The Ganga, flowing from the Himalayas, gently making its way through stepped paths of the ghats of Varanasi has a weird resemblance to the history and to a scale, the women of India, the agonies, burdens , and absorbing whatever people choose to throw at her, after all of the obstacles she had to overcome and still finding her way through all the chaos.
A thousand pilgrims jostle for a spot, to clean themselves and of their sins and grief, with the holy water of Ganga. On the contrary, it has been mentioned in the Vedas, that the purest element of the Pancha-Bhoothas (5 elements of nature) consisting of air, water, earth, fire, and nature is fire. Fire incinerates what is bodily present, leaving behind just ash, without carrying anything with it in the process, maintaining its purity, unlike water.
Varanasi, the city of lights, quite literally showcases its beauty, lit up with aartis in the evening and eventful hours on the ghats. It has always been a place to sink into the culture and tradition for tourists and pilgrims, a place that spreads itself and embraces the motto of “Atithi Devo Bhava” which means to treat guests like gods.
While the archaeologist who spent a good part of his life researching and studying in-depth, the ancient history and heritage through planned strategies of discovery claims Varanasi is no more than 5000 years old, the paanwaala who takes a daily dip and washes his clothes in the ghat says that God created Varanasi when the universe was born. Where faith takes over the reins of rational thinking, spirituality and religion make way.
The world works in loops of events, reoccurring every millennium, every year, every second. From the circle of life but like how all circles are meant to take a tangent one day, disrupting a systematic pattern, the Ganga could still revive to its early glory, and the woman, to a better future.
But the irony in itself is that Varanasi is called the great burial ground, or the mahasmashan. Grazing through the customary practices of cremating and letting Ganga take the ashes with her seems to be the end of the cycle for one. But as one goes deeper to search why this place is reputed for such a practice is the opposite.
People who, in their culture, believe in the idea of salvation and reincarnation, this is where it all begins. The path of circumambulation around the garbagriha, the path that circuits Kandava-Manikarnika Ghat-Kapiladhara-Sivpuri-Rameswar- Bhimchandi around Linga in Varanasi and Varanasi being the centre of a larger circuit across India which include Amarnathin the north, Kamakhya Devi in the East, Kanchi in the south, and Dwaraka in the west are all aligned in such a way that pilgrims retrace the paths taken by their ancestors, chanting mantras. This idea is not just isolated to Hindus in India, Dalai lamas are said to be a godlike incarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion, who spread love and peace through their teachings.
People identify themselves with places, their minds, and perceptions, associated with material habitat as reference. Relating oneself, as worshippers to creations for mythical deities, and in the pursuit of pilgrimage, expecting to be forgiven for all sins done and pre-bail for what is to be done. Circling back to square one goes beyond rational thinking and humanity, forgetting blatant human values and wait for a higher calling.
Imagine fables and mythologies of gods who can change the weather, who can bring an end to the evil and make way for good, and also some, with 3 heads, sometimes 8 hands and also one that has the body of a man and the head of an elephant.
Taking this into consideration, it shouldn’t actually be really surprising to see 3 Islamic whitewashed domes on top of a temple adjacent to a typical Hindu shikhara that simply exists as a testimony of cultural history showcasing the world about the inclusion of all cultures, Well, at least during some periods in the history of this nation excluding the present scenario.
At a time when the secularism of the nation is under scrutiny, and religious cult organizations under mutiny, the history of the nation shows, through the architecture, the harmonious existence of contrasting theories in religion, culture, and architecture.
During the closing years of the 16th century, Akbar, commissioned the writing of a document, Ain I Akbari which was to be compiled by his trusted compadre Abul Fazil. This piece of Documented history gives us an insight into the attitudes of Mughal rulers, Particularly Akbar, Shahjahan, and Jehangir, and their policies of cultural and religious pluralism that contributed significantly to the Architecture of South Asia. Despite it mentioning the demolition of a Hindu temple of great worship in Benares by a Muslim Invader, Pre Mughal rule, it also details out with documentation, the approaches of Mughal rulers to be patrons for Temples to be built, maintaining the cultural integrity. The remains of the Kashi Vishwanath temple’s West wall suggested that it was a sandstone structure, made with a system of Mughal-styled domes and vaulted and intersecting arches. Mughal temples at important sites in north India displayed distinct characters of Mughal architecture to showcase its affinity to the Mughal culture and policies including projecting balconies- Jharokhasand the usage of vaulted arches and domes which were never before used in temples. But the reign of Mughal emperors Akbar, Shahjahan, and Jehangir, despite their great acceptance of cultures were not so fortunate to have a similar successor in Aurangazeb.
