Varanasi Has More Than Temples: Understanding The City’s Centrality To Indian Intellectual Life And Its Historic Geopolitical Importance
Kashi is arguably the oldest continuously inhabited city in India — with a history of over three thousand years.
It is famous for its many ancient temples and its Ghats.
However we must not overlook the other aspects of Varanasi, its centrality to Indian intellectual life and its geopolitical importance for much of Indian history.
When the Indian Prime Minister chose to contest the Lok Sabha elections from Varanasi in 2014 and again defend that seat in 2019, it was a decision that may have seemed curious to many.
Now, why would a Gujarati politician choose to make a statement by contesting from a town that is over a thousand kilometers away from his hometown?
Among those more familiar with Varanasi and its history, the decision was lauded, 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 (Mumbai), Delhi, maybe Bangalore (Bengaluru).
What is the big deal about Varanasi, she may ask? A city with fewer than two million people.
The Holiest Of Sapta-Puris
Varanasi’s pre-eminence as a city of pilgrimage is not contested. It is regarded as one of the Sapta-Puris in the Garuda Purana — one of the seven Indian cities where mortality may lead one to Moksha, with the others being Ayodhya, Mathura, Kanchi, Ujjain, Haridwar, and Dwaraka.
So this aspect of Varanasi as a town that offers the possibility of Moksha has fascinated the pious for long.
But we tend to overlook the other aspects of Varanasi, its centrality to Indian intellectual life and its geopolitical importance for much of Indian history.
The Largest Indian City In The 18th Century
Kashi is arguably the oldest continuously inhabited city in India — a city with a history of over three thousand years. As recently as 1891, it was one of the largest Indian cities. It is only in our times that Banaras (Varanasi/Kashi) has slipped out of the top ten Indian cities in terms of population.
As per the research of Tertius Chandler, Banaras ranked among the top 25 cities on earth in the year 1800 with a population of close to 1,70,000 — roughly the same as Berlin or Bombay (Mumbai) the same year.
So it is likely that in the 18th century, Banaras was the largest city in India.
To put things in perspective, Banaras in 1800 with a population under 2,00,000, was more than 2.5 times more populated than the ‘most populated’ American city — Philadelphia — which was a town with 69,000 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 Banaras to be one of the larger Indian towns. Banaras even in that late date, was the 6th largest city in India with over 2,19,000 inhabitants.
Even 60 years later, in 1951, Varanasi still ranked 14th in India (with a population of 3,70,000), but its glory days were behind it. While it was the largest Indian city in 1800, a century and a half later, it was no longer one of India's pre-eminent urban centres.
However, Banaras is not merely a medieval town of importance like Delhi or Lucknow. Its roots go back close to 3000 years.
During a visit to India, Mark Twain famously quipped:
Banaras 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 inclined to look at Buddhist literature for information on early Kashi.
The Jataka Tales discuss Kashi a great deal. It was no doubt a very prosperous region at the time of Siddartha Gautama. The AnguttaraNikaya, a text in the Pali canon dating back to the 3rd/4th century 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 at that early date, Kashi's significance as an intellectual centre was evident. The Buddha gave his first "instruction" in the Deer Park called Sarnath, which is today some 10 kilometres north of Banaras.
Here is a sculpture from Varanasi dating to the 4th century CE, Gupta period, memorializing the Buddha’s sermon at Sarnath.
Kashi-Sarnath remained an important Buddhist centre for over a millennia after Buddha. Structures like the Dhamek Stupa (originally commissioned by Ashoka in 3rd century BCE) suggest that it did not take very long after the Buddha's Nirvana for the city to gain religious significance.
Kashi also was a much sought-after city by rival kingdoms for its strategic location and wealth.
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 known as Kashi. Not quite as Varanasi. The city of Kashi then was located at the northern end of what is called Varanasi today. Closer to Kashi Railway Station that you see in the map below (highlighted in red).
This old city was devastated by the armies of Qutub Ud Din Aibak in the 12th century CE. 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. The Adi Keshava temple was a pre-eminent Kashi shrine in the 11th century CE 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.
Evolving Religious Landscape
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 pilgrimage par excellence, featuring in the Hari Vamsha, in the Vayu Purana, and in the Brahmanda Purana — all major Puranic texts dating back to early-mid 1st millennium CE.
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.
However, in the 1st millennium, Kashi was not distinguished by Vishwanatha in particular.
It was as much an important centre of Vishnu worship as Shiva worship. That may seem odd but it is true.
One of the earliest Gupta-age temples in Kashi (dating to 4th century CE) is a famous shrine at Bakaria Kund, in the northern quarters of the city. A life-size Krishna lifting Govardhana was unearthed from a Muslim graveyard; this sculpture now sits in the Bharat Kala Bhavan.
The remains of this massive temple still lie buried beneath a mosque. The temple was likely razed in 12th century CE 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 before.
It is on the ghats of the Adi Keshava temple that the Gahadavala royalty bathed. The somewhat nondescript state of the Adi Keshava shrine is captured in the photograph below — a shrine visited by very few pilgrims in our times.
In medieval times, the largest Kashi temple again was likely not the Vishwanatha temple but the magnificent Bindu Madhava temple — a very large temple described by the traveller Jean Baptiste Tavernier in the mid-1600s.
Tavernier wrote of this temple as the “great pagoda” that was the most impressive building along the Banaras riverfront. Today the Bindu Madhava temple is a makeshift shrine, with the old temple having been demolished by Aurangzeb in the late 1600s.
So we have mentioned three great Vishnu shrines in the city of Shiva — Adi Keshava, Bindu Madhava, and the Govardhandhari temple at Bakaria Kund.
