Varanasi - A Holy Tour
Varanasi, one of the oldest living cities of the world, is situated on the north bank of Ganga and is located midway between Delhi and Calcutta. Known as the religious and cultural capital of India, its history dates back to about 3500 hundred years. The city got its name from the ancient name meaning the city between two rivers - the Varuna and Asi.
Varanasi is especially known for its fine silk fabrics. It is also home to the Diesel Locomotive Works of Indian Railways, one of the largest locomotive manufacturing plants in the World. The major attractions of the city include:
The Ganga River
Devout Hindus make pilgrimages from all parts of India to bathe in the holy river Ganga. Along the river, stairways have been set-up, known as ghats, from which people can bathe before saying their daily prayers.
The city's life revolves around its seven km long sweep of about 100 bathing ghats, which skirt the west bank of the Ganges. Most of them are used for bathing, while some are used for cremating bodies. The most sacred ghats are the Asi, Dasashwamedh Ghat, Manikarnika and Panchganga. Pilgrims who bathe in each one consecutively believe their prayers will be fulfilled. The best time to visit the ghats is at dawn when the river is bathed in a magical light and pilgrims come to perform puja to the rising sun. The best view of the Ghats can be had from a boat midstream or from the Malviya bridge. Burning pyres, people getting their hair shaved off, the chanting of sacred slokas, giving of alms to Brahmins Priests sitting under huge umbrellas offering prayers for their clients, devotees praying and drinking water from the holy river are the common sight at these ghats.
The most sacred temple in Varanasi is the Vishwanath temple, located at Vishvanath Gali dedicated to Lord Shiva who is believed to reside here. The current temple was built in 1776 by Ahalya Bai of Indore with about 800 kg of gold plating on the towers, which gives the temple its colloquial name, Golden Temple. The gold plated spire was the gift of the Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore in 1835.
Around 10 Km. north-east of Varanasi, is the place Sarnath, which was visited by Lord Buddha to preach his message "Maha-Dharma-Chakra Pravartan" (in Buddhist terminology, 'turned the wheel of the law') after he achieved enlightenment at Bodhigaya. Saranath probably derived its name from one of Buddha's title, Saranganath, Lord of the Deer. Later, the great Buddhist Emperor Ashoka built here the Dharmarajika Stupa and near it erected a pillar surmounted by the magnificent capital of four adored lions, which today forms the national emblem of India. Ashoka erected several memorial towers or stupas.
The residential place of Kashi Naresh (Former Maharaja of Varanasi) across the Ganges at Ramnagar houses a museum with the exhibits of palanquins, costumes, swords, sabres, etc. The fort at Ramnagar houses a museum displaying the Royal collection which includes vintage cars, Royal palkies, an armory of swords and old guns, ivory work and antique clock. The place also has the beautiful Durga Temple and Chhinnamastika Temple.
The Chunar fort, situated 40 Km. from Varanasi, has been occupied by a succession of rulers spanning 500 years. The most noted among these are Sher Shah in 1540, Akbar in 1575 and nawabs of Avadh in the 18th century. They were shortly followed by the British, whose gravestones here make interesting reading.
It was built in the 18th century by a Bengali maharani and is stained red with ochre. The Durga Temple is commonly known as the Monkey Temple due to the many frisky monkeys that have made it their home.
The most important Shiva temple of the city also has a mysterious side to it. It is believed that the stone linga (symbol of Shiva) emerged on its own. Legend has it that a pure hearted devotee of Shiva prayed for a chance to visit the famous Kedareshvara Shiva temple in the Himalayas with such ardent devotion that Shiva blessed him with the linga.
This mosque was constructed by Aurangazeb. It is a blend of Hindu and Muslim designs. A famous bathing point, Panjaganga Ghat lies below it.
Sankat Mochan Temple
The 'Sankat Mochan' (deliverer from troubles) temple belongs to Lord Hanuman (the monkey God), an incarnation of Vishnu. The best time to visit this temple is in the early evening.
This white temple is interesting as it is dedicated to Shitala, the smallpox goddess. It is situated at Shitala Ghat. The Santoshi Mata (Mother of Contentment) shrine is added to this temple.
Chausath Yogini Temple
This temple is situated just above the Chausath Yogini Ghat. It was originally devoted to a tantric cult. Now it is devoted to Kali. The deity here is known as 'Ma' (mother).