Kashi

KASHI

The name is intricately linked to India’s history.

There is no India without Kashi

It is one of our Sapta Puris (Ayodhya, Mathura, Haridwar, Kashi, Kanchipuram, Ujjain (Avanti) and Dwarka). The Sapta Puri are places of birth of religious and spiritual masters, places where Gods have descended as Avatars, such as Ayodhya where god Rama was born, and places considered as Nitya tirthas, naturally endowed, with spiritual powers since ages such as Varanasi and Haridwar. Kanchipuram is known for its Kamakshi Amman Temple dedicated to the Mother goddess. Dwarka represents the place where god Krishna, after leaving Mathura spent 100 years before he left for heaven from here, according to the epic Mahabharata. Mathura is the embodiment of events in the life of Krishna during his childhood and young days. Haridwar with shrines of both Shiva and Vishnu, represents the gateway to Uttarakhand, as the sacred river Ganges emerges from the hills into the plains at this place. Varanasi is the place of salvation as it is strongly believed that death at this place will bring salvation. Varanasi is the holiest of all and it is favorite to Lord Shiva, thus it is often referred as City of Lord Shiva. Ujjain, also known by the ancient name Avanti, has one of the 12 Jyotirlingas installed in the Mahakaleshwar Temple.

[On an aside I have already been to Haridwar, Kashi, Kanchipuram and Dwarka – ascent to heaven guaranteed]

 

Kashi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cities_by_time_of_continuous_habitation

It is said to be the favourite city of the Hindu deity Lord Shiva as it has been mentioned in the Rigveda that this city in older times was known as Kashi or “Shiv ki Nagri”. The Pandavas went to Kashi in search of Shiva to atone for their sins of fratricide and bramhanahatya that they had committed during the Kurukshetra war in Mahabharata.

Its early history is that of the first Aryan settlement in the middle Ganges valley. By the 2nd millennium BC, Kashi was a seat of Aryan religion and philosophy and was also a commercial and industrial centre famous for its muslin and silk fabrics, perfumes, ivory works, and sculpture. Kashi was the capital of the kingdom of Kashi during the time of the Buddha (6th century BC), who gave his first sermon nearby at Sarnath. The city remained a centre of religious, educational, and artistic activities as attested by the celebrated Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang, who visited it in about 635 AD and said that the city extended for about 3 miles (5 km) along the western bank of the Ganges.

 

The name Varanasi possibly originates from the names of the two rivers from north and south: Varuna, still flowing in Varanasi, and Asi, a small stream near Assi Ghat. The old city is located on the north shores of the Ganges, bounded by its two tributaries: Varuna and Asi. Throughout the ages, the city has been known by many names including Kashi (used by pilgrims dating from Buddha’s days), Kāśikā (Sanskrit: “the shining one”), Avimukta (Sanskrit: “never forsaken” by Shiva), Ānandavana (Sanskrit: the forest of bliss), and Rudravāsa (Sanskrit: the place where Rudra/Śiva resides).

In the Rigveda, an ancient Indian sacred collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns, the city is referred to as Kāśī or Kashi, the “luminous city as an eminent seat of learning”. The name Kāśī is also mentioned in the Skanda Purana. In one verse, Shiva says, “The three worlds form one city of mine, and Kāśī is my royal palace therein.” The name Kashi may be translated as “City of Light”.

Archaeological evidence of the earliest known settlements around Varanasi in the Ganges valley suggest that they began in the 11th or 12th century BC. These archaeological remains suggest that the Varanasi area was populated by Vedic people. However, the oldest known text referencing the city, the Atharvaveda, which dates to approximately the same period, suggests that the area was populated by indigenous tribes. It is possible that archaeological evidence of these previous inhabitants has yet to be discovered. Recent excavations at Aktha and Ramnagar, two sites very near to Varanasi, show them to be from 1800 BC, suggesting Varanasi was also inhabited by this time

 

So keeping all that in mind, is it really any wonder that I was there?