The year is 2021, a towering mosque still stands above the remains of what was once the site for the famous Kashi Vishwanath Temple, The Gyanvapi Mosque. But unlike the Kumbhalgarh Temple that sports a triplet of domes and a shikhara in great harmony, the Jama Masjid located in the heart of the city was intended as a warning to the anti-Mughal factions and Hindu Religious Leaders in Varanasiwhich was prevalent during Aurangzeb's reign. Aurngazebs actions were hugely contrary to that of his predecessors who planned for a shiva shrine in Benaresaccording to 14th-century scriptures and even patronized the Vishweshwar temple. Aurangazeb, the son of Shajahan, the man behind the beauty of the taj, commissioned the demolition of the temple, motivated by the hatred and extremism by him and his followers, some of whom may also have helped facilitate the escape of Maratha King Shivaji from the Clutches of Mughal prisons. What also probably sparked a personal battle for Aurangazeb that ignited his anger toward a whole religion that resulted in the demolition of the Kashi Vishwanath temple, might have been the fact that it was the grandson of the builder of the temple who helped Shivaji’s cause.
After days of mourning, the family steps down one of the only 2 ghats out of 88 Ghats, with a thousand others, to perform the last rites of their loved ones. The children, amused by the sound of a thousand conch shells sound off in harmony, innocently wondering why they were looking out to a river, praying to god, to make way for their loved one to reach the steps of heaven. Ghats are steps that lead down to the Ganga, acting as a sort of flood management system as well as a theatre seating, to witness the grandeur of events taking place in the holy town.
The ghats line the banks of river Ganga for as long as 3 km, which spreads out into the temples, shrines, and even mosques. Just like how a few major shrines and temples, and their history were overwritten with asserted dominance, the Panchganga Ghat looks onto the flowing Ganga which is the only one of 5 rivers to be seen. The Panchganga, which means a confluence of 5 rivers, is the site of another Mughal piece of amalgamated Hindu-Islam monument, the Alamgir fort. The rustic fort that flaunts the curves of its domes and rusty appearance, towers above the steps of the ghat reminiscent of the 2 gigantic 162 ft minarets it once carried. The Beni madhav ka dharega or commonly called Aurangazebs mosque has been built on the ruins of a great Vishnu temple, the Bindu Madhav temple, Patroned by Mughal rulers. According to the French merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier’s description, the temple also portrayed Mughal architecture and symbolisms through a series of pointed vaults that intersect at the crossing in the cruciform plan of the temple.
This period from the mid-16th to the early 18th century was a breakthrough century in Mughal art propagating and finding its style into the architecture of all kinds. From Emperors being patrons to building Monumental temples, to one who took it as a personal battle to ascertain his dominant rule in the country. Much like in today's times, when the nation judiciary sides with the majority over communal and religious disputes, a lot could be learned from the times, where all cultures lived in harmony.
Roshni Gera is an architect and Computational Designer. Having completed the Master of Architecture program from the Architectural Association School of Architecture, London, with love for history and art she has envisioned herself creating environments and curating experiences that would reinforce the future of art and architecture.
Darsan B, an architect, dreamer and a storyteller who loves to take on challenges and reform perspectives on some days, but sit by the mountain and quote words of Howard Roark on others. Would love to explore all things architecture, educate and shape the Urbanscape soon enough.
Arun Kumar, 26 is an experienced architect based out of Bangalore, India. With a strong passion to innovate and tell unheard, unseen and unimagined stories, he uses his design skills coupled with digital tools to constantly innovate and tell a tale.