Christ the kings Shunga supported Vedic revivalism, reintroducing the ten-horses sacrifice, Dasaswamedh, where today there is the Varanasi ghat which bears this name. Kushanas protected Buddhism in the following centuries but then they were drove out by kings Bhara Shiva, a Naga dynasty, who promoted the Vedism. The Hunas invaded the Gangetic plain during Gupta age and destroyed Sarnath. Narasimhagupta regain control but at the end of Gupta empire, the decline, inexorable, fell heavily upon the buddhist community.  Sarnath was rebuilt and in the XI century, thanks to queen  of buddhist faith Kumaradevi, wife of the Gahadavala king Govindachandra, brought back to splendor. Eventually the huge wealth accumulated by the monasteries attracted the greed of the Islamic invaders who since 12th century feel upon the undefended great centres, by plundering, burning and razing them.  Thousands of monks and laypersons were massacred. Buddhism faded and disappeared from India. Sarnath was forgot for centuries and despoiled of building materials until the 19th century.


Dasaswamedh ghat, 2006


It was not only religious stimuli and local events to leave marks in the character of the city. Its position in the plain of the Ganges saw it as a partaking witness of peoples who, from North-West, invaded the plain before the long Muslim domination: Indo-Greeks, Indo-Shiites, Indo-Parthians and Kushanas. These big passages left their cultural mark, as attested by the finds of Raj ghat.

The new ideas didn’t bring only heresy but also started the revisionism of ancient beliefs. Shiva, new face of the terrifying Vedic god Rudra who had absorbed part of the pre-existent cults, began the conquest of the city.


Kala Bhairava, Krin Kund Baba Kina Ram Sthal


Brahmanism always tried to regain supremacy and around the 8th century A.D. Adi Shankaracharya formulated the basis of the modern Hindu religion. Varanasi was confirmed again stronghold of Brahmanic orthodoxy but kept on receiving also those who didn’t belong to it, giving space and credit to their expression.


Dasaswamedh ghat, Princeps 1822


During the millennia it went through many hands several times, but it always remained an important city for religion, culture and trade, regardless of who ruled it. A stubborn and untameable city that Muslims attempted to annihilate it materially and morally for seven centuries, unsuccessfully. It was destroyed at least four times but Varanasi always returned to life. All today’s temples have been rebuilt recently, the previous ones had been demolished and used to erect mosques on the same places or as building material for the big architectural works. Aurangzeb cruelly harassed the city and even attempted to change its name into Muhammadabad but he failed. At the end of the 18th century the English took the place of the Muslims and Maharati Pandits, Rajas, all India religious institutions, rich Hindu merchants and Jains, vied to rebuild the Holy City, starting to give it the present look.


Bonsale ghat


During the heavy periods of drought, famine and epidemic that many times prostrated the city so much that it was brought near to collapse, Varanasi held out and never stopped lighting up the life of India. Poets, philosophers, musicians, artists, writers, as well as sages and saints, spent a part or the whole life in the city, creating the base of the modern Indian culture.


Lakes and ponds in the city – Princeps, 1822


The flourishing vegetation full of trees often sacred to the cult of the Yakshas, the richness of water and ponds (Kunds), very important for the purification rituals and for their connection with the Mother Goddess and the semi-divine beings of the underground world, had attracted practitioners and bards since far-off times.


Krin Kund, Baba Kina Ram Sthal


Lakes and ponds are amongst the first and most famous holy places on the outskirts of the ancient city but the advancing urbanization in the last millennium has caused their reduction or even their complete disappearance. Some big lakes and ponds were still present  on the map of the city traced out by James Princeps in 1822. Where now are some of the modern ghats, the steps descending steeply to the river, there were the drains of those waters, and cremations were performed at their confluence with the river. Princeps himself noted down that cremations were performed everywhere on the riverside. Crematory grounds (Shmashans) were conventionally placed south of the towns and maybe the first important one was Harischandra, known in the Puranas as Adi Manikarnika.


Manikarnika ghat, 2006


The present Manikarnika ghat, which houses the most famous modern Shmashan, is named after Manikarnika Kund, placed above the present crematory ground. The stone steps were built for the first time in 1302 but Manikarnika, or Chakrapushkarini Kund, had already been mentioned in a Gupta document of the 4th  century A.D. The Charan Paduka (Footprints) of Vishnu are not far from the present ghat, and mark the place were the god, in another Yuga, would have performed his sadhana to please Shiva, Lord of the city. Not far there is also Vishveshwar or Vishvanath temple, the Lord of the Universe, dedicated to Shiva, near the place where presumably it was built for the first time around the 5th  century A.D.


