Photo: Kashi – Varanasi. Credit: Thrillophilia
History of the City Varanasi
Varanasi, or Benaras, (also known as Kashi) is one of the oldest living cities in the world. Varanasi, the Indian pilgrimage city on the banks of the Ganges in Uttar Pradesh, is first and foremost a sacred city. Situated between the rivers Varuna and Assi as they join the Ganges, Varanasi takes its name from its location. Varanasi is the city of a thousand temples. The main object of all devotees is the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. The renowned American novelist Mark Twain once wrote “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and look twice as old as all of them put together.”
By the 2nd millennium BCE, Varanasi was a seat of Aryan religion and philosophy and was also a commercial and industrial centre famous for its muslin and silk fabrics, perfumes, ivory works, and sculpture. Varanasi was the capital of the kingdom of Kashi during the time of the Buddha (6th century BCE), who gave his first sermon nearby at Sarnath. The city remained a centre of religious, educational, and artistic activities as attested by the celebrated Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang, who visited it in about 635 CE and said that the city extended for about 3 miles (5 km) along the western bank of the Ganges.
Knowledge, philosophy, culture, devotion to Gods, Indian arts and crafts have all flourished here for centuries. Varanasi is associated with promotion of spiritualism, mysticism, Sanskrit, yoga and Hindi language. Aptly called as the cultural capital of India, Varanasi has provided the right platform for all cultural activities to flourish. Many exponents of dance and music have come from Varanasi.
Cosmic Position of Kashi – Varanasi
Varanasi is also popularly known as Kashi. Living up well to the meaning of its name; the word Kashi is derived from the Sanskrit word काशि meaning ‘where the cosmic light concentrates in circle’, or simply ‘illumination’. So the city is known as “City of Light“. Once an abode of wisdom and knowledge, Banaras, or Kashi, ‘the shining one’, transcends time even today, with its luminescent spirit.
Everyone knows that each religious place holds a certain life energy to it. Varanasi is placed in such a way geographically on the planet that it carries the life-forces (the prana /ethereal breath) along with the manifestation of five life elements (PanchamaBhutas)-earth, air, water, fire, and ether/space in a glorious form. It’s a representation of universe on earth in a form of cosmological city.
According to eastern philosophy the shaping of the cultural and architectural landscape of Varanasi is based upon cosmological principles. The metaphysics based on cosmological principles has been a dominant force shaping the cultural landscape of Banaras. It is said that there are three cosmic spheres: macro cosmos (heavenly abode), mesocosmos (the earthly representation), and microcosmos (the human psyche and emotional bond). Varanasi possesses all the three cosmic layers in the form of pilgrimage circuits which are constructed in a way that they hold the manifestation of all 5 life elements intact.
The city is constructed in a powerful circular geometric pattern (sacred mandala) by consecrating 108 shrines. Its design is such that its signs, symbols, and invisible meanings correlate with a sacred geometry that reflects the city’s cosmological significance. A popular belief is that Varanasi is located at the center of the earth, where the complete sacred universe convenes here in a symbolic mandala. Its unique geography contains the entire universe in Five Koshas (sheath).
Photo: Varanasi. Credit: Worldatlas.com
Five Cosmic Circuits of Varanasi
Kashi is said to be a ‘cosmogram,’ or mandala, comprised of an intricate web of 56 pilgrimage circuits / routes, five of which surround the city in concentric circles. These five sacred territories, marked by the respective travel routes, symbolize the ecological cosmology and wholeness. In theory, the four inner sacred routes of Kashi meet at the point of cosmic axis or axis mundi (mythological concept representing “the connection between Heaven and Earth” ), Jnanavapi, while the outer circle covers the rest and meets in the west at Dehli Vinayaka, the gate to the cosmic territory.
The basic geometry of Kashi is to connect the subtle world and the gross. The journey of Kashi Mandal is divided into five routes. From outermost circuit to innermost circuit these routs are Chaurasi Koshi (84 – Krosha sacred territory), Panch Koshi (25-Krosha sacred territory), Nagara Pradakshina (City circuit territory), Avimukta (‘Never forsaken’ territory) and Antargriha (Inner sanctum territory). The pilgrimage always starts and ends at the Vishveshvara temple (Lord Shiva – Vishwanath -the patron deity of the city) – the pillar at the centre of the world or axis mundi or sacred geometry which is surrounded by the energy field all around it.
The five pilgrimage circuits symbolize the five heavenly gross elements (PanchamaBhutas) of Hindu cosmogony.
These elements are: Prithvi (Earth), Jal (Water), Agni (Fire), Vayu (Air), Aakasha (Space) – parallel to five parts of the human body, i.e. brain, legs, face, blood and heart. PanchamaBhutas according to Hinduism, is the basis of all cosmic creation. These elements have different characteristics and these also account for different faculties of human experience.
These five elements allow energy to enter the five parts of the human body – brain, legs, face, blood and heart. Now after entry there is a transformation of energy, these are the transformations – consciousness in the brain, action in the feet, perception, vision and the fifth transformation takes place in the heart, which leads to the attainment of bliss.
Photo: Kashi Mandala – cosmogram. Credit: Singh, Rana P.B
The idea is expressed in the Rig Veda (RgV, 10.149) that the ‘universe is conceived as spreading from the central point’. The Vishveshvara temple of Kashi is conceptualized as the pivot of the cosmos. That is why Kashi is also called the subtle universe, which connects human beings with the universe. Because this city generates amazing energy inside itself. To understand the cosmic layout of Varanasi in details please check out the article ‘Kashi & Cosmos’ by Rana P.B. Singh HERE .
1. Singh, Rana P.B. and Rana, Pravin S. and 2016. Kashi and Cosmos: Spatial Manifestation and Five Pilgrimage Journeys of Banaras. International Journal of Religious Tourism and Pilgrimage (IJRTP, ISSN 2009-7379), vol. 4 (vi), Sept: pp. 1-15. Retrieved from https://arrow.tudublin.ie/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1153&context=ijrtp.
2. Architecture of Varanasi. The Land of Spirituality. By Prof. N. Sabnani, Prof. S. Rao, R. Shah andP. Verma. Retrieved from https://www.dsource.in/resource/architecture-varanasi/about-kashi
3. Varanasi, Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/place/Varanasi