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the city of light – the city illustrious – the city of shiva

Submitted: September 03, 2016

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Submitted: September 03, 2016



Benares . Banaras Varanasi . Kashi

The City of Light – Charismatic Spiritual Colorful Holy Eternal – The City of Shiva



Research Inputs by Anindya Dutta Gupta


From the unreal lead me to the real

From darkness lead me to light

From death lead me to Eternal Life

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad


The city illustrious

It was just past six in the morning when 2311 UP Howrah Kalka Mail chugged into Mughalsarai railway station on its way from Kolkata to Delhi. Another 20 kms by road and I will reach Varanasi, a favorite destination of mine since childhood. Varanasi has its own railway station, but direct train tickets are difficult to get. If only I could get one, it would have saved me a lot of hassles.

So here I am. At Varanasi or Benares, which is also known as Kashi or a city where the light of wisdom shines. Are there more such names? I wondered.  Why is it that this human settlement was called by so many different names along the way? In the course of an evolutionary process out of which I emerged, man has kept written records, adding to the treasure trove about the manifestation of this human habitation since antiquity.

Standing at the crossroads of Varanasi new and old, I delved into history.

“The name Varanasi is derived in the Puranas from the names of the streams Varana and Asi, which are respectively the northern and southern boundaries of the modern city. The Mahabhasya states that Varanasi was called Jitvari by the businessmen, for they reaped great profits there. In ancient texts several other names are attributed to the city like Mahasmasana, Anandakanana, Rudravasa, Avimukta-ksetra, etc.”

Varanasi in the Gahadavala Period by Dr. Ashish Kumar Dubey & Dr. D. P. Dubey (2010) -

The sun was yet to be fully radiant, its rising glow casting a mesmerizing shadow in the narrow lanes. Somewhere inside a dilapidated house, a door creaked. Footsteps, the sound of wooden slippers became louder as it neared. The rhythmic beat of a tube well was followed by gushing water. Varanasi, the city, was getting awake.  

I did not have to struggle across humanity to move ahead. Not yet. It was still too early for the din and bustle to emanate from the crowded lanes. So I ambled along soaking in the ambiance of this eternal city. Time ticked without a tinkle and there I stood, bang at the center of Godhulia Chowk with the smell of freshly brewed tea wafting in the wind, when a honk made me turn around.

A tall man with muscular legs was gesticulating at me. Dressed in a soiled white dhoti and a half sleeved vest that contrasted the bronzed tan of his skin, the gesture was the rickshaw puller’s form of solicitation. My refusal was met with a quiet fatalistic resignation. Turning around, tired hands clasped a piece of cloth dangling from the shoulders. He mopped his face. A matter of habit it has now become, wiping the sweat and grease since time immemorial, befitting the ancientness of the city he chose to live in. Behind him was a long line of rickshaws, the eager faces radiating conflicting expressions, prepared to wait their turn.

Oblivious to my surroundings, I again immersed myself into re-enforcing my belief about the antiquity of the place, which however was never in question.

“BENARES, or Kashi, "the illustrious," is a city of great antiquity, of unrivalled sanctity, and of boundless renown. So great is its antiquity, that its existence, apparently, long anticipates the dawn of history. It seems perfectly clear from tradition that Benares first existed, and then the rest of the world was formed round it. On equally good authority we find that the Benares thus referred to was not the Benares now included in the municipal limits, but the whole territory enclosed by the Panchkosi Road. With facts like these before us who could dream of enquiring, "who founded Benares?" As well impertinently enquire, "who built the Himalayas?"

- ‘Kashi The City Illustrious, or Benares’ - by Edwin Greaves (1909)  
From Godhulia Chowk, the road to Dasaswamedh Ghat runs east before turning south. That was the path I would take. I was not to turn left at Pravesh Marg for Vishwanath Gali. That meandering lane leads one to Vishwanath Temple. Many of the eateries were already open. There wasn’t a customer too many at that time of the day, so all attention was on me. I ignored the sweetshop owners however much they tried to draw my attention and walked on, bypassing the stray cows and bulls, which formed a crowd. But as is the uniqueness of this holy city, these stray cattle got reverential respect from passers-by.   

