Page C1.1 . 21 July 2004                     
ArchitectureWeek - Culture Department
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Postcard from Varanasi

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Darbhanga Ghat: the ancient face of the city of Varanasi. Photography by Mamta Malhotra.

Dear ArchitectureWeek,

Hindu legend says Varanasi is the city of Shiva, founded at the dawn of creation. History says it is one of the world's oldest living cities with a continuous religious, cultural, and intellectual tradition going back to the 6th century BC. Mark Twain said during a visit: "Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together."

Varanasi stands on the high western bank of the river Ganges, a broad, curving panoramic sweep. Indian poets speak of the splendor of dawn here, when the golden sun shines on temple spires and ashrams, when thousands of pilgrims flock to the broad sandstone steps called ghats. Here they bathe, and the holy water of the Ganges washes away their sins and receives the ashes of their deceased kin. Priests sit on wooden platforms, under large umbrellas, and conduct rites.

Pilgrims and seekers have come here for centuries. In the 6th century BC, after attaining enlightenment, Buddha came to preach his first sermon near Varanasi. Today, ashrams and monasteries of various Hindu sects keep the traditions of classical learning alive.

Most of the city and ancient temples have been destroyed by Moslem invaders over the centuries but were rebuilt. The dense city, with narrow streets leading down to the stepped ghats, forms the urban face as we see it today. The Marathas built this in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the city still retains its ancient, ageless character.

On the road in Varanasi, India,
Mamta Malhotra


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Crowds at dawn on Ahalyabai Ghat.

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Manikarnika Ghat is an important pilgrim center with Vishnu's lotus pond and cremation fires.

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Pilgrims bathe on Ganga Dussehra to destroy the sins of ten lifetimes.

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