 

And I loved it there.

 

And so here is my review of the place to help you enjoy it.

 

Ganga at Kashi is not merely a river, its something much more. It a part of the fabric, part of the psyche of India. Let’s face it, this is why you go there, to experience the Ganga.
If you are a foreigner and want to take a dip in the river, Haridwar is better; the flow there is much stronger and as a result its much less dirty.
If you are Indian, nothing compares to the Ganga at Kashi.
The water levels are much lower during winter and the width of the river also decreases, it gets dirtier too. Best time would be immediately after the monsoon or during the monsoon (Aug-Oct).
You can spend hours just sitting on the banks of the river and watching it go by; else you can take a ride on the river on a boat.
I could suggest taking a manual boat, not a motorised one as the sound is highly irritating.
On Jan 15, you could get a ride on a manual boat for a couple of hours, from Harishchandra Ghat to Manikarnika ghat for about INR 800-1000 depending on your bargaining skills (but please remember that most of the boatmen are not the boatowners and only 50% of the payment goes to the boatman (the guy who actually rows the boat)).

I can personally recommend this guy – he is very polite, friendly and honest and will tell you lots of anecdotes.

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Take the trip at early evening, you can gradually see the sun setting and the changing face of the ghats.
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If you ever find yourself on the ghats of Kashi, just take a deep breath and ponder that what you see around you is something which has been going around for thousands of years. You are seeing actual history in motion.
Kashi is thousands of years old and throughout all that time life on the ghats have stayed constant.
There are more than 50 ghats, some important, some not so much. Dashashwamedh, Monikarnika, Man Singh and Assi are the more famous. Assi Ghat is the cleanest but Dashashwamedh is the main. Its near the Kashi temple and Man Singh palace. The aarti in the evening is awesome.

Go at least an hour before the aarti starts to get a seat near the action. If you are late, you will end up trying to peer over shoulders or if you are altitudinally challenged then through people’s elbows.

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Dashashwamedh Ghat

Dashashwamedh is the centre and most famous of all the ghats of Varanasi.

It is believed that Brahma created this ghat to welcome Shiva and sacrificed ten horses during the Dasa-Ashwamedha (10 horse sacrifice) yajna performed there. Above and adjacent to this ghat, there are also temples dedicated to Sulatankesvara, Brahmesvara, Varahesvara, Abhaya Vinayaka, Ganga (the Ganges), and Bandi Devi.

Every evening from 6 onwards the Ganga aarti takes place here. Its a spectacular affair, don’t miss it. This is also one of the designated ghats for immersion of idols after the pujas.
You can easily spend a couple of hours watching the hustle and bustle around. Be prepared for an incessant supply of hawkers and sellers of trinkets though.

Darbhanga Ghat

If the constant hustle and bustle of Dashashwamedh Ghat is not your thing, just walk down a little and you will come to this ghat. Though its quite nearby, its much much quieter. You can easily spend a couple of hours in meditation or contemplation here. The ghat is cleaner than the main ghats as well. There is an imposing palace, whose top floors light up quite nicely in the evening and night.
The ghat gets its name from the King of Darbhanga (in Bihar) who made the palace and the ghat

On the 2 ends lie the two crematorium ghats.
On the one side lies Harishchandra Ghat.

Please remember that people come here to cremate their loved ones. How would you feel if a stranger turns up during a loved one’ burial or cremation and starts taking pictures?
So please maintain the dignity of the place.
The ghat lies between Assi Ghat and Dashashomedh Ghat. It comes under the normal boat route from Monikarnika to Kedar/Harishchandra Ghat, so you visit it during your boat ride.
There is not much to see from an archaeological or from the natural beauty perspective.
The legend of the ghat come from the story of King Harishchandra donating all his money away and living here as a manual labourer under the man in charge of the cremation (the equivalent of the undertaker).

