In the late 19th century as the American author Mark Twain was touring around the British Empire, he landed in Kashi. “Benaras is older than history,” he wrote about what he considered the oldest city in civilisation, “…older than tradition, older even than legend and twice as old as all of them put together.”
Indeed it is Kashi’s claim to an antiquity that cannot be defined through time that makes it one of the most special places in India. As an outsider, Twain’s retelling of the significance of the city, which he picked up during his travels, suggested that the Hindu God Vishnu “built the globe around it”. “Benaras is thus the centre of the earth. This is considered an advantage,” he summarised.
For the western visitor, Kashi was a city at par with Mecca, Jerusalem and Rome, as the holiest centre of Hindu pilgrimage. In the 1860s, for instance, British civil servant Norman Macleod wrote: “Benaras is to the Hindoos what Mecca is to the Mohammedans, and Jerusalem was to the Jews of old. It is the holy city of Hindostan. I have never seen anything approaching it as a visible embodiment of religion; nor does anything like it exist on earth.”
Kashi’s centrality in Hinduism is evident even today from how a large number of communities from across the subcontinent associate this city with pilgrimage and sanctity. A rich Brahmanical textual corpus, supported by a prolific religious life of pilgrimage and festivals in a visually stimulating environment consisting of temples, river, ghats and sages gives Kashi the appearance of “the quintessential Hindu city”. Unlike most other organised religions of the world, very little in Hinduism is all-encompassing. What explains then the allure of Kashi to almost every sect and linguistic community among Hindus?
Kashi, that name of what later became Banaras, is known to be derived from ‘Kasha’, the name of an ancient king, whose dynasty later produced the famous legendary king Dividasa of Kashi. It could also refer to the tall silver-flowering grass which blooms on the riverfront. Most commonly though, Kashi is known to be derived from the Sanskrit root ‘kash’ which means to shine. The Kashi Khand of the Skanda Purana explains Kashi to be the name of the place where the light of Shiva shines most brilliantly.
“Kashi is the permanent home of Shiva, they say,” writes Professor Diana L. Eck, who has spent years studying the ancient city in her book, ‘Banaras: City of Light’ (1993). She explains that “although Shiva is omnipresent, there are a few places that are especially transparent to his luminous presence. And of these few, the city of light is the most brilliant of all.”
Then there is also the story of this being the place where the Shiva Linga was first established and worshiped as the symbol of the Lord’s perpetual presence. It is believed that even during pralay (apocalypse), Shiva never lets go of Kashi, holding it up valiantly on his trident. Kashi is also the place to find moksha or liberation of the soul.
Consequently, one of the names Kashi is known by is ‘Avimukta’, to emphasise on why one should never leave this place. “To some believers, the crescent of the river mimics Shiva’s symbol, the three hills on which this ancient space lies represents his trident. To ancient seers, Banaras was the crystal that refracts divine light and within it lies the entirety of divinity, in thought and substance,” says Shagufta Siddhi, archivist and educator at the Ganga Jamuni Foundation. She further explains that when one travels by foot in Banaras, as is the case with any tirtha (pilgrimage), one realises that the important sacred sites of India, its waters and temples are within Banaras. “Therefore, to come to Banaras is to experience all of the sacredness in India.”
“One needs to locate the significance of Kashi in the importance of the river Ganges in Hindu mythology,” says T K Venkatsubramanian, retired Professor of History in Delhi University, about why Kashi is celebrated by Hindus across India. Further, the myths attached to the Ganga and Kashi travels with the Brahmanical religion as it spread through the subcontinent. “The Pallavas who ruled over parts of the Telugu and Tamil regions (from the seventh century till about the ninth century) made a deliberate push for Brahmanic ideology,” says Venkatsubramanian, explaining how myths attached to the Puranas reached the south.
“There was also a rivalry between the north and the south brewing during this period,” says Indira Viswanathan Peterson, Professor Emeritus of Asian Studies in Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts. Peterson narrates a popular mythology attached to the Chola King, Rajendra Chola I (reign between 1014-1044 CE), who claimed to have won over the north and brought the Ganges down to the south, declaring his capital as ‘Gangaikonda Cholapuram’.
“The Tamil religion was very different from what we understand as pan-India Hinduism,” says Peterson. “But by the sixth century the Pallavas had adopted Hinduism and Shiva and Vishnu became the supreme Gods. The local deity, Murugan is incorporated in the Hindu pantheon.” Brahmanical ideology became important for Pallava and Chola self-glorification. “The glorification of Shiva through grand temples is praised by the Tamil saints, called the Nayanars. In their poems, the Nayanars praised aspects of Hindu mythology like Ganga and Kashi, but at the same time the Tamil region too is praised immensely,” explains Peterson. She adds that in the later Puranas, as sacred sites of southern India like Kanchipuram and Rameshwaram got added, they all came to be connected with Kashi as part of the same pilgrimage.
In her book Eck writes that those who love Banaras, believe everything of significance happened here: “The linga of fiery light pierced the earth, the Goddess Durga defeated her foes, the heroes and heroines came here on pilgrimage, and the saints came here to teach.”