A soft translucent haze levitated like a mysterious blanket when I reached the banks of the holy river. Refreshing breeze blew from the south. Between two colossal flights of stone steps was an octagonal stone pier. It supported a huge palm-leaf umbrella typical of Varanasi. Muddy waters paid obeisance with leisurely curls lapping the foot, as the body towered above tranquil waters. The intensity of feeling, that of divinity was tremendous. This ideally was a time for reflection.

Benares, situated on the west bank of River Ganges had outgrown itself. No longer was it possible to get a peek out of the bogie’s window as the train chugged in from a distance. Filth and dismal living conditions greet the eye. Propensity for expansion as the most visited destination in India is partly responsible for this misfortune. But how was it a hundred years ago? 

“The sacred water of the holy river, with glimpses of towering temples standing on tier bank, now gleams into view through some breaks of the foliage in the remote horizon. Forward as you approach, a grand panorama of the long-looked-for city, spreading in the form of a mighty crescent now breaks upon your wondering gaze.

Upon a high ridge of kankar on the western bank and in front of the greenish bay of limpid water she stands like a vast amphitheatre with her domes and spires and turrets up above the flights of numberless steps, extending along the winding stone-paved river-bank far as the eye can reach.

Hurried on over the bridge, the crescent-like arc now widens and becomes more defined, and the twin towers of Madhoji-ka-deora stand out prominent among the white and gold-tipped spires clustered all around.”

  • THE HOLY CITY (Benares) by Rajani Ranjan Sen (1912)
  • holy-city-benares-hci.shtml

My reverie was broken by a gaunt old man, with deep wrinkles on a face that looked as old as the city itself. He held a long tow rope in his weathered hands. On the far end was tied a small dinghy. It is sort of a row boat, which rocked lazily on the placid waters of the Ganga.

These boats are plentiful in Benares. Used mostly to take visitors on a ride down the Ganges, the slow movement enables the viewer to see life in motion along the ghats, the temples, and the mansions lining the river front, defining the identity of this charismatic city.

Half a century ago when the Ganga waters had a free flow, large pleasure boats known as the ‘bajra’ plied in the river. Mostly belonging to the rulers of erstwhile states and the rich and famous, they rendered aristocracy and color to the dull waters. A wealthy landlord resplendent in silk and brocades, animatedly playing chess on the top deck while his servants waited on him with crystal decanters, was a typical scene depicted in many a cinema that had its setting in Benares.

Today, dams and barrages dotting the river have restricted the water flow. Little water flows down the Ganga. Handful of ‘bajras’ that are but a shadow of yesteryears floats confined to the river bank.

The Ganga here today is in a pitiable state with sand banks and shifting sandbars. Once I got stuck in midstream. The boatman simply failed to nudge the boat with a piece of bamboo that they use as a lever. He was also afraid to lower himself into the waters because of under-surface currents and the shifting silt. The man asked me not to worry because this was a common phenomenon, and that all will be okay in a short time.  

I followed this old man to his boat. View Varanasi from the river, was what I had been taught from childhood, or else, miss its greatness. To be great is difficult. To get misunderstood is easy.

So there I was, gently swinging to the gait and sniffing the fragrance of the ghats from a distance. Sound of oars parting the waters was steady and assuring. As my tired body relaxed and the south wind wiped the sweat off my face, I settled down in one of the cross planks and looked around. A water bird overtook us, its shrill cry piercing the morning silence.

The overpowering presence of stately palaces lining the river bank stupefied me. Things haven’t changed much since the time Edwin Greaves took a leisurely boat ride down the Ganga. He recorded his observations in ‘Kashi The City Illustrious, or Benares’.

