Holy Lands of the World Varanasi or Benares

About the Holy Land Varanasi or Benares in India a sacred place in the Hindu religion, history and information.


Many cities are indebted to nearby rivers--pulsating channels of trade and commerce, life-sustaining sources of water for crops. One city, Varanasi (formerly Benares), capital of India's Uttar Pradesh State, owes its distinctive life to the sacredness of the Ganges River, upon whose north bank it stands. The Hindu's veneration of the Ganges, or Ganga, as they call it, has roots deep in their religious consciousness. To them, the river personifies a mother, cherished as both human and divine, exalted as a symbol of purity, viewed as the giver of salvation.

In fact, the word "Hindu" is derived from the name of a river. In the 6th century B.C., Persian invaders applied the word to people living near the Indus River, which is the "Sindhu" River in Sanskrit. As the Rig Veda, oldest of Hindu sacred writings, testifies, water was venerated from the earliest times by the agricultural Vedic Hindus. Eventually, Ganga came to be the most sacred of the sacred rivers. Ritual bathing in its waters is considered even more effective at one of the ancient holy places such as Varanasi, on prescribed days during the Mela ("festival"). However, the Hindu who bathes in the Ganga even once, no matter where or when, is virtually assured of salvation.

Today as in the past the water of the Ganga is used by pilgrims for washing, cooking, and drinking. They consider it clean although it is used for disposal of human bones and ashes, as well as the dead bodies of people and animals. Every year about one million pilgrims visit Varanasi, to bathe in the Ganga from numerous ghats, the bathing places with steps that line the river's crescent-shaped, stone-lined bank. Around the sacred areas of the city is the Panchkosi Road, a 50-mi. circuit every Hindu aspires to walk. According to their religion, if they die in Varanasi they will be released from the endless cycle of rebirths. They come to a city of great antiquity, a city of prehistoric origins and a center of religion and philosophy by the 2nd millennium B.C. Devout Hindus believe the city has always existed. In the 7th century A.D., Benares had nearly 100 temples dedicated to the Hindu god Siva. Records of pilgrimages date from this time.

Now the city has over 1,500 temples, most of them built in the last 200 years following a long period of Muslim invasion. Popular with foreign tourists is Durga Temple, with its swarms of monkeys in nearby trees, but the principal Hindu shrine is the Golden Temple. At nearby Sarnath is a deer park where Buddha preached a sermon (c. 6th century B.C.).

Varanasi combines sanctity and learning. Scholars are attracted to Hindu University, the center of Sanskrit studies, just as pilgrims crowd into the holy city all year round.

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