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Varanasi- The city of a thousand temples

Devotees gather in mass near river ganga on Somvati Amavasya in Varanasi

Varanasi, April 25 (UITV): Varanasi is the oldest city of the world. It is more than 3000 years old and is reknowned as the city of temples. In Varanasi, there are temples at every few paces. Looking at the number of temples in Varanasi, it is difficult to believe that a large number of them were demolished during the medieval times. Jyotirlinga Visvanatha Temple or Golden Temple, rebuilt in 1776, is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The Jnana Vapi well (meaning 'Well of Wisdom) is assumed to have been dug by Lord Shiva himself. It is believed that the majestic Alamgir mosque has replaced one of the most ancient shrines known as the temple of Bindu Madhava. The thirty-three hundred million shrines fill one with amazement and wonder with pure numbers.

The Ganga Ghats (river front) are the most favoured pilgrimage spot of Varanasi and are centers of music and learning. There is a great tradition of Yatras in the holy city of Kashi and the most sacred path is that of Panchkoshi Parikrama, the fifty-mile path with a radius of five miles that cover 108 shrines along the way, with Panchakoshi Temple as its main shrine. Other popular pilgrimage route is Nagara Pradakshina, which covers seventy-two shrines along the way. Since time immemorial Varanasi is a substantial center of learning. The sacred city has been a symbol of spiritualism, philosophy and mysticism for thousands of years and has produced great saints and notable spiritual leaders like Guatama Buddha, Mahavira, Kabir, Tulsi Das, Shankaracharaya, Ramanuja and Patanjali.

Varanasi, the religious city of India, is also known by the name of Kashi and Benaras. Kashi, the city of Moksha for Hindus since centuries, is known for its fine-quality silks, 'paan' and Benares Hindu University and Avimukta of the ancient days, Varanasi is the most popular pilgrimage point for the Hindus. One of the seven holiest cities, Varanasi city is also one the Shakti Peethas and one of the twelve Jyotir Linga sites in India. In Hinduism it is believed that those who die and are cremated here get an instant gateway to liberation from the cycle of births and re-births.

Sarnath
 
Sarnath, about 10 km from the sacred city of Varanasi, is the place where Buddha selected to deliver his first sermon. The celebrated Mantra, 'Buddham Sharanam Gachhami', is indebted to its origin to Sarnath. On the day before his death Buddha included Sarnath along with Lumbini, Bodh Gaya and Kushinagar as the four places he thought to be sacred to his followers. It makes Sarnath one of the most venerated Buddhist places. Besides Buddhism, Sarnath is also attached to Jainism.

There are multiple Buddhist monuments and erections in Sarnath. Some of the significant Buddhist monuments at Sarnath are the Dhamekha stupa, the Chaukhandi stupa and monasteries and temples of different schools of Buddhism from Japan, China, Thailand, Burma and others. The Indian Buddhist society called Mahabodhi Society preserves a park around the Buddha temple. The Mahabodhi Temple within the park has a tooth aretefact of the Buddha.

There is also a vast stretch of ancient ruins at Sarnath. Individual Buddhist structures were raised at Sarnath between the 3rd century BC and the 11th century AD, and today it presents the most extensive ruins amongst places on the Buddhist trail. The Ashoka pillar of Sarnath is the National emblem of India.



The Ashoka Lion capital

The Ashoka Lion capital or the Sarnath lion capital is the national symbol of India. The Sarnath pillar carries one of the Edicts of Ashoka, an inscription against division within the Buddhist community, which reads, "No one shall seed division in the order of monks". The Sarnath pillar is a column overcome by a capital, that composes of a cover representing an upturn bell-shaped lotus flower, a short cylindrical abacus with four 24-spoked Dharma wheels with four animals (an elephant, a bull, a horse, a lion).

The four animals in the Sarnath capital are believed to symbolize different steps of Lord Buddha's life. The Elephant constitutes the Buddha's idea in reference to the dream of Queen Maya of a white elephant entering her womb. The Bull constitutes desire during the life of the Buddha as a prince. The Horse constitutes Buddha's departure from luxurious life. The Lion represents the achievement of Buddha hood.

Besides the religious explainations, there are some non-religious interpretations also about the symbolism of the Ashoka capital pillar at Sarnath. According to them, the four lions symbolize Ashoka's rule over the four directions, the wheels as symbols of his enlightened rule (Chakravartin) and the four animals as symbols of four adjoining territories of India.