“This long stretch of the city along the river front is between three and four miles in extent. It is crescent- shaped, and possibly there is not a city in the whole world which presents a more picturesque appearance than does Benares when viewed from the Ganges. “

- ‘Kashi The City Illustrious, or Benares’ - by Edwin Greaves (1909) – 

A Hindu reveres Ganga, the river, as his mother who distributes abundance, goodness, generosity, and wealth. To his world, God created water as an essential element without which the complex whole of life would collapse. And imagine? On those still waters sat me, Anindya the romanticist, observing life in motion along the majestic ghats of Benares.

An elderly woman in a bright yellow sari was clambering up the steep steps. Then there was a young housewife who sheltered by a stone canopy, labored on, washing her day’s laundry. On the terrace above, colorful saris fluttered in the wind getting dried by the wind and the sun.

And there they were, the famous palm-leaf parasols of this grandiose city, under which sat a holy man dispensing his understanding of scriptures to a faithful few. A couple emerged from a small temple. They were undecided whether to go down to the river all the way, but finally settled on a stone pier.The platform projected on the river. So it enabled them to offer fruits and flowers to holy mother flowing down below. Imagine if today is their wedding anniversary, then what a brilliant way it is to start the day with.

Overwhelmed by this microcosmic view of life and the architectural grandeur, my emotions knew no bounds. I can now identify the essence of the ‘city illustrious’. A holy city brought to life by busy throngs of people.  

“The view of Benares from the river has, probably, no equal throughout the continent. From Assi Ghat to Raj Ghat, a distance of three miles, there is a more or less continuous line of bathing-steps, surmounted by temples and other fine buildings. These things, however, do not complete the picture; the scene lacks its true effect without the busy throngs of people which stream down to holy Ganga Mai (Mother Ganges) in the morning.”
- ‘Kashi The City Illustrious, or Benares’ - by Edwin Greaves (1909) –  

A poetic eye was what Rajani Ranjan Sen had. And he viewed Benares through them. There never was any exaggeration in his descriptions of a city he considered holy.

A hundred years later, I looked at the façade of this stately city. From the lofty minarets to the ascetic saints, many things have changed. But still, Benares remains Varanasi or Kashi, or by whatever name called, retaining its charismatic appeal to all and sundry.

“A grand panorama of exceeding brilliance and beauty flashes upon your entranced vision. The sparkling waters of the holy river to the east seem to run below in a mighty curve extending towards the south till the chain of buildings and towers and temples fades away in a mist near the mouth of the Asi with the hary outlines of the Ramnagar Fort discernible on the other banks of the Ganges. To the west are observed the well wooded gardens and palatial mansions beyond the thickly populated quarters with their house-tops alive with sportive monkeys frisking about upon them and swarms of pigeon fluttering high above like clustering white lotuses  floating in the heaven’s blue. ….. As you stand upon the eminence of this steep bank beneath the broad canopy of the blue heavens, with the slender Barana making for and at last reaching and nestling in the bosom of the mighty Ganges and the unified stream gliding along peacefully, with the vast expanse of the sun-lit vista stretching before you as far as the eye can reach, what a strange indefinable expression of the grandeur of solitude fills the mind and makes it realize the solemnity of the scene!”

  • THE HOLY CITY (Benares) by Rajani Ranjan Sen (1912) –
  • the-holy-city-benares-hci.shtml


In India, architecture may be categorized under two broad heads like ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’. The majestic Hindu temples, secluded Buddhist viharas, splendid Islamic architecture, the intricate Jain, or Christian architectural styles established building traditions that were intrinsically linked to different religions. And with the British came a further fusion of the Eastern and Western styles. In the panoramic view of Benares, the cultural synthesis was apparent in its architectural evolution, from the ancient to the contemporary.

From the river, the face of Benares had a monolithic appearance. Generally plain and simple, the architecture is bereft of any grotesque ornamentation. But why, I ask myself, did the rich and famous build mansions, and how do these withstand the ravages of time?

