.....Bharat can be found in Kashi, the most sacred city for Hindus, and the oldest living city in the world, dating back to 2,000 BCE. It is considered as one of the seven sacred cities called as the Sapta Puri (with others being Ayodhya, Mathura, Kanchipuram, Ujjain, Haridwar, and Dwaraka), it is believed upon visiting these places one attains Moksh (Salvation), i.e., skip the circle of life and death and attain Nirvana.
The word Kashi means light. The city is truly a tower of light in spiritual sense. It has also been a great centre of learning for ages. This city was the epicenter for studying Yoga, medicine, holistic healing science, natural science, and others. It is also the leading trade centre for gold brocades, Banarasi silk, silver articles, and others. It has a unique art culture. In the past, it was the centre of traditions and culture. Every modern cultural performance was derived by the ancient art and culture of this land. According to historians, the city was famous for many art works and performance arts. Top art works that flourished the land were metal works, Banaras silk weaving, copperware, and others.
Kashi is an epitome of music, since the ancient times. Vocal and instrumental music thrived here. Even today, the city is filled with rich folk music works. The dance and music forms of Varanasi were said to be developed by Lord Shiva. The music traditions were spread by Renu, son of Vishvamitra. Ancient saints famous for music skills are Meera, Kabir, Surdas, Tulsidas, and Ravidas. The modern form of music developed during the neo-Vaishnava movement. During 16th century, new forms of music like Hori, Dhamar, Chaturanga, Assarwari, and others were developed. In the recent times, modern music forms like Chaiti, Banarasi Thumri, Kajri, Hori, and others were developed. Notable music personalities of Varanasi are Samta Prasad, Kishan Maharaj, Samar Sara, and others.
It is believed that if you die here, you will be forever liberated from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. But Kashi is not just about death. Here, both life and death are celebrated with equal reverence and gusto. People also flock to this place for its splendour and grandeur. Kashi in many ways is a microcosm of Indian civilisation centre of India.
The city of Kashi is demarcated by a large perimeter that is known as the Pancha Kroshi route, creating a vast schematic circle. It is approximately 84 kms long. Traditionally people believed Kashyam Maranam Muktih which means that anyone who dies within this perimeter is believed to attain mukti.
Origin of Kashi according to Skanda Mahapurana:
Sage Agastya asked Lord Kartikeya how the sacrosanct place, Kashi came into being. He also asked how Kashi became famous as a place capable of giving salvation to a man.
Lord Kartikeya revealed to Agastya that once Parvati had asked Lord Shiva the same question. Lord Shiva had told her-- ' At the time of deluge when everything had submerged in the ocean and darkness prevailed everywhere, only Brahman, the embodiment of truth existed at that time and nothing else. Brahman, the absolute truth is indescribable and inexpressible. No name can be attributed to Him. He is the absolute truth, the ultimate knowledge, the infinite, the omnipresent and the eternal bliss. Though basically formless He attained a form on account of His own wish. That form is none other than me. Later on I created Prakriti from my body. All three of us (Shiva, Parvati and Kashi) manifested simultaneously by the grace of 'Adi Purusha' (The Almighty God).'
Continuing with the tale of Kashi's greatness, Kartikeya told Agastya- ' There is no holy place as dear to Lord Shiva as Kashi, which is not abandoned by him as well as his consort-Parvati even at the time of deluge. Lord Shiva named this holy place- Ananda van, because it gave immense joy to him. Subsequently, Lord Shiva and goddess Jagdamba put a glance on the left portion of their respective bodies as the result of which a divine entity manifested himself who was none other than Lord Vishnu and who was named Purushottam by Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva after blessing Purushottam went away. Later on, Lord Vishnu created a divine reservoir with his sudarshan chakra and filled it up with his sweat. He then engaged himself in an austere penance. Lord Shiva once again appeared along with Parvati and blessed Vishnu by saying- ' This holy place will become famously known as Manikarnika because this is the very place where I had once lost my diamond ear-ring.'
Lord Vishnu made a request to Shiva -- 'May this place fulfil the wishes of those who seek salvation. Since it is blessed with your eternal presence hence it’s another name would be Kashi.'
Lord Shiva assured Vishnu by saying- 'This sacrosanct place is very dear to me and no event takes place here against my wish. Even if a person living here happens to be a sinner he has nothing to fear because I protect him. One who lives far from Kashi but remembers it with reverence becomes absolved of all his sins.'
Kashi Vishwanath Dham:
The most famous temple in town, the golden gleam of Vishwanath is dedicated to Lord Shiva, who is worshipped here in the form of Vishwanatha or Vishweshwara, “Ruler of the World.”