Manikarnika ghat, Princeps, 1822


Around the 6th century of the current era the city began to expand beyond Raj ghat toward south-west, reaching the present Gai ghat in 1100, during Gahadavalas’ kingdom. The first Islamic raids started shortly after the year 1000 but the old part was definitively left after the destructions perpetrated by Mohammad Gauri’s troops at the end of the 12th century and was never rebuilt. Only a small part near Raj ghat was inhabited till the 17th  century.


Gai ghat, 2006


Ghats on the riverside are the touristic symbol of the city and have enchanted the travellers of the last centuries, amazing them for the mosaic of styles and periods one right against the other.

Amongst the eighty-four ghats known today, from Asi ghat to the south to Adi Keshava to the north, twenty of them are less than one century old. A Gahadavala inscription of the 12th century quotes only five of them: Bhadaini, Svapneshwara, Prahalada, Raj, Adi Keshava. In a document of the 17th century their number rose to 25, in 1822 Princeps registered 57 ghats, which were 64 in 1909. Some of them arose from the division or redenomination of the previous ones. The ghats to the south of Asi, now absorbed in the southern part of the city, are not in the sacred route.

Adi Kesava ghat


Although the archaeological finds enable so far to date the ancient settlement only around the year 1000 B.C., the Puranas (of the Ancient Times) attribute a much bigger age to the city. These tell about a previous more ancient settlement, maybe a few kilometres far from the today’s position and that was probably left for geologic reasons.The origin of the royal lineages who ruled Kashi is lost in antiquity, dating back to the time before the bloody fratricidal war told in the Mahabharata poem. According to the texts and ancient calendars, the fight is to be placed before the third millennium B.C. (ca. 3137).


Vishnu Charan Paduka, Princeps 1822


The Puranas deal with the Creation of the Universe and Its cycles, the genealogy of Gods, Patriarchs, Kings, Heroes and Sages, the creation of the human race, the celestial ages (Yugas), the Hindu philosophy and the geography.
Known also as Fifth Veda, they are divided in Mahapuranas, Upapuranas, Sthala Puranas and Kula Puranas. There are also many Jain Puranas (Jains) while Buddhism has only a few.  Skanda Purana, the largest of Mahapuranas, contains a section dedicated to Kashi, the Kashi Kanda.
The Puranas describe Kashi as an eternal city, that existed in all the past ages and will exist in the future ones. God Shiva, the Ganges or the River of Paradise and the Holy City make a perfect trinity.
“The Ganges, Shiva and Kashi: where there is this Trinity it does not surprise that one can find the grace leading to perfect bliss” (Kashi Kanda)
The God chose it as his earthly abode, suitable for him and his bride Parvati, daughter of the mountains. Kashi does not belong to this physical universe; it lies on the points of the God’s trident, hanging outside of the world and protected from earthquakes. Shiva Vishveshwar rules the city with Annapurna Bhavani Shakti (Energy), Goddess of Livelihood. In the Puranas Kashi is also called Avimukta (Never left by Shiva), Anandavana (Forest of bliss), Rudravasa (City of Shiva-Rudra), Mahashmashana (Great Crematory Ground).

Because of this sovereign power of the God Shiva, the city is connected to the rituals of death and passing, ideal place where to leave human remains. For millenniums Indians have been hoping to die in Kashi, or at least to be cremated there, since here the supreme God would whisper in the ear of the dying person the Mantra that will give him the liberation from the cycle of rebirths.


Manikarnika Shmashan, 2006


Today Varanasi is a city bound to cultural and religious tourism, classical education, well-known for the many temples and crematory grounds,  hostels for the dying, funeral rites. Every spiritual current, the different monastic orders, the most important masters, religious institutions have at least a centre in the city and one can easily see ashrams (communities), maths (monasteries), dharamsalas (religious hostels), guest houses (boarding houses) of the different currents of Hinduism, one next to the other. Kashi is the holy city for many creeds and the one where it is important to be more than any other city. Kashi is the city of Aghoris and is amongst the most sacred cities in the world.


 Royal palace on the ghats, 2006



B. P. Singh   Life in ancient Varanasi

V.D. Mahajan   Ancient India

D. L. Eck   Banaras City of light

R. P. B. Singh   Banaras (Varanasi)

J.  Princeps   Benares Illustrated

M. A. Sherring  The sacred city of the Hindus

E. B. Havell   Benares The sacred city

V. Sundaram  Puranas – The source of ancient Indian history

R. P. B. Singh e P. S. Rana  Banaras Region – A Spiritual & Cultural Guide

N. K. Sharma  Varanasi

T. K. Basu  Varanasi The Luminous City