On the other end lies Manikarnika Ghat.
Look, this is a crematorium. Its a place where the dead are cremated. So why exactly is there a need for taking pictures?
However, as long as you are respectful, there is no harm in going there and being a part of an “exotic” custom.
There are various mythical stories associated with the place. One says that Parvati, the wife of Lord Shiva, lost a jewel or earring here while bathing and was very sad. She cursed the place to be a place of sadness for all eternity: “Just like I am crying today, mankind will cry here forever.”
The ghat itself has no architectural or natural beauty to speak of. Its sole USP is in being perhaps the most famous crematorium in India.
The historic Nepali temple lies beside the ghat. This is a small sample of Kathmandu in Varanasi. The wooden temple, probably around 200 years old, sits just beside the Manikarnika ghat. This is easily one of the, if not the most intricately sculpted temples of Varanasi. The alls of the temple have sculptures of mythic creatures, gods etc. Its a must visit. There is a nominal entry fee, and you will have to take off your shoes to enter.
 Man Singh Ghat

The ghat gets its name from the palace of Man Singh, a king from Rajasthan that lies on it.
You can enter some parts of the palace. You get spectacular views from the roof.
One part of the roof contains an observatory (same model as the ones in Jaipur (an UNESCO World Heritage site) and Delhi but on a much smaller scale)
The ghat itself is a haven for many cows and bulls.
For Bengali travelers, an added bonus is a small temple just below the palace called Machli Baba’s temple/ashram

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That’s my mother posing under one of those observatory instruments.

The Jantar Mantar here lies on the roof of the Man Mandir Palace, which lies on the Man Mandir Ghat – a 5 minute walk from the Dasashwamedh ghat towards Manikarnika Ghat.
For Indians, the entry fee to the palace was INR5, no separate charge for camera or for the observatory. Its at a much smaller scale than the ones in Jaipur and Delhi, but still should be of interest to people who like astronomy. Even if you are not, you can get splendid views of the river and the ghats from the top.

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Ahilya Bai Ghat

The Ghat has been named after AhilyaBai, the queen of Indore, who built the ghat as well as the main Vishwanath temple. Th ghat lies about a 5-10 minute walk from the Dasashwamedh Ghat towards Harishchandra ghat.

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Now Kashi is not only about the Ghats, there are a number of other places to see as well.
Ramnagar Fort
The fort made me a little bit disappointed to be honest. If I have to use one word to describe it, it would be shabby. Its not a huge fort, and different rooms and palaces have been converted as museum galleries. But its not well kept nor well lit. The museum starts with a few classic cars, chariots and howdas, then goes off to a weapons collections, then paintings, furniture and other items used by the royals, or gifts received by them. There is a giant clock, which apart from tie, also displays astrological information.
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Sarnath
Sarnath is a small village a few kilometres outside Varanasi. Depending on the traffic, it takes about an hour to one and half to reach there. There are multiple points of interest in this small place.
The main point of attraction is the Dhammek Stupa. From the junction, roads go to 4 directions. One goes toward Varanasi, one towards the Stupa and the the Sri Lankan Temple. One leads to the Chinese temple, and one to the Korean temple. Further down from the Stupa lies the Musuem with numerous statues and artifacts as well as the remnants from the Ashokan pillar.
Entry to the temples is free. Entry tickets for the museum and the monument can be bought from the ticket room that lies on the opposite of the museum. Prices for both are INR 10 for Indians.
Just a 5 min walk down the archaeological museum (on the opposite direction of the main stupa stupa) is this octagonal structure. You have to climb up a bit, the structure lies at the top of a small hillock. You can see the newly built giant Buddha statue from here.
The original structure, since renovated, is almost 2 thousand years old.

Emperor Ashoka – possibly ancient India’s greatest ruler – had erected pillar all around his empire. One of those pillars is in Sarnath, albeit in ruins. Only the base of the pilar is still in situ.
The museum contains the remnants. The part – which is India’s national emblem – is still well preserved and shiny after all these thousands of years. Its a must see for all patriots.
The ticket to the museum is only INR 5, same for the monument (as of January 2015).

