Varanasi is one of the oldest living cities in the world. Many names have been given to Varanasi, though its recently revived official appellation is mentioned in the Mahabharata and in the Jataka tales of Buddhism. It probably derives from the two rivers that flank the city, the Varuna to the north and the Assi to the south… Many still use the anglicized forms of Banaras or Benares, while pilgrims refer to Kashi, first used three thousand years ago to describe the kingdom and the city outside which the Buddha preached his first sermon; the “City of Light” is also called Kashika, “the shining one”, referring to the light of Shiva. Another epithet, Avimukta, meaning “Never Forsaken”, refers to the city that Shiva never deserted, or that one should never leave. Further alternatives include Anandavana, the “forest of bliss”, and Rudravasa, the place where Shiva (Rudra) resides.
Varanasi’s associations with Shiva extend to the beginning of time: legends relate how, after his marriage to Parvati, Shiva left his Himalayan abode and came to reside in Kashi with all the gods in attendance. Temporarily banished during the rule of the great king Divodasa, Shiva sent Brahma and Vishnu as his emissaries, but ultimately returned to his rightful abode protected by his loyal attendants Kalabhairav and Dandapani. Over 350 gods and goddesses, including a protective ring of Ganesha form a mandala or sacred pattern with Shiva Vishwanatha at its centre.
A city which, since it is both an exalted place of pilgrimage and an idealize centre of faith, has been likened to Jerusalem and Mecca. According to the historians, the city was founded some ten centuries before the birth of Christ. The city is mentioned in Holy Scriptures like ‘Vamana Purana’, Buddhist texts and in the epic ‘Mahabharata’. Mark Twain, the English author and litterateur, who was enthralled by the legend and sanctity of Banaras, once wrote: “Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
The city of Banaras is situated on the west bank of the holiest of all Indian rivers, the Ganga or Ganges. The Ganga is believed to have flown from heaven to wash away the worldly sins of the human race of mortal’s. The life and activities in the city centre on the holy river. Life on the banks of the Ganga begins before dawn when thousands of pilgrims – men, women and children – come down to the river to wait for the rising sun when immersion in the sacred river will cleanse them of their sufferings and wash their sins away.
Everyone has their own way of celebrating the ritual contact with the holy Ganga: some bathe; other dip themselves entirely into the water once, thrice or any number of times; some drink the water; other make water offerings to the sun; while others fill their pots with holy water to take back to their homes to perform rituals and purification. The offerings to the sacred waters vary. Pilgrims give flowers, fruits, lamps and their respectful prayers. On festival days and religious occasions the riverside is thick with their colorful bobbing up and down on the waters.
SIGHT SEEING & EXCURSION:
The Kashi Vishwanath Temple – Also known as the Golden Temple, it is dedicated to Lord Shiva, the presiding deity of the city. Varanasi is said to be the point at which the first jyotirlinga, the fiery pillar of light by which Shiva manifested his supremacy over other gods, broke through the earth’s crust and flared towards the heavens. More than the Ghats and even the Ganga, the Shivalinga installed in the temple remains the devotional focus of Varanasi. Entry restricted for foreigners.
River Front (Ghats) – The great river banks at Varanasi, built high with eighteenth and nineteenth-century pavilions and palaces, temples and terraces, are lined with an endless chain of stone steps – the Ghats – progressing along the whole of the waterfront, altering in appearance with the dramatic seasonal fluctuations of the river level. Each of the hundred Ghats, big and small, is marked by a lingam, and occupies its own special place in the religious geography of the city. Some have crumbled over the years; others continue to thrive, with early-morning bathers, Brahmin priests offering puja, and people practicing meditation and yoga, Hindus puja, and people practicing meditation and yoga. Hindus regard the Ganges as amrita, the elixir of life, which brings purity to the living and salvation to the dead; skeptical outsiders tend to focus on all-persuasive and extreme lack of hygiene. Ashes to the dead, emissions from open drains and the left-over from religious rites float by the devout as they go about their bathing and ceremonial cleansing.