“It may be noticed here that one of the features of Benares is the existence of properties belonging to noblemen who are not residents of Benares, yet regard it a desirable thing to have a building in the sacred city. In many cases these houses are seldom, if ever, visited by the owners, but are left in the charge of a few servants or retainers, or it may be, placed at the disposal of devotees, and may from time to time be lent as guest-houses for parties of pilgrims who journey to Kashi from that part of the country to which the owner belongs.
It is a matter for regret that many of these buildings are not kept in better order, or sold to others who would make better use of them, and make them more worthy, in appearance, of the fine situations which they often occupy. Scattered over various parts of the city are really fine mansions, now fast becoming ruins, in fact, some of them are already so. The descendants of the original builders lack the interest, or the means to keep up the establishments, yet, apparently swayed by something of a dog-in-the-manger spirit, or perhaps entertaining a superstitious regard for possessing property in such a sacred city, will not let the property go out of their hands.” 
- Kashi the city illustrious, or Benares by Edwin Greaves (1909) – 
I was hungry. Break-the-fast I must, and at the earliest possible, the loveliness of the river cruise notwithstanding. As I strolled down the lanes and bye-lanes of the holy city, it was a pleasant surprise for me to observe the cosmopolitan character in keeping with the demographical changes. And it was interesting to observe that the city is sacred to all – a meeting place of all religions.

Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Christianity, and many others are deep-rooted across the length and breadth of this great country. All ultimately leads to the philosophy of a way of life. This philosophical sustenance, which is all-embracing, all-accepting, and toleration, has given Indians the capacity to accept and assimilate. A belief in one’s own self.

“Benares has ever been the meeting-place of all religions, and here more largely than anywhere else are people of all shades of opinions and beliefs to be to be always met with in numbers. Not to speak of the orthodox Hindus strictly so called who have their own shrines and temples, and the Mahomedans who have their mosques in numbers, there are various other sects claiming to share the designation of Hindu, that have also their places of worship here. Besides the followers of Kabir and the Radhaswamis, here are Vaishnavites and Nagas, Nanakshabis and Jains. Gorakpanthis and Shibnarayanis, and Theosophists and Arya Samajists as well. And in a field of such religious activity there could not but be a number of proselytizing Christian Missions as well.”

  • THE HOLY CITY (Benares) by Rajani Ranjan Sen (1912) –
  • the-holy-city-benares-hci.shtml

Finally, more than a hundred years ago, it was for Edwin Greaves to come up with the vital statistics and critical interpretations of Benares, which made me stand corrected from existing beliefs. The sun was setting and the City of Light flickered into existence. As the tiny oil lamps struggled to keep afloat, I marveled at the unity in diversity that only eternity can bestow on Benares, the eternal city.

“The population at the last census (1901) was 209,331. Of these about 75 per cent, are Hindus, and the remaining 25 per cent, mostly Mahommedans. These numbers may surprise some people, who have been led to regard Benares as such an essentially Hindu city. As a matter of fact, the preponderating influence of the Hindus is not adequately represented by their numbers, they have a position and influence in the City far beyond their numerical strength. There is a small Christian community, also a few Jains, Sikhs, and just one or two Parsis and 
Buddhists (five only of each were recorded at the last census).” 
- Kashi the city illustrious, or Benares by Edwin Greaves (1909) – 


‘He who sees his Lord

In every creature

Dwelling for all eternity

Among mortals,

He perceives the truth.

He who sees separate lives

Of all the creatures here below

Reunited in the Brahman

Who bore them

Will himself find the Brahman.’

Bhagavad Gita




  • Varanasi in the Gahadavala Period by Dr. Ashish Kumar Dubey & Dr. D. P. Dubey (2010) – Journal of History and Social Sciences, Volume: II, Issue: II, July – December, 2011.
  • ‘Kashi The City Illustrious, or Benares’ - by Edwin Greaves (1909) – The Indian Press, Allahabad.
  • THE HOLY CITY (Benares) by Rajani Ranjan Sen (1912) – M. R. Sen, Chittagong.


Texts Courtesy:

  • Journal of History and Social Sciences –

  • Open Library -
  • -


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