The Kashi Vishwanath Temple is mentioned in the Vedas & Skanda Purana. The fourth Khanda in The Skanda Purana is the Kashi Khanda, which has 11,000 verses in praise of Lord Shiva. An Avimukteshwar Seal from 1000 BCE was found during excavations at Varanasi, indicating a structure that is at least 3000 years old. There are records of a Kashi Vishwanath Temple constructed in 500 CE by Gupta King Vainyagupta. The temple was destroyed by an army of invader Qutub ud din Aibak in 1194 CE. A Gujarat based merchant rebuilt the Kashi Vishwanath Temple 50 Years after it was destroyed. In 1450 CE, The Temple was again destroyed under the reign of the invader Ibrahim Lodhi. The temple was built again by Raja Todar Mal nearly 100 years later. In 1699 CE Mughal Invader Aurangzeb demolished Kashi Vishwanath Temple and built The Gyanvapi Mosque over the temple, which can be seen even today. In 1776 CE Maratha Queen Ahilyabai Holkar build a new temple next to the original temple. In 2021, Varanasi MP Prime Minister Modi completed The Grand Kashi Vishwanath Corridor, which connects the temple with River Ganga.
Kaal Bhairav: The Kotwal of Kashi
Bhairav is another name for Lord Shiva and he is supposed to be the guardian or kotwal of the city. It is said that to enter any of the holy ghats, you first have to seek his blessing.
The Kaal Bhairav temple is guarded by the image of a dog, which is Bhaironath’s mount. Through the doorway of the inner sanctum, one spots Kaal Bhairav — silver-faced and decked with flowers. But that is about that, which is visible. The rest of the deity’s image is covered by a drapery of cloth.
Shiva takes the form of Kaal bhairava in Kashi, it is the mostly deadly form of Shiva, and he is supposed to be in destructive form, the one destroying time. All physical realities exist within the ambit of time, if time is destroyed, everything is over.
Kaal bhairava is supposed to personally bestow liberation by imparting Taraka mantra to all who die there, it is said that Yama has no jurisdiction within this perimeter of Kashi.
People also want to live the last part of their life in Kashi because there is a lot of enlightened and spiritually evolved people there.
Kashi is also known as Mahasmashana, or great cremation ground.
Here you will see the unblemished, everlasting pageantry of the cycle of life and death on full display. The city’s famed ghats, a series of stepped embankments built along the banks of the Ganges River, are awash with activity, ancient rituals and practices, to the everyday mundane. You’ll see people bathing, washing laundry, engaging in commerce, paying respect to loved ones through ritual cremation, and much more. Some of the ghats are designated for cremations and puja (ritual devotionals), and others for bathing.
In the spiritual path, especially the ones new to it, the masters always advise them to spend some time in the cremation grounds and familiarize yourself with the concept of death. In Kashi, bodies are being burnt around the clock 24X7. Sometimes there are more bodies than places to burn them, hence sometimes the people throw them into the river before completely burning them. And it is important for a seeker to see that someday he/she might be treated the same way.
Mentioned as early as the 5th Century in records, Manikarnika Ghat is the main burning ghat, where bodies are cremated to receive moksha (liberation). It’s also the source of two Hindu creation legends. Hindus believe that this is the ideal place to be cremated; dead bodies are handled and cremated in grand funeral pyres by doms, outcasts, who are also tasked with keeping the eternal flames of the ghats burning. Many doms have become quite wealthy as they preside over cremation ceremonies and other rituals.
One of the oldest and the most sacred ghats in the holy city of Varanasi is Dashashwamedh. This place is most famous for its Ganga arti (a holy fire ritual), which is an elaborate and lively ceremony that takes place at dusk every day. Amid blowing of conch shells, ringing of bells, clanging of brass cymbals and chanting chorus of mantras, priests venerate the Ganga, the lifeline of Varanasi, with brass lamps that rise several tiers. The priests performing the arti are all draped in similar clothing-- a kurta and dhoti. The preparations for the arti include collecting five elevated planks, an idol of Goddess Ganga, flowers and incense sticks. Rituals of the arti are performed by those learned in the Vedas and Upanishads and are led by the head priest of the Gangotri Seva Samiti. The arti lasts about 45 minutes. Devotees float smaller diyas on leaf platters in the river as an obeisance to the holy Ganga. As the sunlight recedes, the innumerable lamps flowing in the water make for an unforgettable sight. The hour-long ritual can be watched from the ghat or boats moored at the river bank.
The name 'Dashashwamedh' means the place where Lord Brahma sacrificed ten horses. It is also said that Bajirao Peshwa I had the ghat reconstructed in 1740 AD. It was later constructed over by the queen of Indore, Ahilyabai Holkar, in 1774. This ghat lies very close to the famous Vishwanath Mandir.
That is the glory of Kashi that here, with the necessary spiritual help and a consecrated atmosphere, the necessary preparations could be made for living a great life and dying a great death.