For centuries, pilgrims have traced the perimeter of the city by a ritual circumambulation, paying homage to shrines on the way. Among the most popular routes is the Panchatirthi Yatra, which takes in the Pancha, (five) Trithi (crossing) of Assi, Dashashwamedha, Adi Keshva, Panchganga and finally Manikarnika. To gain merit or appease the gods, the devotee, accompanied by a panda (priest), recites a sankalpa (statement of intent) and performs a ritual at each stage of the journey. For the casual visitor, however the easiest way to follow a south-north sequence either by boat or on foot.
Assi Ghat to Kedara Ghat – At the clay-banked Assi Ghat, the southernmost in the sacred city, at the confluence of the Assi and the Ganges, pilgrims bathe prior to worshipping at a huge lingam under a peepal tree. Another lingam visited is that of Assisangameshvara, the “Lord of the Confluence of the Assi”, in a small marble temple just off the ghat. Traditionally, pilgrims continued to Lolarka Kund, the Trembling Sun”, a rectangular tank fifteen metres below ground level, approached by steep steps, Now almost abandoned, except during the Lolarka Mela fair (Aug/Sept), when thousands come to propitiate the gods and pray for the birth of a son, Lolarka Kund is among Varanasi’s earliest sites, one of only two remaining Sun sites linked with the origins of Hinduism. Equated with the twelve adityas or divisions of the sun, which predate the great deities of Modern Hinduism, it was attracting bathers in the days of the buddha.
Much of the adjacent Tulsi Ghat – originally Lolarka Ghat, but renamed in the honour of the poet Tulsidas, who lived nearby in the sixteenth century – has crumbled. Continuing north, above Shivala Ghat, hanuman Ghat is the site of a new temple built by the ghat’s large south Indian community. Considered by many to be the birth place of the fifteenth-century Vaishnavite saint Vallabha, who was instrumental in the resurgence of the worship of Krishna, the ghat also features a striking image of Ruru, the dog Bhairava, a ferocious and early form of Shiva.
Chauki Ghat to Chaumsathi Ghat – Northwards along the river, Chauki Ghat is distinguished by an enormous tree that shelters small stones shrines to the nagas, water-snake deities, while at the unmistakable Dhobi (Laundrymen’s) Ghat clothes are still rhythmically pulverized in the pursuit of purity. Past smaller ghats such as Mansarovar Ghat, named after the holy lake in Tibet, and Narada Ghat, honouring the divine musician and sage, lies Chaumsathi Ghat, where impressive stone steps lead up to the small temple of the Chaumsathi (64) Yoginis. Images of Kali and Durga in its inner sanctum represent a stage in the emergence of the great goddess as a single representation of a number of female divinities. Overlooking the ghats here is Peshwa Amrit Rao’s majestic sandstone haveli (mansion), built in 1807 and currently used for religious ceremonies and occasionally, as an auditorium for concerts.
Dashashwamedha Ghat – Dashashwamedha is Varanasi’s most popular and accessible bathing ghat, with rows of pandas sitting on wooden platforms under bamboo umbrellas, masseurs plying their trade and boatmen jostling for custom. Its name, “ten horse sacrifices”, derives from a complex series of sacrifices performed by Brahma to test King Divodasa: Shiva and Parvati were sure the king’s resolve would fail, and he would be compelled to leave Kashi, thereby allowing them to return to their city. However, the sacrifices were so perfect that Brahma established the Brahmeshvara lingam here. Since that time, Dashashwamedha has become one of the most celebrated tirthas on earth, where pilgrims can reap the benefits of the huge sacrifice merely by bathing.
Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary – 70 km from Varanasi are the forests of Chandraprabha, within which are the Rajdari and Devdari Waterfalls, A beautiful secluded spot for a picnic.
Vindhyachal (75 Km) – The famous temple of Vindhyavasini Devi, Ashtabhuja Devi and Kalikhoh are the major attractions.
Area: 73.89 sq. km.
Population: 1322248 (1991 census)
Altitude: 80.71 mtrs.
