The Indian Prime Minister will be defending his LS seat from Varanasi

A choice hailed by many with some going to the extent of calling Varanasi the fountainhead of Indian civilization

That may be an overstatement. However there is no denying Varanasi's centrality to Indian life
For a yuppie today, this fascination with Varanasi may seem hard to fathom

For him the great cities of India would likely be Bombay, Delhi, Bangalore maybe

What is the big deal about Varanasi, he may ask? A city with fewer than 2 million people
Many regard Varanasi as merely another pilgrim spot

Arre's the place where my granny wants to go all the time. Teerth yatra karna chahti hain

But Varanasi isn't quite Puri. Or Hardwar. Or Madurai

It is much more than that
Yes.. it is regarded by tradition as one of the Sapta-Puris - the seven Indian cities where mortality may lead one to Moksha

The Garuda Purana famously states that Varanasi is one of the seven teerthas (with others being Ayodhya, Mathura, Kanchi, Ujjain, Haridwar, and Dwaraka)
So that aspect of Varanasi has fascinated the pious for long

But we tend to overlook the other aspects of Varanasi

It's centrality to Indian intellectual life. And its geopolitical importance for much of Indian history
Kashi is arguably the oldest continuously inhabited city in India - a town with a history of 3000 years

As recently as 19th cen it was one of the largest Indian cities

It is only in our times that Benares has slipped out of the top 10 Indian cities going strictly by population
As per the research of Tertius Chandler, Benares ranked among the top 25 cities on earth in 1800 with a population of close to 170K - roughly the same as Berlin or Bombay the same year

So it is likely that in the 18th century, Benares was the largest city in India
To put things in perspective, Benares in 1800 with a population under 2 lacs, was more than 2.5 times bigger than the largest American city - Philadelphia - which was a town of 69K people that year

This was some 12 years after the ratification of the American Constitution
Nearly 100 years later in 1891, the census in India still revealed Benares to be one of the largest Indian towns

Benares even in that late date, was the 5th largest city in India with 219K people
Even 60 years later in 1951, Varanasi still ranked 14th in India (with a population of 370K), but its glory days were behind it

In 1800, it was the largest Indian city. 150 years later, it was still.a largish town, but not one of India's pre-eminent urban centers
But Benares is not merely a medieval town of importance like Delhi or Lucknow

Its roots go back close to 3000 years

As Mark Twain famously quipped

""Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together"
Kashi of course features famously in the Mahabharata Epic, as a distinct state.

If one recalls, it is the princesses of Kashi who are forcefully abducted by the great Bhishma to become brides of his much younger half brother Vichitravirya
But given the ambivalence to date Mahabharata (as it is undoubtedly a work of many layers), one is apt to look at Buddhist literature for information on early Kashi

The Jataka tales discuss Kashi a great deal
It was no doubt a v prosperous region at the time of Siddartha Gautama
The Anguttara Nikāya, a text in the Pali canon dating back to 3rd / 4th cen BCE, mentions Kashi as one of the 16 major Mahajanapadas of North India

In this text, Buddha himself refers to Kashi as a place of some affluence
"Bhikkus - I used no sandalwood unless it came from Kasi and my head dress, jacket, lower garment, and upper garment were made of cloth from Kasi"

A curious quip suggesting that Kashi was a city of some commercial significance back in his day
Even in that early date, Kashi's significance as an intellectual center was evident

The Buddha gave his first "instruction" - in the Deer Park called Sarnath - which is today some 10 kms north of Benares

Here's a Gandharan work memorializing the famous Buddha sermon in Varanasi
Kashi / Sarnath remained an important Buddhist center for over a millennia after Buddha

Structures like the Dhamek Stupa (originally commissioned by Ashoka in 3rd cen BCE) suggest that it did not take v long after the Buddha's Nirvana for the city to gain religious significance
Kashi also was a much sought after city for its strategic location and wealth by rival kingdoms

Long before the rise of the Mauryan Empire, the Magadhans led by Ajatashatru vied hard for control of Kashi along with the Kosala Kingdom based in Shravasti to the north west
One point to note is that in these early centuries, the city was very much Kashi. Not quite Varanasi because the town was located at the northern end of what is Varanasi today. Closer to Kashi Railway Station (RS) that you see in the map

