World’s oldest living city finds its corridor into the 21st century

The world’s oldest surviving city, Kashi, takes its name from ‘Kasha’ which means brightness. And certainly, this ancient city is fast modernising to brighten up the face of India.
With the Kashi Vishwanath Dham project in full swing, the redevelopment comes after demolishing 314 buildings that housed at least 1,400 shops and illegal squatters.
The Kashi Vishwanath Dham project, executed by the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Special Area Development Board, envisages ensuring facilities like pilgrims’ assistance centre, tourist facilitation centre, Vedic centres, food courts, city museum, viewing gallery etc.
The project also intends to link the main temple complex with Lalita Ghat. At this ghat are situated the famous Nepali Mandir and Lalita Gauri Mandir. It was built in the early 19th century by Rana Bahadur Shah, the emperor of Nepal.
Rana Bahadur Shah was in exile in Benaras from 1800 to 1804 and was known as Swami Nirgunanda. At this time, he set out to build a replica of the Pashupatinath Temple here. But Rana Bahadur Shah moved back to Nepal while the temple was still under construction.
On 25 April 1806, Rana Bahadur Shah was stabbed to death by his stepbrother, Sher Bahadur Shah. Then two decades later, under his son Girvan Yuddha Bikram Shah Deva, the construction of the temple (now called Nepali Mandir) concluded. The facility included a dharamshala and Lalita Ghat.
In the bygone times, Kashi used to be the ultimate destination to conclude one’s physical existence. Varanasi, the parliamentary constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has a special significance in India’s largely Hindu society for which Kashi is more than a city — it is the abode of spiritual aspiration and transcendence.
The 23rd Jain Tirthankara, Parshvanatha, had lived in Varanasi. For both Hindu and Jain cultures, Kashi is the holiest of the sacred cities. Hindus believe that those who die in Kashi get liberated from the cycle of birth and death and go straight to Lord Shiva.
There happens to be no consensus on the origins of Varanasi, but the city thriving on the banks of the Ganga river is widely believed to be the abode of Lord Shiva and Parvati. The culture of Varanasi is centuries old and is closely connected with the Ganga.
The city of Kashi finds mention in the Rig Veda. It was since antiquity a centre of learning, literature, art and culture. Kasikhand (believed to be a narration about Kashi by Lord Kartikeya to Sage Agasthya) dedicates 15,000 verses to the city of Kashi in Skanda Purana.
Not just religious, Kashi was well-known for its thriving artistic activities as well. Estimated to be around 3,000 years old, Varanasi is famous for its muslin, silk, perfumes, ivory work, and sculptures. There still remain some of the 18th century figurines and from the time of Parshvanatha. Some figures are even from the time of Gautam Buddha.
Not unexpectedly, Varanasi is also famous among foreign tourists who are attracted by its culture, traditions, festivals, temples and spiritualism.
Although several of its temples were destroyed in the 12th century after Mohammad Ghauri’s invasion, most of its existing temples and other religious centres are from the 18th century. When Varanasi was ruled by Qutb-ud-din Aibak, thousands of the temples and religious monuments were destroyed in 1194.
Despite the prolonged cultural onslaught, Kashi retained its authenticity and importance as a cultural centre.
Kashi is also associated with celebrated individuals like Kabir Das, the poet saint from the 15th century. His compositions went on to have a significant influence during the Bhakti movement at that time, the cultural trend that emerged and insisted on love and devotion to religious concepts pertaining to deities. The Bhakti movement preached against caste-based discrimination and reached the masses in the medium of their vernacular language.
Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikhism, too had visited Varanasi during the celebration of Shivratri in 1507.
The cultural importance of Varanasi was renewed around the 16th century when Mughal emperor Akbar reigned. At this time, some new temples of Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu were built.
A temple of Goddess Annapurna was constructed by Maratha Peshwa Bajirao in 1729.
Legend has it that once, Shiva remarked that this entire world is an illusion (maya) and that includes food. This displeased Parvati, who in her Annapurna avatar is the goddess of food, and to explain the importance of food, she made all food disappear from the planet. When hunger struck the world, Shiva turned to Parvati, apologised and accepted the importance of food. After Parvati offered Shiva food, they made a kitchen in Varanasi for her devotees.
In the 18th century, Kashi became an independent kingdom ruled by its king Kashi Naresh, whose descendents reside in Ramanagar fort at present. This fort lies to the east of Varanasi, on the right bank of the Ganga.
Ramnagar fort and its museum is the repository of the history of the kings of Kashi. The king of Ramnagar used to be the chief cultural patron and was essential to all Hindu cultural celebrations in the region.
Modern Varanasi developed during the times of Rajput and Maratha kings. The kings of Kashi continued to have their importance even during British rule until Independence.
In the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi lies about 320 kilometres from the state capital Lucknow, and nearly 797 kilometres from the national capital New Delhi.
Recently, due to the G20 events to be held here between April and August, Varanasi aggressively received a facelift with uniform colour of buildings and thematic wall murals and paintings, and even extended parking facilities and widening of roads.
However, the commendable efforts to spruce up the city reminds an onlooker of the essential cultural past that seems to have faded in the background of a ‘smart’ city and smarter temple complexes.
People of faith believe that the Ganga river at Kashi has the power to wash away the sins of mortals. In the present times, a lot seems to have been washed away in the wave of modernisation, not maintaining the cultural heritage and preserving the city’s historicity that has stood for millennia.

- Advertisement -