Season: October – March
Clothing: Summer – Cottons; winters – Woolens
Language: Hindi and English
Air: The nearest airport is Babatpur, 22 km from Varanasi and 30 Km from Sarnath. Direct flights for VaranAssi are available from Delhi, Agra, Khajurao, Calcutta, Mumbai, Lucknow and Bhuvaneshwar airports.
Rail: Varanasi and Pandit Deendayal Upadhyay (one of the main railway stations of Varanasi) are the important rail junctions, with train connections to all major cities of India.
Road: Varanasi, on NH 2 from Calcutta to Delhi, NHZ to Kanya Kumari and NH 29 to Gorakhpur is well connected to the rest of the country by good motorable roads. some of the major road distances are : Agra – 565 km, Allahabad – 128 km, Bhopal – 791 km, Bodhgaya – 240 km, Kanpur – 330 km, Khajuraho – 405 km, Lucknow – 286, Patna – 246 km, Sarnath – 10 Km.
Allahabad is among the largest cities in Uttar Pradesh. Hindu mythology has it that for the Prakrishta Yaina, Lord Brahma, the creator God of the Trinity, chose a land on earth, on which the three rivers would flow in to a quiet confluence. Brahma also referred to it as `Tirth Raj’ or the `king of all pilgrimage centres’. Recorded evidence also exists in the revered scriptures – the Vedas and the grand epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, as also in the Puranas – of this holy place formerly called Prayag. Allahabad stands at the confluence of two of India’s holiest rivers, the Ganga and the Yamuna. Sangam, as the confluence is called, is the venue of many sacred fairs and rituals, and attracts thousands of pilgrims throughout the year. This number swells to millions during the world-famous Kumbh Mela. A third mythical Saraswati river, believed to flow underground towards the Sangam, gives the confluence its other name ‘Triveni’.
Emperor Akbar founded this city in 1575 and called it by name of `Illahabas’, which has now become modern Allahabad. The monarch realized its strategic importance as a waterway landmark in North India and also built a magnificent fort on the banks of the holy Sangam.
Over the centuries that followed, Allahabad remained on the forefront of national importance – more so, during the days of the Indian independence struggle. The history of Allahabad with its religious, cultural and historical ethos also gave rise to several renowned scholars, poets, writers, thinkers, statesmen and leaders.
The city being an important cantonment during the British Raj has some beautiful remnants of colonial architecture. In the early 20th century, Allahabad University was the foremost center of learning in the country.
Allahabad today is an important city where history, culture and religion create a confluence … much like the sacred rivers that caress this God-graced land.
SIGHT SEEING & EXCURSION:
Sangam – Around 7 km from Civil Lines, overlooked by the eastern ramparts of the fort, wide flood plains and muddy banks protrude towards the sacred Sangam. At the point at which the brown Ganges meets the Greenish Yamuna, pandas (priests) perch on small platforms to perform puja and assist the devout in their ritual ablutions in the shallow waters. Beaches and Ghats are littered with the shorn hair of pilgrims who come to offer pind for their deceased parents.
Boats to the Sangam, used by pilgrims and tourists alike, can be rented at the ghat immediately east of the fort, for the recommended government rate of Rs 12 per head. However, most pilgrims pay around Rs 36 and you can be charged as much as Rs 150. Official prices for a whole boat are between Rs 100 and Rs 120 but can soar to more than Rs 250 during peak seasons. On the way to the Sangam, high-pressure aquatic salesmen loom up on the placid waters selling offerings such as coconuts for pilgrims to discard at the confluence. Once abandoned, the offerings are fished up and sold on to other pilgrims – a blatant if efficient form of recycling.
The sacred Sangam is the confluence of three of the holiest rivers in Hindu mythology – Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. At the Sangam, the waters of the Ganges and the Yamuna can be distinctly seen to merge into one. It is during the Kumbh /Ardh Kumbh that the Sangam truly comes alive … attracting the devout from all across the country.
The holy Sangam is the site for Annual Magha Mela/Ardh Kumbh/Kumbh Mela. Boats are available for visitors.