What's "Assi" ghat today was a wilderness
This old city was badly demolished and devastated by the armies of Qutub Ud Din Aibak in the 12th century. It was after that point that the new city started developing further south.
Some of the greatest Kashi temples of yore like Adi Keshava temple are located at the northern end - in what is now a rural area

Adi Keshava temple was the pre-eminent Kashi shrine in the 11th century when Kashi served as the capital of the Gahadavala dynasty
Today that old city is dead. The new city developed further south along the Ganges

Visitors to Varanasi barely know about the old Adi Keshava temple today - the oldest shrine in the city
In the first millennium, Kashi's significance in the Hindu religion grew slowly but gradually

While Sarnath remained an important Buddhist pilgrimage, Kashi carved out its distinctive mark as the Hindu teertha-sthal par excellence
It features in the Hari-vamsha, in the Vayu Purana, the Brahmanda Purana

All major Puranic texts dating back to early-mid 1st millennium CE

In all these texts, the legend of Divodasa - the legendary king of Kashi looms large
Divodasa was the Kashi king (arguably a nAstika), who was expelled by a local deity named Nikhumba

In later versions of the story, Shiva gets involved in the narrative. With Shiva taking the help of Nikhumba to expel Divodasa, so that he can have Kashi for himself and Parvati!
In one sense this story is indicative of the gradual decline of Buddhism as well as ancient Yaksha worship in the city and the emergence of Shaivism as the predominant religious school

To this day Kashi retains its Shaivite character. It's very much the city of Shiva
Today Kashi is best remembered for its very famous Vishwanatha temple - a shrine that is possibly over a thousand years old. A shrine that has been demolished over and over again, only to be resurrected against all odds
But in the 1st millennium, Kashi was not distinguished by Lord Vishwanatha especially

It was as much an important center of Vishnu worship as Shiva worship. That may seem odd. But true
One of the earliest Gupta-age temples in Kashi (dating to 4th cen) was a famous (likely Vaishnavite) shrine at Bakaria Kund, in the northern quarters of the city

A life size Krishna lifting Govardhanawas unearthed from a Muslim graveyard- which now sits in the Bharat Kala Bhavan
The remains of this massive temple still lie buried beneath a mosque. The temple was likely razed down in 12th century during Qutb Ud din Aibak's raids
In the 11th century, during Kashi’s golden age when the Gahadavala dynasty reigned supreme, the pre-eminent shrine was yet another Vishnu shrine - the Adi-Keshava temple to which we have referred

It is in the ghats of the Adi Keshava temple that the Gahaladeva royalty bathed
The somewhat nondescript state of Adi Keshava is captured in the photograph in the previous tweet - a shrine visited by very few in our times
In medieval times, the largest of Kashi temples again was likely not Vishwanatha but the magnificent Bindu Madhava temple - a very large temple described in great detail by the traveler Jean Baptiste Tavernier in the mid 1600s
Today the Bindu Madhava temple is a makeshift shrine, with the old temple having been demolished by Aurangazeb in the late 1600s
So we have mentioned three great Vishnu shrines in the city of Shiva -

Adi Keshava
Bindu Madhava
Bakaria Kund (obsolete)

Which suggest that Kashi was never quite a unifocal city unlike say a town like Srirangam down South where everything revolves around Lord Ranganatha
It was always polytheistic in its religious landscape, notwithstanding Shiva’s pre-eminence
The Vishwanatha shrine itself was not the pre-eminent Shiva shrine in the 1st millennium.

Lakshmidhara, the chief minister of the Gahaladeva dynasty, in the 11th century, refers to Vishwanatha temple only in passing in his digest on pilgrimage shrines - “Tirtha vivechana Kanda”
Back then the pre-eminent Shiva shrine was Avimukta linga - the shrine that lent Kashi one of its other names - Avimukta (the city that is never abandoned by Shiva)
However after the 13th century or so, Vishwanatha became the supreme deity of the city - as evidenced by the Kashi Khanda text in Skanda Purana, dated to that period
Kashi underwent many changed during these crowded centuries. As we have discussed many old shrines fell in relative importance.

