Varanasi (also called with the name Benaras and
Kashi) is one of the oldest living cities in the world. Many names have
been given to Varanasi, though its recently revived official appellation is
mentioned in the Mahabharata and in the Jataka tales of Buddhism. It probably
derives from the two rivers that flank the city, the Varana to the north and the
Asi to the south.. Many still use the anglicized forms of Banaras or Benares,
while pilgrims refer to Kash, first used three thousand years ago to describe
the kingdom and the city outside which the Buddha preached his first sermon; the
"City of Light" is also called Kashika, "the shining one",
referring to the light of Shiva. Another epithet, Avimukta, meaning "Never
Forsaken", refers to the city that Shiva never deserted, or that one should
never leave. Further alternatives include Anandavana, the "forest of
bliss", and Rudravasa, the place where Shiva (Rudra) resides.
Varanasiís associations with Shiva extend to
the beginning of time: legends relate how, after his marriage to Parvati, Shiva
left his Himalyan abode and came to reside in Kashi with all the gods in
attendance. Temporarily banished during the rule of the great king Divodasa,
Shiva sent Brahma and Vishnu as his emissaries, but ultimately returned to his
rightful abode protected by his loyal attendants Kalabhairav and Dandapani. Over
350 gods and goddesses, including a protective ring of Ganeshaa form a mandala
or sacred pattern with Shiva Vishwanatha at its centre.
The Holy City
Varanasi is to Hindus what Mecca is to Muslims or Vatican to Catholics. Varanasi is the site of the holy shrine of Lord Kashi Vishwanath, one of the twelve revered Jyotirlingas of the Lord Shiva. Kashi Vishwanath Temple, which in its present shape was built in 1780 by Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar of
Indore, is located on the banks of the Ganges. This temple makes Varanasi a place of great religious importance to the Hindus. Varanasi is considered as the most sacred place of pilgrimage for Hindus irrespective of denomination.
It is believed that bathing in the river Ganges results in the remission of sins and that dying in the holy city of Kasi (Varanasi) circumvents rebirth. This belief has encouraged the establishment of innumerable geriatric homes and hospices in the city, and led to the disposal of half-burnt corpses into the river Ganges. This practice continues to cause immense damage to the river's ecology. The ministry of water resources has banned cremation on the city's ghats (ghats are the banks of a holy river, and often, as at Varanasi, steps are built to facilitate bathing).
In the neighborhood of the city lies Sarnath, the site of a deerpark where Gautam Buddha is said to have given his first sermon about the basic principles of Buddhism. It is a major Buddhist pilgrimage center and also has a stupa built by the Mauryan emperor "Ashoka, the Great".
The modern name Varanasi is derived from two tributaries of the Ganges, one in the north end of the city, called Varuna and the other in the south end, called Asi (now reduced to a water-drain). The city has an airport at Babatpur, 20 km from the city centre, and is also well-connected to all major cities in India by road and rail.
Regions near the banks of river Ganges are extremely crowded and house several Hindu temples and road-side shops. The main residential areas of Varanasi are situated in regions far from the Ghats, which are much more spacious and less polluted.
The inflow of pilgrims developed
Banaras as a trade centre. Besides traders, crafts people also settled in
Banaras. Today the city is renowned for its silk weavers, who prepare the finest
types of woven silk fabrics. A Banaras silk sari or shawl is traditionally a
single colored textile with motifs and patterns woven in gold or silver threads.
The technique is intricate, the procedure complex and demands great expertise
.As the warp and the weft are interwoven on the loom, small ,often minute
shuttles with gold thread are introduced to form the motif. When the design of
the motif is completed, a knot is made and the gold thread cut. The weaving
continues until the next design. The smaller the motif or the more intricate the
design, the more complex the weaving skills required.
Silk weaving in Banaras is a
cottage industry and in many areas of the city, especially the Muslim quarters,
one can see looms at work all day . Entire families are involved, Children often
pick up the art from the elders at an early age. There are shops in Banaras, and
throughout India, that sell these fine silk fabrics