Varanasi: The Oldest Continuously Populated City
Varanasi which is also known as Banaras, Benaras, and Kashi is one of the oldest continuously populated cities in the world. It is also regarded as the holiest city by Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains; especially due to the presence of the river Ganges which runs through it and is considered to be sacred among Hindus, Buddhists as well as Jains. This city has been the center of culture, art, and religion for thousands of years and many artists and religious leaders have called this place home since times bygone. The sanctity of the city draws pilgrims and foreigners alike and almost 1, 000,000 pilgrims come here every year. A visit to India would be incomplete without taking in the atmosphere and the cultural ambience that this city has to offer.
People also refer to the city as “the religious capital of India”, “the holy city of India”, “the city of learning”, “the city of lights” and “the city of temples”. There are thousands of temples scattered across the city and the presence of ghats as well as cremation grounds gives it a unique ambience. Although according to legend, the city was created by lord Shiva 5000 years ago, it is believed to be 3000 years old. Varanasi was the commercial and the industrial capital of India and was famous for its sculptures, ivory works, perfumes, and silk fabrics.
Varanasi has almost a hundred ghats and many were built when the city was under the control of Marathas. Many of these ghats are used for bathing, some are used as cremation sites, and others are privately owned. The ghats here were not just built by the Marathas but also by kings including the king of Nepal and Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur, India. Some of the famous ghats include the Mana-Mandir Ghat which was built by Maharaja Jai Singh II, Scindia Ghat which borders the Manikarnika ghat to the north, Lalita Ghat which was built by the King of Nepal, and Manikarnika ghat which is associated with legends and also holds customary cremations.
The city has thousands of temples from smaller ones in the crooked alleyways of “the Old City” to bigger ones that are visited by tourists and pilgrims alike. Some of the important temples include the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Sankat Mochan Temple, Durga Temple, Vyasa Temple, Tulsi Manas Temple, Annapurna Temple, Kalbhairav Temple, Annapurna Temple, and Mritunjay Mata Temple. One of the famous temples among these is the Kashi Vishwanath Temple which was built in 1780 and is also known as the Golden Temple. This temple was destroyed by the Muslim Emperor Aurangzeb who created a mosque in its place and today a resurrected version of the temple stands near the mosque.
Jantar Mantar: Jantar Mantar is an observatory that was built by Maharaja Jai Singh II who was an admirer of science in general and astronomy in particular. The Jantar Mantar is a structure that was built in order to measure local time, the declination of stars, the declination of the sun, and to determine eclipses. Some of the masonry instruments at the Jantar Mantar can still be used accurately to record the motion of celestial bodies. This Jantar Mantar was built in style which was similar to other such structures present in Delhi, Ujjain, Mathura, and Jaipur.
Archeological Museum: The archeological museum Sarnath was created in 1904 and completed in 1910 to house, display, and study the artifacts here which range from antiquities during 3rd century B.C to 12th century A.D. The museum contains 12 galleries and two verandahs to display the various artifacts.
Ramnagar Fort: Situated 14 Km. from the city is the Ramnagar Fort that also has a museum and is located on the banks of the river Ganges. This was the ancestral home of the Maharaja of Banaras and has a temple which is dedicated to Ved Vyasa. Ved Vyasa who wrote Mahabharata, the great epic, is said to have stayed here for a short period of time. The museum has many artifacts on display including antique clocks, vintage cars, ivory work, armory of swords, and royal Palkis. Inside the fort-palace there is a clock that not only displays the time but also the month, year, date, and other facts about the sun, moon and constellation of stars.
Bharat Kala Bhavan: This is a museum that is located inside the BHU campus and has a large collection of paintings, materials of archeological importance, and various Buddhist and Hindu sculptures. In the main hall of the museum there is a figure of a man standing on one leg, one hand on hip, and the other hand holding up a huge rock. This sculpture is said to be of Lord Krishna holding up Mt. Govardhan. There are numerous galleries in the museum and the most notable are sculpture gallery, archeological gallery, paintings gallery, Nidhi or Treasures gallery, Benaras through ages gallery, and decorative art gallery.
Getting There: Varanasi is well connected by air, rail, and road with major cities in India such as New Delhi, Ahemedabad, Chennai, Pune, Mumbai, Gwalior, and Ujjain.
Air: The nearest airport is about 25 Km. from the city and is named Lal Bahadur Shastri Airport or Babatpur Airport. This airport is connected to all the metropolitan cities in India and also to Katmandu. Services of Kingfisher Airlines, Spicejet, Alliance Air, Indian Airlines, Mihin Lanka, Jet Airways, and Air India are available. However, a new airport is being constructed and would have the capacity for 500 cars and of handling 1000 passengers since the current terminal building can only handle 200 passengers at a time.
Rail: The city has two major railway stations and the Varanasi Junction is controlled by Northern Railways whereas the Mughal Sarai Junction is handled by East Central Railway. Although the city has two major stations, it also has sixteen other smaller railway stations scattered across Varanasi.
Road: Varanasi is connected by road to major cities in India such as Hyderabad, Bangalore, Jabalpur, Madurai, and Nagpur. There are two national highways that connect this city to the rest of the India. National Highway 2 which links Delhi and Kolkatta passes through the city and National Highway 7 which is the longest one in India connects the city to the above mentioned cities.