Its a small museum maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. On January 2015, the ticket was INR 5. There are numerous statues and artifacts – both Hindu and Buddhist – from pre Islamic India. There are some artifacts from the “lithic” ages also. The centre peice of the museum is the remnant of the Ashoka Pillar and Chakra erected by Emperor Ashoka.Cameras are not allows inside.The ticket booth is on the opposite side of the street (same place for the ticket for the monuments as well).
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 Kashi Vishwanath Temple
To reach the temple, you have to go through a serpentine network of small alleys. Then, at the gate you will have to take off your shoes and deposit your camera etc to enter. Its usually very crowded and claustrophobic and unless you are religious and want to offer pujas, don’t bother going in. However, unlike most other temples in India, you can’t really see the “shikhara” from the outside.

New Vishwanath Temple inside Benaras Hindu University 
Though called new, the temple has been here for decades. Its only “new” compared to the original Kashi Vishwanath temple, which is hundreds of years old.
The temple lies in the middle of the Benaras Hindu University – one of the premier and oldest institutes of learning in India. There is a statue of the founder – the Bharat Ratna Madan Mohan Malviya in front of the temple.
There are a number of eating joints around the gate, you will see lots of students hanging around here. Try the cold coffee -only for INR 25, with a big dollop of ice cream.
Don’t forget to check out the unique architecture of the department buildings of the university.
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 Monkey Temple
Unless you are religious, there is no reason to go to the temple proper, especially considering the hassles of depositing camera, cell phone etc. However the road leading to the temple from the gate is full of monkeys monkeying around and it is quite fun to just sit down somewhere and watch their antics for a few minutes.
And when you are tired from all the sight seeing, the most delightful sweet delights await you.
Enter the small lane to the Kashi Vishwanatah Temple. Walk for about 50 metres and you will come to an extremely non descriptive shop on your left.
This shop serves the best rabri/rabdi in the entire world. I am salivating just writing about it.
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Also in the lane, lies a couple of famous sweet shops. Don’t forget to try their pedas.
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 I stayed at Hotel Atithi Satkar

This hotel has quite a number of things going for it.
But its not a star property, so adjust your expectations accordingly.

The cons
The food at the restaurant is decent (ish), nothing to write home about; a bit too much “masala”.
The lower floors have no views
Free wifi is there but the signal is not very strong
The travel desk has a tour of Sarnath, Ramnagar, BHU and a few other temples. As advertised, the tour is for 6 hours. However, if you are a history buff like me, there is no way you can complete it within the stipulated time and will end up arguing with the driver or feeling incomplete and unhappy. It is better to book a car for the whole day.
There are no individual room geysers.

Pros
Location is definitely a plus.
From Godhowlia crossroads one road leads to the Vishwanath Temple and ghats, one of the others leads to this hotel. Cars or autos are not allowed on the temple road but are allowed on the road the hotel is located. Thus, for travelers with more luggage or those who are coming from or going to the airport, its a definite plus.
It is about 1 kilometres from the hotel to the ghats and around 750-800 metres to the temple, so its easily walkable. The old and infirm can avail rickshaws which are available from the road below the hotel.

Service is good
As I said its not 5 star, but the service is good enough. The staff try their best to be of help, their clean the rooms to the best of their abilities and always have a smile on their faces.

We stayed in room nos 401 and 402, and we were quite happy with them. Both were adequately big. 401 had one and 402 had two nightstands beside the beds. Both rooms had a desk with mirror and a chair, a cupboard and a small dining table with two armchairs.

Room Tip: Take a room on the higher floors to get a view of the streets. We stayed in rooms 401 and 402.
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Scenes of Kashi
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All in all, its a fantastic way to spend 3 days.
And now that there is a fully functional airport, going there has become incredibly easy.
So go to Kashi.
Go to Sarnath
Go for Shiva
Go for the sights
Go for the sounds
Go for the smell
And go for your stomach
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