Allahabad Fort – The massive fort built by Emperor Akbar in 1583 A.D., the fort stands on the banks of the Yamuna near the confluence site. In its prime, the fort was unrivalled for its design, construction and craftsmanship. This huge, majestic fort has three magnificent galleries flanked by high towers. At present is used by the army and only a limited area is open to visitors. The magnificent outer wall is intact and rises above the water ‘edge. Visitors are allowed to see the Ashokan Pillar and Saraswati Kup, a well, said to be the source of the Saraswati River and Jodhabai Palace. The Patalpur temple is also here. So is the much revered Akshaya Vat or immortal Banyan tree.
Patalpuri Temple – Within this underground temple, inside the fort, lays the Akshaya Vat – or the immortal tree. Believed to have been visited by Lord Rama, the temple was also seen by the famous Chinese traveler and writer Hiuen Tsang during his visit to this place.
Ashoka Pillar – This gigantic Ashoka pillar, of polished sandstone stands 10.6 meters high, dating back to 232 B.C. The pillar has several edicts and a Persian inscription of Emperor Jahangir inscripted on it, commemorating his accession to the throne.
Akshaya Vat – The immortal tree within the Patalauri temple, has found mention in the description of several ancient scriptures, writers and historians. The tree stands in a deep niche above an underground shaft, which is said to lead to Triveni.
Visitors need permission to visit the Fort, Patalpuri Temple, Ashoka Pillar and Akshaya Vat from Commandant, Ordinance Depot, and Allahabad Fort.
Hanuman Mandir – Near the Sangam, this temple is unique in North India, for its supine image of Hanumana. Here the big idol of Lord Hanumana is seen in a reclining posture. When the Ganga is in space, this temple gets submerged.
Shankar Viman Mandapam – 130 feet high with four floors, it has the idols of Kumaril Bhatt, Jagatguru Shankaracharya, Kamakshi Devi (with 51 Shaktipeethas around), Yogsahastra Sahastrayoga Linga (2ith 108 Shivas around).
Mankameshwar Temple – Situated near Saraswati Ghat, on the banks of Yamuna, this is one of the famous Shiva Temples of Allahabad.
Swaraj Bhawan – The old Anand Bhawan, which in the year 1930 was donated to the Nation by Moti Lal Nehru, to be used as the headquarters of the Congress Committee. Moti Lal Nehru renamed it as Swaraj Bhawan. Late Prime Minister of India, Mrs. Indira Gandhi was born here.
Anand Bhawan – The erstwhile ancestral home of the Nehru family. Today it has been turned into a fine museum. Here, many momentous decisions, events, related to the freedom struggle took place. The main building houses a museum which displays the memorabilia of the Nehru family.
Kaushambi – Situated at around 62 km from Allahabad. It is a place traditionally associated with the Mahabharata; the city was also once a great Buddhist centre. Lord Buddha is believed to have visited Kaushambi twice to deliver discourses. The ruins of an ancient fort bear witness to the antiquity of the place. There are also remains of a monastery.
Area: 63.07 Sq. km.
Population: 1022365 (1991 census)
Altitude: 98 meters above sea level.
Season: November – February
Clothing: Summer – Light Cottons; winter- Woolen
Language: Hindi, English, and Urdu.
Festivals: Magh Mela, Kumbh Mela, Ardh Kumb Mela, Dussehra.
Air: There is no air link to Allahabad. Nearest Airports are VaranAssi (147 km) and Lucknow (210 km).
Rail: Allahabad is well connected by trains with all major cities, viz. Calcutta, Delhi, Jaipur, Lucknow and Mumbai.
Road: Allahabad, on National Highways 2 and 27, is connected to all parts of the country by good roads. Some important road distances are: Agra (433 km), Ahmedabad (1207 km), Ayodhya (167 km), Bhopal (680 km), Calcutta (799 km), Chennai (1790 km), Chitrakoot (137 km), Delhi (643 km), Hyderabad (1086 km), Jaipur (673 km), Jhansi (375 km), Khajuraho (294 km), Mumbai (1444 km), Lucknow (204 km), Nagpur (618 km), Patna (368 km), Trivandrum (2413 km), Udaipur (956 km), Varanasi (125 km).