Varanasi, Kashi, Benares. This city with three names is among the oldest living cities in the world. Varanasi is the city that grew along the banks of River Ganga in the stretch between the Assi and Varuna Rivers. A spiritual city called Kashi in the scriptures and widely known as Benares, the city was renamed as Varanasi after India gained independence. The city is a centre for religion, history, culture and learning. The city is the beating heart of the Hindu universe, a crossing place between the physical and spiritual worlds, and the Ganges is viewed as a river of salvation, an everlasting symbol of hope to past, present and future generations. The magical but sometimes overwhelming city is where the most intimate rituals of life and death take place in public on the city’s ghats.
To the people of Hindu faith, the ‘spiritual city’ known as Kashi lives in a permanent state of purity, where the jyotirlinga or column of light joins heaven to earth. It is known as the city of the Hindu God Shiva. Kashi is seen as the ford across samsara, the river of life. To the Hindu, the ultimate guarantee of moksha or salvation comes from dying in Kashi.
The 7km stretch through Varanasi is the only part of this journey where the river turns back towards Her source. Here Ganga is known as Gangamaiyya, Mother, Goddess who nourishes the very soul of Kashi, nurturing its life and gathering up its dead. It is said that the river fell in love with the city and nearly turned back here. The half loop northwards creates the curved bank where the ghats stand today. The flood plain on the opposite bank of Ganga has never been inhabited and stays as a sandy waste, used for growing watermelons during the dry season.
To Hindus (the main religious group in India) the Ganges River has special significance for religious rites. Every day more than 60,00 people come to bathe and pray in the river along the religious bathing areas in Varanasi. They sip Ganga Jal (water) as an act of religious purification. Hindus believe that if their ashes are placed in the river after cremation that they will go to Nirvana (Heaven).