All of which suggests that Kashi was never quite a unifocal city unlike say a town like Srirangam down South, where everything revolves around Ranganatha Swami. It was always polytheistic in its religious landscape, notwithstanding Shiva’s pre-eminence.
In the 1st millennium the Vishwanatha shrine itself was not the pre-eminent Shiva shrine that it later became.
Lakshmidhara, the chief minister of the Gahaladeva dynasty, in the 11th century CE, refers to the Vishwanatha temple only in passing in his digest on pilgrimage shrines — Tirthavivechana 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 the Skanda Purana, dated to that period.
Kashi underwent many changes during these crowded centuries. Many old shrines, as discussed, fell in relative importance. In part because the old Kashi was destroyed by invaders in the 12th century.
The city shifted south, and there was an inevitable shift in the religious landscape, 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 the 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 Holkar.
Varanasi’s Contribution To Indian Intellectual Life
So far we have discussed Varanasi’s religious landscape and its history. But how about Varanasi’scontribution to Indian thought? Is it primarily a Teertha Sthal? No.
The city has long retained its status as a place of sacred learning. To this day, at many 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 and marry his daughter.
This reputation is very well deserved. Some of the greatest figures of the Bhakti movement were natives of Varanasi — be it Ramananda, Kabir and 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 the Ramcharitmanas inscribed all over its walls.
Among philosophers, the great Advaita thinker of the 16th century, Madhusudana Sarasvati, was also a native of Varanasi.
Varanasi was also a major centre of Yoga right up to our own times. The great Yoga guru (widely regarded as the father of modern Yoga), Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, had much of his early formative education in Kashi, though he was a native of Mysuru.
Varanasi’s finest hour was perhaps in the late 19th century when the city was at the forefront of the Hindi movement — an intellectual movement that did much to popularize the standardized register of the modern Hindi language as well as the Devanagari script.
It was home to Hindi litterateurs of varying orientations — both Hindu traditionalists like Bharatendu Harishchandra, and social progressives like Munshi Prem Chand.
James Prinsep’s Varanasi
One of the important sources of information on Varanasi in the early 19th century — at the dawn of the British Raj — is the great British scholar and artist James Prinsep. 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.
Prinsep was a fine illustrator, who captured the spirit of Varanasi in the 1820s with his remarkable drawings. But he was also a fine geographer and surveyor. His survey of Varanasi in 1822 is the earliest of any city in the Indian subcontinent.
Prinsep in his survey attempts to correct a less careful, highly inaccurate survey published by a Kotwal named Zulfikar Ali, 22 years before him in 1800, which fancifully estimated the population of the city to be six hundred thousand.
As per Prinsep, the number of houses in the city was around thirty thousand, though many of them were multi-storeyed buildings housing many families. The population was estimated by Prinsep to be close to two hundred thousand.
That made Banaras, in Prinsep's words, "exceeding in population of either Edinburgh or Bristol, and twice as large as Rotterdam or Brussels."
Here’s the detailed map of the city charted by Prinsep in 1822 — a remarkable feat of surveying.
As per Prinsep, the sex ratio in the city was nearly 1:1, though there was a deficiency of female children. He attributed this curiously to the tendency of elder relatives in the family to refer to their female kids as "ladke” (boy) instead of "ladki" (girl)!
Below is Prinsep’s enumeration of the different house types in the city:
It is interesting that in 1822, out of the 30,000 houses in Banaras, Prinsep claims that only 12,500 houses were single-storey houses! So nearly 2/3rd of the structures were multi-storied houses. And 4,000 of the 30,000 houses had three stories or more. It appears to have been a city of skyscrapers for its time.
Here's the religious breakup of the city's 1,80,000 people (excluding the 20,000 in the European suburb):
- Hindus: 1,22,000
- Muslims: 30,000
- Children + some unavoidable omissions estimated at 26,000 (not included under Hindu and Muslim categories)
As per Prinsep, among the 1,22,000 Hindus in the town, 32,000 were Brahmins, 14,000 were Kshetris (which included Rajputs, Bhumihars and Khatris), 8,000 were Baniyas, and 60,000 Shudras.
That makes the Brahmin varna constitute 25 per cent of the city’s Hindu population, which is not surprising.
Among the 32,000 Brahmins, what's fascinating is that the largest group of 11,000 were Brahmins from Maharashtra. In contrast, castes we think of as native to the Gangetic plain were fewer in number.
Interestingly, Prinsep also remarks that Banaras in his own day (1820s) is somewhat larger than it was in 1800 when Zulfikar did his faulty survey. In Prinsep's view, the city had expanded more towards the south and west relative to its position in 1800.
Prinsep’s survey is important as it captures the social character and geographic landscape of the city at a point in time just prior to the onset of “modernity”.
In the 20th century, Banaras embraced the social changes wrought by the British Raj in a very positive way. Its great son, Madan Mohan Malaviya, founded the Banaras Hindu University, which to this day remains a pre-eminent institute in the country.
The physical landscape of the city also underwent changes. In the late 19th century, the Dufferin Bridge was built in Northern Varanasi near the old city (Rajghat) across the Ganges, possibly covering the same waters that were once traversed by Buddha in a boat 2,500 years before.
The DufferinBridge is known as the Malaviya Bridge today — one of the engineering achievements of British India.
So that concludes this brief survey of Varanasi — a city like no other.
The city of many a bhakti saint. The city of Tulsidas, of Madhusudana Sarasvati. The city of Buddha and of several Jain Tirthankaras. The city of Madan Mohan Malaviya and Bharatendu Harishchandra. And above all the city of Shiva!
While it may be less central to Indian consciousness than it was perhaps 100 years ago, it remains a town whose history is indispensable if one wishes to study the history of India.
- Diana Eck, Banaras – City of Light (1982)
- The city of Bunarus, surveyed by James Prinsep (1822)
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