Lord Shiva is linked to the most ancient legends relating to Varanasi. In times beyond time, this was a vast jungle where the Lord Shiva manifested Himself as Lord VishvaNath - Lord of the whole world. At the confluence of the rivers Varan and Asi, a small town was created, centring its self around the ancient Linga of Lord VishvaNath. In times to come, this became a major temple town and a centre of great learning. Most monastic orders have at least a token temple or a monastery here. Students here can learn from ancient scriptures and compare the various philosophies of all the great masters of our past.
Shri Vallabh passed much of his childhood in this ancient-most city. His father migrated here from South India and Shri Vallabh was taught by the various luminaries of his times in this great city of "Divine Light". Shri Vallabh later settled further up-stream for peace and quiet, later returning to the great city before acesnding to the divine abode. Shri Vallabh became a sanyasi and took the vow of silence in the last days of his life. It was in Varanasi that Shri Vallabh gave up his mortal remains just beyond the Hanuman Ghat as he walked in to fast flowing river Ganges.
After the muslim invasion of India, the great universities at Taxashila and Nalanda were destroyed by the Islamic zealots. They could not appreciate the beauty of the philosophical insights offered by a more ancient civilisation than their own. Of the great ancient universities, Varanasi is the only one that has managed to survive the attack of both the muslims and the christian rulers. However, many of its temples suffered badly during the Islamic rule of India. Some of the more ancient and sacred sites & temples were cleared to make way for the main mosque that now stands on the highest hill in Varanasi. Lord VishvaNath's temple also migrated at this time and moved further down stream, nearer to the ManiKarnika ghat of the city.
The city has innumerable temples, monasteries and the world famous bathing ghats. There are practically thousands of small shrines - often just an alcove set in someone's home or in a niche above street level - and hundreds of temples, old and new. As this is one of the most sacred cities in all India, people have often built temples here as a way of earning merit for the "here-after". Kings, queens and rich merchants used to endow these monuments with lands to take care of them, but as the land laws have changed, many of these institutions have become very poor and some of the more ancient buildings are in a very dilapidated state. The newer buildings are often garishly studded with marble and the intimacy of the atmosphere is torn asunder by blaring music from various loud speakers, each competing with the others in a battle to exult its own brand of devotional music.
Banaras, Varansi, Kashi - these are but three of its various names. The city is a popular trading port on the river and at one time was an economic centre of the region. It is famous for the fantastic brocade saris that are made by craftsmen and women of the city. Brass, copper and other metal works are also popular make of this amazingly diverse city. City is famous for its music, dance and other cultural activities aswell.
Monasteries are equally numerous as temples here. Once upon a time, they too were well looked after and well cared for. In the modern India where commercialism is the be all and end all of the masses, no one cares much for the monks and learned pundits of old. The state of some of these monasteries is very sorry indeed. A few have braved the modern world and are smiling in the face of adversity. The number of monks and students is not what it used to be at one time, but this is still a great city of learning.
The city has numerous ghats where the pilgrims can bathe and cleanse their mind and body of all sins. Celebrating the various historical and legendary achievements of the past, these ghats have witnessed the passage of time, as ceaseless as the Ganges. The various ghats and buildings along the river front are as indifferent to the lives of men as the wind which blows across its vast banks. Ghats are a vast bank of steps, set along the right-hand side of the river (looking down stream), that lead to the water's edge and enter into the holy waters in a smooth, seamless fashion. The steps are generally a series of steps punctuated by broad terraces where pilgrims can rest after a bath.
Here, along the various ghats, seekers seek God; young students learn the sacred scriptures by heart; pundits muse on the nature of the Lord in silent contemplation; musicians practice their serene tunes (the likes of sitar maestro Pundit RaviShankar who call Kashi home and plays on the ghats and roof tops of the temples by the river side in the early morning); brahmin priests ply their trade amongst throngs of pilgrims; guides - new and old - shout out their services to tourists and pilgrims alike; pilgrims pray and bath in an attitude of absolute reverence; locals bathe and rush up the wet steps to get to work; an occasional man sits alone and views the whole tamasha of this world as it floats past the great ghats of the Ganges at Varanasi.
Varanasi is also called Banares.
The sugar that came from this area was known as Baras - hence we still call "sugar" by that name in our Pushti-Marg seva pranali.
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