E.g. Bakaria Kund, Adi Keshava.

In part because the old Kashi was destroyed by invaders in 12th century
The city shifted south, and there was an inevitable shift in the religious landscape as well, with new shrines replacing old
Even in later centuries, the depredations did not cease. We have already discussed the demolition of the great Bindu Madhava shrine in 17th century. Even the old Kashi Vishwanatha temple was destroyed in the same period, only to be revived by the Marathas
Much of the city today, including its numerous bathing and cremation ghats, has been reconstructed during the 18th century thanks to the great efforts of monarchs like Ahilya bai Holler
So that’s a brief description of Varanasi. But how about Varanasi’s intellectual significance? And contribution to Indian thought?

Is it merely a teertha sthal? No

The city has long retained its status as a place of sacred learning.
To this day, in many brahmin weddings especially in Southern India, a ritual is enacted where the groom threatens to leave the bride and go to Kashi to study the Vedas

The Father in law pleads and convinces the groom to stay!
But this reputation is very well deserved.

The great acharyas of southern india, be it Sankara, or Ramanuja, have visited this city as per hagiographies
Some of the greatest figures of the Bhakti movement (which changed the religious landscape of northern India) were natives of Varanasi -

And of course
The great Tulsi das
Tulsidas is believed to have composed his epic - Ramcharitmanas - in Varanasi. HIs memory lives on in the city in the Tulsi Manas temple - one of the newest and grandest temples in the city which has Manas inscribed all over its walls
Varanasi was also a major center of Yoga right up to our own times. The great Yoga guru (widely regarded as the father of modern Yoga - Thirumalai Krishnamacharya, had much of his early formative education in Kashi, though he was a native of Mysore
Varanasi’s greatest hour was perhaps in the late 18th and early 19th century when it was the largest city in India

The great British scholar and artist James Prinsep spent much of his India career in Varanasi, and has captured the city for us with his magnificent drawings
Here's Prinsep's Manikarnika Ghat (1820s)
Prinsep of course is best known for being the decipherer of the Brahmi and Kharoshti scripts. But his long stay in Varanasi for several years is less well known
Varanasi also has an important place in the history of “Dravidian movement”. It is here that Periyar had his own "Enlightenment" as per Lemurian lore

The insults he allegedly received from brahmins motivated his future anti-brahminical orientation, and contributed to his making
Benares did not fascinate everyone. It has repelled many a westerner who struggled to make sense of its diverse creeds. There were exceptions like Mark Twain, who were effusive in their praise
In late 19th and early 20th century, Benares embraced modernity in a very positive way. Its great son Madan Mohan Malaviya founded the Benares Hindu University, which to this day remains a pre-eminent institute in the country
In late 19th century, one of the longest bridges of its time in the world - the Dufferin Bridge was built in Varanasi near the old city (rajghat) across the Ganges - possibly covering the same waters which were once traversed by Buddha in a boat 2500 years before
The Dufferin bridge today is known as the Malaviya Bridge - one of the engineering marvels of British India
So that concludes this survey of Varanasi - a city like no other.

The city of many a Bhakti saint
The city of Tulsi
The city of Buddha and of several Jain Tirthankaras
The city of Malaviya
And above all the city of Shiva!
Post-script : Much of this thread takes its several pointers from the Harvard Divinity School Professor Diana Eck's very fine work on Benares -

Benares - The City of Light - published in the early 1980s…
Postscript 2 : One purpose of this thread is to rekindle interest in the long lost aspects of Benares

The old city to its north. Where much of the excavation still has NOT happened
Very ancient shrines like Adi Keshava, Bindu Madhava, Bataria Kund - which lie neglected
A renewed interest in the city (thanks to Modi) can hopefully bring these long neglected parts of Benares to greater prominence
Postscript 3 :

The 11th century dynasty Gahadavala - was misspelt in many places.
It is - Gāhaḍavāla
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