However, years later, when Eck wrote another book, ‘India: A sacred geography’(2012), she admits to having altered her understanding of the city and of Hinduism. As she investigated the temples and rituals in Kashi she realised that “Banaras does not stand alone as the great centre of pilgrimage for Hindus, but is part of an extensive network of pilgrimage places stretching throughout the length and breadth of India.” She writes that while names of temples, ghats and the bathing tanks in the city are derived from this broader landscape, names of Kashi and the great Shiva temple of Vishwanath are replicated in pilgrimage spots across India. For instance, high up in the Himalayas, there exists in the valley of Mandakini River, a small village called ‘Gupta Kashi’ or ‘Hidden Kashi’, with a Kashi Vishwanatha Temple and a Manikarnika Ghat of its own. There is also a Dakshina Kashi (Kashi of the south) at Nanjangud, a city in the Mysore district of Karnataka.
“There is a Kashi Vishwanatha Temple in almost every temple town of Tamil Nadu,” says Peterson. “Each of these sites have local mythologies attached to them. By having a Kashi Vishwanatha Temple there or calling it Kashi, the attempt was also to localise the experience of Kashi so that the poorest of the poor make the pilgrimage,” she says.
Indologist Wendy Doniger explains the replication of Kashi across India in terms of the intellectual status enjoyed by Sanskrit texts. “In some way it is paying an honour, but it is also siphoning off the political power of the place,” she says. “It is also about economic gains. Priests in cities far from Kashi often claim that their holy place is the Kashi of the south [or west, etc.], and encourage people to pay the local priests for religious rituals instead of taking the trouble to have them performed far away in Kashi.”
But the status held by Kashi in mythological texts itself seems to have been a recent phenomenon. Professor Madhuri Desai in her book, ‘Banaras Reconstructed: Architecture and Sacred Space in a Hindu Holy City’(2017) explains that although textual references to Banaras can be traced back to the sixth century CE, authors of these texts held differing views regarding the nature of sacred geography enjoyed by Kashi. Ideas regarding a sacred zone centered on a Vishweshwara Linga was in fact first conceptualised in a Sanskrit text called ‘Kashikhanda’ which was composed as late as the 14th century. Further, the pilgrimage route surrounding Kashi was first described in some detail in a 16th century text called ‘Kashirahasya’.
“One must remember that myths, as they were presented in purana texts, were always connected to contemporary socio-political contexts,” Desai tells Indianexpress.com. “If one studies various purana texts over the centuries, one finds that each text emphasises different aspects – deities, locations, sacred geographies – of Kashi’s religious landscape. These choices were dictated not only by religion, but also by social and political considerations that in turn shaped the city’s buildings and urban spaces.”
Kashi, as Desai explains, “is a series of layers.” Each subsequent layer added to the socio-cultural fabric of the city, and also altered the one before it. Consequently, Kashi’s elevated status in the early medieval and medieval era must be read in context of the political ecosystem of the time.
The political history of Kashi is known to begin with the Gahadavalas of Kannauj. It was designated as the second capital by the Gahadavala ruler Govindchandra in 1093 CE. Further, the Gahadavalas provided 500 land grants to Brahmins at this time in order to consolidate spiritual authority in a newly conquered territory. Desai notes that although the Gahadavalas might have contemplated several building projects, there were hardly any material interventions made by them during this period. For that matter, most scholars believe that many features of Kashi’s sacred landscape such as the pilgrimage route around the Vishweshwar Temple developed only after the Ghurid invasions of the 12th century.
In her book, Desai suggests that if one were to take a closer look at the built environment of temples and riverfront edifices in Kashi, one would realise that “several of the temple towers, though archaic in appearance, are supported on Mughal columns that first appeared in northern India during the 17th century.” Further, she writes that “several of the riverfront ghats bear an uncanny resemblance to the Mughal fortress-palaces at Delhi and Agra.” Despite its claims to timelessness and antiquity, almost all of the built architecture in Banaras can be dated to as recent as the 16th and 17th centuries.
Desai says the architectural history of Banaras can be dated back to the reign of Akbar. “Mughal rulers, particularly emperor Akbar, saw Kashi as a key site where an imperial policy of religious and cultural inclusivity could be implemented. So, we have Raja Todar Mal, Akbar’s finance minister, along with his mentor, the scholar Narayan Bhatt, supporting construction of a new Vishveshwur (also known as Vishwanath Temple),” she says, adding: “Raja Man Singh supported the construction of the Bindu Madhav temple.” The simultaneous patronage of Vaishnava Temple alongside a Shaivite one indicates the effort on the part of the state to consolidate diverse beliefs and practices in Kashi.
“The multicultural space in Banaras reemerges more tangibly in the last 500-600 years, although people from different backgrounds were a part of city’s populace even during Gautam Buddha’s era,” says Nilosree Biswas who has authored the book, ‘Banaras: Of Gods, humans and stories’. “When Banaras was under Mughals administration, the city saw a rise in the craftsmen and trader communities who came from varied castes, and cultural backgrounds. The city became a hub of trade, silk weaving (brocade and Banarasi) wood work, jewellery, metalware industry and a lot more. Further, a community of scholars also came in, they were not only Hindus but also from other religious communities as well.”
