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Notes on the Geography of Northern India: Varanasi (Benares)

Varanasi, known during the British period as Benares, is the sacred city of India for the simple but perhaps remarkable reason that it lies along the Ganges at the one point where the river flows north and where someone sitting on the bank can therefore see the sun rise over the sacred river. Although Muslim iconoclasts have made sure that few buildings in the city are very old, the city was a religious center in the fifth century B.C.  That, after all, was when the historic Buddha set out to preach. He began at nearby Sarnath.

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Northern India: Varanasi (Benares) picture 1

Morning prayers at one of the many ghats or steps that line the river's edge.  The flotsam is disgusting to a few,  trivial to the many.

Northern India: Varanasi (Benares) picture 2

Ritual bathing.

Northern India: Varanasi (Benares) picture 3

A more practical use of the river: morning hygiene.

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The Ganges bank here is privately owned and densely built-up; there aren't many points of public access.

Northern India: Varanasi (Benares) picture 5

The best known is the Dasasvamedh Ghat, where Brahma is said to have sacrificed ten horses for King Divodasa.  (The name is strictly literal: das for ten, aswa for horse,  medh for sacrifice.) 

Northern India: Varanasi (Benares) picture 6

The river's edge from midstream.

Northern India: Varanasi (Benares) picture 7

Boatloads of firewood heading to the cremation ghats.

Northern India: Varanasi (Benares) picture 8

Stacked and ready.

Northern India: Varanasi (Benares) picture 9

Behind the ghats are the densely crowded pukka mahals, "fine houses" separated by the narrowest of alleys.

Northern India: Varanasi (Benares) picture 10

There are many truly fine houses here, but access is tricky and with inescapable squalor.

Northern India: Varanasi (Benares) picture 11

The important temples are off-limits to non-Hindus, but here's an exception: the Vishvanath Temple on the campus of Benares Hindu University.

Northern India: Varanasi (Benares) picture 12

Pushpa, or flowers, are a common temple offering.  Here they are offered for sale.

Northern India: Varanasi (Benares) picture 13

And here.

Northern India: Varanasi (Benares) picture 14

A European city has been grafted onto the old one, and a few streets have been cut through the pukka mahals.  This one cuts through to the Dasasvamedh Ghat.

Northern India: Varanasi (Benares) picture 15

European it may be--but new or in good shape it isn't. 

Northern India: Varanasi (Benares) picture 16

One of the best-preserved buildings of European vintage: the Benares Sanskrit University, originally called Queen's College and copied from Cambridge University.

Northern India: Varanasi (Benares) picture 17

Plaster peeling from the brick tower of the St. Thomas Church.

Northern India: Varanasi (Benares) picture 18

Tombstone at St. Mary's church.  The inscription states that Rev. Davis (1825-1897) "Came to India 1859, Laboured in Allahabad from March 1861 till 1878 and in Benares as Principal of Jay Narain's College from 1879 till death."


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