Varanasi – Part II

Varanasi is among the ancient most cities of the world and there is evidence of constant habitation here. When the city is of such eminence you find a rich history in every monument and structures in every lane and by-lane. It seems every brick and stone of every fort, Haveli and house here have their story, every road, lane and the narrowest of by-lane have a history that is rich and eventful.

Banaras has seen much of religious domination in its past. As per the legend the city was created by Lord Shiva making it an important Hindu religious site since creation. Life and civilisation flourished so did the religion. Varanasi as Kashi has found a mention in many ancient Hindu scriptures.

Sarnath, which is very close to Varanasi is the place of birth of Buddhism. Here Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon under the Bodhi tree and since then Buddhism spread across the world and became a major religion. Hence the Buddhist influence in the city and its precincts. (To know more about Sarnath read my previous post.)

Information about the Ashokan Pillar
Information about the Ashokan Pillar

Islam domination started with the invasion of Mahmud of Ghazni. Since then there was a considerable number of Muslim invasion on this city. During the reign of secular Mughal Emperor Akbar, many Hindu landlords got back their property and Hinduism flourished again. Much later Mughal emperor Aurangzeb suppressed the Hindus demolishing temples and monuments and forcibly converting many to Islam.

A local mosque
A local mosque

To stand against the Muslim domination and get back their land Hindu landlords then came together to form ‘the Benaras State’. The first king of this dynasty was Mansa Ram. The subsequent rulers of the Benaras State maintained sovereignty with the East India Company. During this phase, many Hindu of the lower cast who were considered untouchable in those days were known to embrace Christianity. With the end of British rule, Christianity did not expand any further in the city.

St Thomas Church
St Thomas Church

Jainism has also been a part of the History of Benaras with four of the Tirthankaras born here. Varanasi has also experienced the Sikh influence with the visit of Guru Nanak and much later by Guru Tegh Bahadur. Thus the city has seen a lot and has even more to narrate.

Seems to be a crested Hawk Eagle
Seems to be a crested Hawk Eagle

Banaras is a big city now spread beyond the densely populated ancient areas beside the bank of the Ganges. The considerably new part of the city has broad roads, modern buildings and a look that is much different from the much known Varanasi.

Godowlia square
Godowlia square

My previous post was on the Ghats of Varanasi and I am supposed to write this post on ‘Banaras ki Galiyan’. (Read my previous post on the Ghats of Varanasi.) The ancient part of the city by the bank of the river is a network of narrow lanes and bylanes. You can call it a mace, you can call it a puzzle but it is the same interconnected roadways that ran for ages.

Banaras ki Galliyan
Banaras ki Galliyan

Most of the ancient monuments are found within the network of these bylanes and some beside the bank of river Ganges. The famous Ramnagar Fort is situated on the eastern bank of the river with the Ghats on the opposite bank. It was previously connected to this part by a pontoon bridge. A recent concrete bridge has facilitated the vehicular movement over the river.

Ramnagar Fort main entrance
Ramnagar Fort main entrance

The Ramnagar Fort was once the residence of the Kashi Naresh Raja Balwant Singh, a descendant of the first king of the Benaras State. This large historical monument is now the residence of the present King Pelu Bhiru Singh as well as a major part of it has been converted into a museum. The sad plight of the monument shows the sign of negligence and no maintenance.

Although the kingship has been abolished since 1971 the present king enjoys the titular position and is equally revered by the people of the city. The part of the fort that has been converted into the museum has a rare collection of imported vintage cars, rich horse-pulled carts, elephant saddles, lavish chairs and opulent palanquins. The other sections of the museum have a collection of gold and silver brocade Banarasi Silk sarees and costumes, Kimkhwa silk (a speciality of Benaras weaving) and jewellery. There are separate sections dedicated to a rich collection of weapons, musical instruments, astronomical clocks and manuscripts.

Photography is not allowed within the fort and neither within the museum. I managed to click a few pictures from the permitted areas. Negligence has engraved its mark on every corner of the fort and its exhibits. I was deeply moved to see the sad condition of this important historical monument in this renowned city.

Swallows in flight in Ramnagar Fort
Swallows in flight in Ramnagar Fort

On the opposite bank of the river at a little distance in the famous and old institution of Benaras Hindu University (BHU). This was previously known as the Central Hindu University and was established in the year 1916 by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya an educationist, reformist and politician, known for his active role in the Indian independence movement.

Statue of Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya
Statue of Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya

The Birla temple or the New Vishwanath Temple lies within the premises of BHU. The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The construction of a replica of the original Vishwanath temple was conceptualised by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya and later the construction was taken over by the Birlas.

New Kashi Viswanath Temple
New Kashi Viswanath Temple

Some ancient structures remain scattered within the city at a little distance from the ghats. Among them are the Durga temple, Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple and the Tulsi Manas Temple. The famous poet Goswami Tulsidas have translated the Sanskrit version of the epic Ramayana in Awadhi language which was known as Ramcharitmanas.

