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The real City of Light: Varanasi, the most sacred city in India

Kashi - The City of Light 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.

Shiva and the Ganges

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.

 

 

 

Kashi

WP_20140720_011The city of Kashi – or Varanasi, as it is more commonly known now – is stunning. Shiva’s city, the City of Light, was the first major place I reached in India, coming down overland by bus from Nepal. Here’s some excerpts from the notes I wrote about it on my first morning (accompanied by some pretty old photos):

“Wake 4ish, head down to the ghats for sunrise – wander through locals and tourists to find an older man who declares himself the ‘boatman not a cheating man’ and we fix a price of Rs 120.

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“Row up and down the ghats as sun rises – hundreds of Hindus washing themselves and washing their clothes by cracking them on the steps, praying in little rituals. Puja (worship) at sunrise is made with drums and bells and a ring of fire. Many just chatting too – a place for a bit of a get-together. Stunning views, with temples leaning into the water, mansions built for maharajahs, red stupas…

WP_20150620_013“Cremation being prepared at Manikarnika ghat – bodies wrapped in silver and orange on stretchers – though fires aren’t hot at dawn so mostly takes place at night.

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The Ganges, flowing down from Shiva’s hair

“A holy man (Brahma) beckons me on his wooden platform and, reassured by a passerby, I sit shoeless with him and stare into his surprisingly golden hypnotic eyes as he shows me his orange brahma string and paints my head for Shiva, then gives me a marigold necklace and another which I have to throw in the Gunga shrine submerged in the river…”

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Clearing mud from one of Shiva’s holy wells, or ‘kunds’

Last year during the Indian general election Kashi was trending like mad on Twitter, chosen by the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, as his constituency. There are many problems in the city, particularly in relation to sanitation, pollution and conservation. But it has since been put on a list of 12 heritage cities to go on a national investment programme, HRIDAY, and there is a campaign to make it into a World Heritage site, which as one of the longest inhabited cities in the world it certainly deserves.

Whilst Mumbai is seen as the financial capital of India, and Bangalore the centre of its massive IT industry, Kashi is considered its heart and soul. For me, the City of Light was the highlight of India.

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