Kashi – The City of Light
The city that Lizzie discovers through the portal in her garden in the first book of The Secret of the Tirthas is based on a real city in India.
Kashi is one of the oldest cities in the world. Some estimates put it at up 2,000 years old! It has had several names, including Benares, also spelt Banaras, but it is most commonly known as Varanasi. The meaning of Kashi is the ‘City of Light’. It’s the holiest city of Shiva, the Hindu god responsible for destruction. But Shiva destroys things with a purpose, to ensure there’s space in the world for creation and new life.
Kashi has hundreds of temples and stone steps (‘ghats‘) on its waterfront, leading down into the sacred River Ganges. Hindus believe that pilgrims who die in Kashi are enlightened and achieve instant moksha – that is, escape from the endless cycle of life and birth. Many are cremated at the famous Manikarnika ghat, and their ashes are thrown into the swirling river.
The Ganges flowing down from Shiva’s hair
Hindus also believe that Kashi is the centre of all ‘tirthas‘ – sacred crossing places – where the gods come down on to earth and where pilgrims can be transported instantaneously from one holy shrine to another. Now there’s an idea…
Kashi was the first place I visited on a three-month trip to India when I was in my twenties. I remember my first morning, taking a boat out to watch how the early morning sun made the honey-coloured ghats glow. It felt like I’d entered the landscape of a fantasy novel. I realised that there is little need to create imaginary worlds. You just have to visit places and cultures you’ve never been to before.
For more photos and extracts from my journal about the day I arrived in Kashi click here.