Tulsi Manas Temple
Tulsi Manas Temple

Apart from the ancient Kashi Vishwanath Temple and the famed monuments, there are many such named and unnamed Havelis in every lane and bylanes. Once you enter the network of this lanes be prepared to get lost in this mace. I have heard of the Banaras ki Galiyan much before my visit. When I first entered this busy network of lanes it was a feeling of entering into a different world.

An old Haveli transformed into a beautiful guest house
An old Haveli transformed into a beautiful guest house

The lanes were getting narrower and even narrower, the buildings on either side were guarding the light to make then dark and dingy. At places, it was of the width where only a person can pass through and looking above you see the balcony of the buildings on either side touching each other. I was awestruck to imagine how people live here, commute every day and bring furniture and heavy items to their house.

House on either side touch each other
House on either side touch each other

It was so different and you are ought to get lost in it if you do not have someone to guide you or you note the exact turns at every point. I entered this part of the city to get reach my hotel Sri Omkar Palace near the Chousatti Ghat. This hotel was again an ancient structure renovated and restructured with modern amenities to transform it according to the contemporary taste yet maintaining the bygone feel.

The reception and the central gallery of our hotel
The reception and the central gallery of our hotel
Sparrow larks are the neighbour of the hotel boarders
Sparrow larks are the neighbour of the hotel boarders

This immensely congested area with a series of buildings mostly with common walls evidently makes it the busiest of the places. All sort of activities and all sort of people are seen walking through. Even animals share the path to get to their destinations. Stray dogs are found in every city and in Varanasi, you also find a lot of cows and bulls and even Macaques.

I had a very close and personal encounter with the macaques here. In a quest to watch the sunrise and the morning life in the ghats I climbed the old, steep stone stairs to reach the terrace of the hotel when all were asleep. I was previously warned by the hotel employees not to keep the terrace door open to prevent the macaques from entering the hotel.

He came near my tripod
He came near my tripod

I was all alone on the terrace with my tripod and my camera. A group of macaques were monkeying around on which I did not pay any attention to. I had already set my tripod and was busy taking some handheld quick shots before fixing the camera on the tripod. A curious macaque appeared in front and after some inspection jumped on my tripod and started chewing its head.

After this I could not dare to capture
After this, I could not dare to capture

I was bewildered and impulsively tried to shoo it off. No sooner did I made my hand gesture the one along with its few mates attacked me and I ran for safety towards the door. The primary macaque followed and bit me on my leg. Thanks to the thick Jeans or the light intensity bite that saved me from any cuts but I had the marks engraved in blackish blue for some time. Then they dropped my tripod and jumped around and I watched silently waiting for the situation to settle so that I can get back my tripod and run to the safety of my room.

Monkeying around
Monkeying around

With many other memories of Varanasi, this incident too has become memorable for the rest of my life. Coming back to the ‘Gallis’, the busy ‘Gallis’ that has anything to everything, you get to see holy men, you get to see porters with heavy loads on their heads, you get to see temples, you get to see artisans busy in making the idols of the Gods and Goddesses.

The making of Gods in process
The making of Gods in process

But be watchful while walking through the bylanes as you may accidentally step on dung at any time. You can also encounter times when you cannot walk past a big fat bull walking through the alley as it is too narrow to allow you to overtake the beast. There is nothing to be afraid as they are mostly gentle in all occasion if not chased or agitated.

This cow uses the bike handle to get a good scratch in its ear
This cow uses the bike handle to get a good scratch in its ear

Bulls and cows are considered holy animal here, the bull is associated with Lord Shiva and known to be his vehicle for transportation (Vahana). Here they enjoy the privilege of unperturbed movement and activity.

A temple within the lanes
A temple within the lanes

During my short stay in the city, I could not gather much information on the ancient ‘Havelis’ seen within these lanes. All the houses here are old but the Havelis seem to be older and their intricate architectural style (most of which are in a sad condition) creates more interest. Some has been restored to guest houses and some to Banarasi Silk emporium.

The store employees keep calling for the customers in a high pitched voice giving various lucrative offers to attract the tentative buyers. Even if you are least interested they will urge you to take a look at their items. Apart from the Silk sarees, there are various glittery stores selling glass bangles and many other souvenirs.

Inside the Banarasi Saree emporium
Inside the Banarasi Saree emporium

In these lanes and bylanes, you find everything from flower vendor to fruit vendor, from pan walas to peda walas, from lassi to kachori, from Havelis to houses, from temples to stores. And as you walk down the lane Eastward you find the ghats by the holy Ganges. (Read about the Ganga Aarti in Varanasi.) Varanasi is a city of a different fame and there are innumerable things to talk about. This is just a little flavour of the city that I could gather and share with my readers.

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Varanasi at a glance, with travel information.

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