Jantar Mantar
 
Jantar Mantar is an observatory, built by Jai Singh, the Maharaja of Jaipur in the year 1737. Jai Singh was a great admirer of science and technology and he was particularly passionate about astronomy. Before the beginning of construction (of observatories) he sent intellectuals abroad to study the foreign observatories. The envoys returned with numerous manuals on astronomy. The Jantar Mantar at Varanasi was built in line with Delhi, Mathura, Ujjain and Jaipur observatories.

The Jantar Mantar was constructed to measure the local time, the Sun's turn down, elevation, the declination of stars, planets and to determine eclipses The Jantar Mantar at Varanasi consists of several masonry instruments to document the motion, speed and properties of stars and planets and study astronomy that are accurate and can still be used effectively today. The Jantar Mantar includes several structures of unique form, each with a specialized function for astronomical measurement.

These structures with their obvious combinations of geometric forms have enthralled the attention of architects, artists, and art historians. Originally, there were many yantras (instruments). Some of the important ones are the Krantivritta Yantra, Digansha Yantra, Samrat Yantra, Prakash Yantra, Ram Yantra, Disha Yantra and Dhruva Yantra.



Bharat Mata Temple
 
The Bharat Mata temple at Varanasi is the only temple dedicated to Mother India. It is located in the Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth campus. The Bharat Mata temple was built by Babu Shiv Prasad Gupt and inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi in 1936. The statute of Bharat Mata is built in marble and is a model of undivided India, depicting the mountains, plains and oceans. The most peculiar thing about the Bharat Mata Temple is that instead of the customary gods and goddesses, it houses a relief map of India, carved out of marble.



The Kashi Vishwanath temple

The Kashi Vishwanath temple is situated in the centre of the cultural capital of India, Varanasi. It perches on the western bank of India's holiest river Ganges. The Kashi Vishwanath temple is the center of faith for millions of Hindus. The Jyotirlinga of Shiva, Vishweshwara or Vishwanatha, is enshrined in the Kashi Vishwanath temple, considered as one of the holiest temples of India. In Hinduism, it is believed that a mere sight of the Jyotirlinga is a soul-cleansing experience that alters life and puts it on the path of knowledge and Bhakti (devotion). A single darshan of Vishweshwara Jyotirlinga is contemplated to merit more than the darshan of other jyotirlingas, scattered in various parts of India. The Kashi Vishwanath Temple has been an alive sketch of the classic cultural traditions and highest spiritual values.

The Kashi Vishwanath Temple entices Hindu devotees and other visitors not only from India but worldwide. Lord Vishwanath is considered the supreme repository of the spiritual truth and strengthens the bonds of universal brotherhood. Late Maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore built the temple in the present shape, way back in 1780. In the year 1785, a Naubatkhana was constructed up in front of the Temple at the instance of Governor General, Warren Hastings. In 1839, two domes of the Temple were covered by gold, donated by Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, the ruler of Punjab. The management of the Kashi Vishwanath temple rests with a trust.

The Vishwanath temple opens daily at 2.30 A.M. for the breathtaking Mangala Aarti and between 3 to 4 A.M. ticket holders are permitted to join. The timing of general Darshan is from 4 to 11 A.M. The timing for midday Bhog Aarti is from11.30 to 12 A.M. Between 12 noon to 7 P.M., general devotees are free to have Darshan. From 7 to 8.30 P.M.



Shopping in Varanasi

Silk weaving is perhaps the most popular art of Varanasi and Banarasi silk sarees form an essential part of an Indian bride's trousseau. The world-famous gold and silver brocades and richly worked saris are known to have passed on from generations to generations much like family jewels without losing their beauty. Except Banarasi saris and brocades, you may look for wonderful pieces of brassware, copperware, wooden and clay toys and antique designs of heavy gold jewellery in Varanasi.

Other shopping hubs of Varanasi include the hand-knotted carpets of Mirzapur, musical instruments, the 'khatta-meetha' (sweet 'n' sour) 'Langda Aam', a well liked variety of mangoes available during summer season and the famous betel leaf that is considered a forte of the place. Benarasi people can be seen chewing betel leaves as a part of their cultural breeding and they even welcome their guests by offering them the famous betel leaves.

The shopping hang ups in Varanasi are Chowk, Gyan Vapi, Vishwanath Gali, Thatheri Bazar, Lahurabir, Godoulia or Dashswamedh Gali and Golghar. Besides the eminent and fine silks and weaved outfabrics, one can also buy shawls, carpets, wall hangings, Zari work; stone beautified work, glass beads and bangles, masks of Hindu and Buddhist deities and lampshades.