Varanasi: Hinduism’s Sacred City

by Jeannette Isaac
photos by John Isaac

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A Brahman woman in the south of India rises every day at four o’clock, prepares a cup of coffee, and then sits before a thickly bound book in which she writes the name of the Hindu god, Shiva, over and over again. She has already filled two large books. When this book is completed, her wish is to make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Varanasi, where she will pray and offer her books to Shiva by immersing them in the river Ganges.

Varanasi, also known as Benares, the name given to it by the British, has been the religious capital of the Hindu faith since the dawn of history. Located along the western bank of the river Ganges in the state of Uttar Pradesh, its name is derived from two smaller rivers which converge there, the Varuna and the Assi.

From time immemorial, it has been the cherished dream of all devout Hindus to make a pilgrimage to Varanasi at least once in a lifetime. A visit to the shrines and the temples is to be assured of eternal salvation. A bath in the holy waters of the Ganges is to be purified of all sin. And to die in Varanasi is to reach the ultimate goal of the devout: the release from the endless cycle of rebirths.

Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world. When Buddah delivered his first sermon at nearby Sarnath in 500 B.C. Varanasi was already an ancient town. Through centuries of invading and occupying armies Varanasi remained steadfastly Hindu.

Varanasi is the city of Shiva. Shiva is one of Hinduism’s mightiest gods and the worship of Shiva is one of the oldest cults known to man. Shiva the destroyer represents power in all its manifestations: the fierce ascetic, the demon slayer, the lord of creation, and the symbol of male fertility.

In the Hindu scriptures and by word of mouth, the belief has been handed down that Shiva once told the goddesses: “The city of Varanasi is my place of utmost mystery… All the evil accumulated in a thousand previous lives is destroyed for one who enters Varanasi…If he lives here, a man goes to the supreme abode of Shiva, where there is no birth, old age, or death. And so the belief, the spiritual power of Varanasi, has held tenaciously through the centuries.

However, for the non-believer, especially a westerner, the spiritual attraction of Varanasi might not, at first, be obvious. Initially, one is more aware of the crowd and the noise. The city is a maze of alleyways and lanes, teeming with people on bicycles, rickshaws, and scooters who honk their way through the throngs. Sometimes the volume becomes so thick that everything comes to a complete halt. Merchants, catering to the needs of the pilgrims, yell out their wares from roadside shops: prayer beads, flowers, small jugs in which to carry home Ganges water, souvenirs and food.

Only when the sound of temple gongs and bells filters through the din is one reminded of the spirituality of Varanasi. It is a city with more than 2,000 temples, most of which were built in the last 200 years following Muslim invasion and destruction. The main temple, Vishwanath or the golden temple was originally constructed in 490 A.D. It was destroyed twice, and the present structure was built in 1777. It is one of thirty-three temples along a traditional route which a pilgrim must visit in his quest for salvation.

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Tags: India Pilgrimage/pilgrims Historical site/city Hindu