From the late 17th century, the patronage that Kashi enjoyed from the Mughals began to disintegrate. A century later, the city received investments in architecture, festivals and fairs from a diverse group of patrons. These were smaller regional powers replacing the Mughals and seeking symbols of legitimacy and lineage. “In this competitive environment, patrons who often came from obscure beginnings saw the city and its burgeoning religious life as an avenue to showcase patronage for both well-established and newly invented traditions,” writes Desai.
Mughal customs and architectural styles were valued and adopted for their connection with power and prestige. A majority of these patrons belonged to the Maratha aristocracy and Bengali landowners who had alliances with the English East India Company, such as Rani Bhawani of Natore. Further, the Rajas of Banaras, who were earlier zamindars under the Mughal Nawabs in Awadh, refashioned themselves as kings of Kashi and patronised religious festivities in the city, including the famous Burhvamangal festival.
It was during this time that the sacred space of Kashi, as described in the religious texts, was reimagined, repopulated and urbanised. “A consensus about a Vishweshwar Temple surrounded by its Antagriha zone and a periphery demarcated by the Panchkroshi pilgrimage route were its defining features,” writes Desai. She adds: “By the late 18th century, several elites had built mansions within the bounds of the Panchkroshi circuit and were well ensconced in semiautonomous estates.”
Speaking about the cosmopolitan character of Varanasi now, Siddhi says, “Along the river front one can see different palaces and temples built by the erstwhile princely states. For example, we have the Darbhanga Palace, which is now the Brij Rama Hotel. Then there is Lalita Ghat where the royal family of Nepal established a temple as well as a monastery for young boys to learn Sanskrit.”
“Around the palaces and temples communities from these respective states started settling down. For instance, around the Bhonsle and Scindia Ghats, one would find a number of Maharashtrians. Around Kedar Ghat and Mysore Ghat we find a large number of people from the south and in fact one can find road signages in Tamil, Telugu or Kannada. Then there is also the Bengali Tola,” says Siddhi.
From the late 18th century, Kashi was reimagined once again. This time, by the Europeans, for whom the Indian religious landscape was mysterious in its variegated complications. Among the British there arose an idea to unify Hinduism, which went against the grain of the religion. “From the time of the Raj, there was a tendency to think of Hinduism as a unified religion with Kashi as its centre. This myth was bolstered by the desire to see Hinduism as one thing, and Islam as another thing and never the two can meet,” highlights Doniger.
Desai explains that when the East India Company under Warren Hastings gained control of Kashi, they saw the city as authentically Indian or Hindu city. At the same time, they saw its Brahmin scholars as the true custodians of Hindu religious and cultural life. “One of the Company’s first actions was to establish the Sanskrit Pathshala which continues till this day as the Sampurnananda Sanskrit Vishwavidyalaya. The idea was that the Company would become a patron of Sanskrit scholarship and bring all constituent knowledge and scholarship under its own control,” says Desai.
There was also the gaze of the European traveler, artist and writer, recreating the image of Kashi as a Hindu city. Descriptions of Banaras by colonial travellers and artists often focused on the Dashwamedha and Manikarnika ghats. “Visiting British artists such as William Hodges (active years in India, 1780-1783) and Thomas Daniell (active 1786-1793) portrayed vestiges of the Mughal past as decaying and antique, while being sympathetic to the subcontinent’s pre-Islamic pasts,” writes Desai. She writes that Hodges, for instance, “illustrated and described scenes in Banaras, viewing it as the epitome of an authentic, ‘pure’, and unspoiled Hindu city, undepraved by an admixture with Mohomedans.”
This picture of an antique Hindu city on the riverfront was further adopted by Indian artists like Sita Ram, who was the protege of Marquess of Hastings, governor-general of Bengal between 1813 and 1823. Desai writes that Sita Ram while illustrating Kashi “portrayed a decaying Mughal world that could be contrasted with the living mythology of the Hindu site, whether real or imagined”. When he painted the riverfront in Kashi, he combined architectural elements existing along the Manikarnika and Jalsai Ghats with a pair of fictitious buildings. He titled the painting “the temple of Raja Dusserath with the house he lived in to the left.”
Scholars working on Kashi reiterate over and again that this is a layered city. Mythology, trade, politics, and culture have come together to devise a city steeped in religiosity. “This is what I call ‘informed imagination’. When we read something about a city, we also imagine it in a certain way,” says Biswas. “Kashi is also a result of centuries of such informed imagination.”
Madhuri Shrikant Desai, ‘Banaras Reconstructed: Architecture and Sacred Space in a Hindu Holy City’, University of Washington Press, 2017
Diana L. Eck, Banaras: City of Light, Penguin Books, 1993
Diana L. Eck, India: A Sacred Geography, Harmony Books, 2012
Nilosree Biswas, Banaras: Of Gods, humans and stories, Niyogi Books, 2021