Like any other city in India, you would expect extremely crowded streets, no organized traffic, a bellow of horns, and the roaring of voices trying to communicate from shops and sidewalks. Varanasi definitely contains all the elements of a classic Indian city that we have seen, but the chaotic elements multiply into the most overwhelming sensory experience we have witnessed so far. The aromas, the crowds, and the diversity of the people stand out much more than they have in Chennai, New Delhi, Hyderabad, and even the more traditional cities like Agra. Varanasi is India’s holiest city, and its title as the Hindu capital of the world might explain why so much Indian culture seems to melt together at one location. Varanasi’s religious identity characterizes the city’s people, the layout, the structure, and the purpose. Varanasi might be the most unique Indian city we have visited thus far, and here are a couple of reasons why:
Most metropolitan cities in India that we have visited throughout this trip have had similar layouts. Each city has centralized important locations that identify the city’s purpose. For example, as India has selected New Delhi as the capital, the city has built around the political hub located at the city’s heart. More modern cities like Hyderabad and Bangalore, have built their cities around the booming IT hubs that the world knows them for. Populations have moved from across the country to live at these new hot spots within the IT capitals of the country. Unlike India’s capital or the booming IT hubs, Chennai has more historically significant layout as compared to other places we have visited. But still, as the British used Chennai as a political port during their colonization, the city’s eastern coast line represents the hub of activity where all streets web out from the beach.
Unlike any of these booming urban hubs across India today, Varanasi has built a layout that embodies the spiritual and religious significance it has to Indian culture. At the heart of Varanasi lies the Ganges— “mother Ganga” or “Ganga G” as locals will call it. Unlike cities built around hubs of commercialization, industry, and political influence, Varanasi surrounds the Ganges because it serves as the holy hub of the entire country. In the mythological context, Hindus consider the Ganges river the mother of Hindu spirituality. The holy waters flow directly from heaven to purify humans. You can find several spots along the river that attract Hindus from different regions across the country and travelers from across the world. It’s the central location where all activity occurs. In the mornings, Hindus bathe in the river to cleanse their sins, and in the evenings the Ganga hosts religious ceremonies called Aarti Puja where Brahmin priests perform rituals. Boats crowd the river to catch a glimpse of the Brahmin prayers and to witness the cremation pyres burning bodies as apart of religious burial practices. Hindus burn bodies on the bank of the Ganges because they believe that by returning the ashes to the mother will grant them Moksha— spiritual freedom. So, one might wonder—Why does the Ganges have so much spiritual significance? Well, one of the reasons Hindus value the river so much is because they have determined it to be the birth place of Shiva— the god of time and the ultimate destroyer. So, when people travel across India to come to Varanasi to die, they believe that the Ganges creates a link to lord Shiva. Hindus value this connection because only Shiva has the power to release them from the never-ending cycle of reincarnation—Samsara.
Looking beyond the Ganges river’s geographic and spiritual significance, Varanasi’s urban layout also speaks to the city’s religious character as well. Since Varanasi represents the Holy Hindu city of India, many see it as a “mesocosm” — an intersection point between microcosms (humans) and macrocosms (the heavens). The city streets host a network of five famously well-defined pilgrimage routes dedicated to the lord Shiva. Hindus believe that these five routes represent the five limbs of Shiva’s divine body ‘— the head, the legs, the face, the blood, and the heart. This archetype of Shiva’s anatomy supposedly meets at a central point called the axis mundi. This central meeting point is found at one of Varanasi’s most famous sights— The Vishveshvara Temple. At this location, Hindus believe the microcosms and macrocosms of the world intersect. A linkage interaction occurs between the heaven and the earth. It represents a point where the divine world can intersect the mortal realm. These five paths have constructed a ‘pilgrammage mandala’ in Varanasi’s urban layout. The Mandala stands for a metaphysical symbol of the universe. This physical convergence of Varanasi’s five pilgrimage roads in the shape of a mandala explains how the city’s spiritual identity has influenced its physical layout. This symbolism represents an intersection point for Lord Shiva to dictate his presence in the city’s spiritual practices.
So, looking at the layout of Varanasi’s streets, the spiritual influence of the city has contributed quite a lot to the city’s urban arrangement. The focus of the metropolis does not revolve around industry or modes of commercialization, instead Varanassi has been built under the influence of spiritually significant locations and symbols. The holy city truly embodies its religious aesthetic spiritually and physically.
Looking at the Indian cities we have visited thus far, each urban hub has had their own collection of people that makes them unique. In Chennai, I witnessed the convergence between Christianity and Hinduism as we spent most of our time at a protestant Christian college. Likewise, I remember recognizing the strong Muslim influence across Hyderabad, and I saw for myself why they consider themselves the Muslim capital of India. Also, in New Delhi, we visited a Sikh temple, and there we had the chance to witness the practice of a religion very unique to North Indian identity. Each city has had its own religious identity, and Varanasi did not fall short to show us its own.
Hindus dominate India’s religious population. Nearly 80.5% of India’s total population practices Hinduism. As a result, Hindu influence has extended into EVERY city we have visited across the country. It would prove impossible to avoid the religion altogether. So, what makes Varanasi unique from every other city? Well, since Varanasi represents the Hindu capital of the world, the city attracts Hindus from across the country whose regional diversity of Hinduism has left a mark on the city’s identity. This has created the ultimate melting pot for diversity in Hinduism where its all intersects at one location. For instance, the architecture in Varanasi represents a culmination of influences from North and South India. In different neighborhoods where residents from different regions from around the country will congregate on their pilgrimages, many temples in these neighborhoods will express architectural influence from the geographic regions that their residents identify with. We saw a variety of temples designed in both the Nagara and Dravida styles of architecture, and dedicated to a variety of deities— Ganesh, Vishnu, Shiva, and all of their incarnations (Gopal 2017). In addition to the diversity of architecture, we witnessed an eclectic collection of people who have gathered from everywhere to congregate and worship along the Ganges. In 2001, The Times of India listed Varanasi as the most popular destination across the entire country. It attracted the most domestic and foreign travelers, even above the Taj Mahal. All of this made sense since we watched Hindus from the North, South, East, and West bathing together every morning. Unlike anywhere else, we found a huge collection of Sadhus and Brahmins in the same location. Some of these religious leaders had clearly come from from foreign countries to reside in Varanasi, devoting their lives to religious spirituality. It seemed like the total culmination of Hindus —the most liberal to the most conservatively extreme— all gathered at the same place during the evening Aarti Puja. Furthermore, so many foreigners from around the world congregated around the banks of the Ganges too. You could hear a multitude of dialects, often times we heard French, Spanish, and Japanese. Even the dialects of English had some diversity since British, Canadian, and American travelers alike all wanted to witness the spiritual phenomena seen nowhere else in the world. Varanasi attracted the most diverse population of people. The strength of its spiritual influence truly has attracted a variety of populations from around the world.
In total, Varanasi felt like the destination where everything came together. People from so many different places all came to see the same thing. The abundance, variety, and intensity of Hindu spirituality present at one central location felt overwhelming at times, but it represented something we hadn’t seen thus far in our travels throughout India. Overall, the religious identity of the city really presents itself in the character of its geography and its population. I had the chance to find out why it represents the melting pot of Indian spirituality. It’s an experience I will never forget.
- Indian Temple Art, Architecture, and Iconography. Gopal. Madras Christian College. 2017.
- Madras and the British Raj. Vijayakumar. Madras Christian College. 2017.