These Varanasi festivals like Dev Dipawali and Kartik Purnima will delight you no end. If you are in Banaras (Varanasi) right now, then you must immediately reach the banks of the Ganga. Fabulous sights and experiences await you.
Varanasi festivals- let’s explain some terms
The word Dev means god or gods. Dipawali means ‘ a row of lamps’. ‘Kartik’ is a month (roughly corresponding to October/November) of the Hindu calendar, while ‘Purnima’ refers to the night of the full moon. So here we are, Dev Dipawali is a festival of lights in honor of gods and is celebrated in October/November, each year. Of course, it should be a full moon night on the day of the festival.
I won’t give anymore gyan on this subject. Have a look at some of the images that I have sourced from Flickr.com. Thanks, Flickr.
Though the traditional Dipawali just passed us a few weeks back, the ancient city of Varanasi has its own version of this festival.
Isn’t this surreal? Can you see those people standing on the waters holding big lamps and praying to the gods in the sky?
And many thanks, Anoop Keshari for this wonderful snap.
Story of Dev Dipawali
There are two reasons why this festival is celebrated in Varanasi this day.
According to one story, Dev Diwali is celebrated to remember the victory of Lord Shiva over the demon, Tripurasur. This rakshas or demon was a combination of three demons, actually.
If you have been following my blog, you will remember that Lord Shiva is also considered as the God of Death. Varanasi is HIS city. It is Shiva who brings people alive and it is HE alone who takes away their lives.
Another story about Dev Diwali goes like this. One day, Sage Vishwamitra thought that the gods needed to be punished. He then decided to send his disciple, Trishanku to heaven and take over its affairs.
The gods became afraid and thought of preventing Trishanku from entering their kingdom. As Trishanku was preparing to enter the heavens, he was stopped mid-way by the devas or the gods.
Now Trishanku had nowhere to go. He stood suspended in the sky for many years. Vishwamitra would not let him come back to the earth and the gods would not budge, either.
Frustrated, Vishwamitra then decided to create a new heaven altogether. He had the yogic powers to do so after all!
When the devas came to know about it, they pleaded with the Sage and after some time, a solution was reached between him and the gods. So, Dev Diwali celebrates that particular occasion when a peace agreement was reached at between the devas and the Rishi.
It is said that on Dev Diwali, humans and gods celebrate the occasion together. Interesting, isn’t it?
Go to any part of Varanasi today and you will find all the homes lit up like this.
Now that you have read about this Varanasi festival, you must know about how to reach the city and where to stay.
How to reach Varanasi?
Train- I would recommend that you take a train to this city. There is good connectivity to Varanasi with Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and other major Indian cities. Aggod website for making reservations is https://www.irctc.co.in/eticketing/loginHome.jsf
Flight- If you don’t have time and would like to fly into Varanasi then there are a couple of online travel companies like www.makemytrip.com or Cleartrip. You can also book your tickets at Jet Airways, Indigo, Spicejet and of course, the state-owned Air India.
‘ Savdhan,’ shouts Vyasji, ‘Chup Raho’ in the Ramnagar Ramlila of Varanasi. He is a 70-year old Brahmin and his task is to ensure that all the characters of this more than 200- year old dance drama remember their lines. Right now, he is asking the young boys of the Lila, to keep quiet and concentrate on their jobs.
Right now, he is asking the young boys of the Lila, to keep quiet and concentrate on their jobs.
At the Ramleela
There are several other elderly gentlemen like him at one of the several venues of the Ramnagar Ramlila. These wizened people, also called as Vyas Jis, work as prompters, directors, and trainers of this dance drama.
On the stage, you also see 12 wise men seated in concentric circles, reciting verses from the Ramacharitmanas.As the voices of these men (Ramayanis) fade away, a wooden chariot appears near the stage.
Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita are back to Ayodhya after their 14 year-exile in the jungles.
The crowd bursts into an uproar,’ Raja Ramchandra ki Jai’.
It has been 2 hours that the crowd has been waiting for the trio of Ram, Lakshman, and Sita to arrive at the stage. Today is the last day of Ramnagar Ramleela and everybody is waiting for the coronation of Rama as the King of Ayodhya.
The main sponsor of the Ramleela, Kashi Naresh is already on the stage to welcome the trio.
Ramnagar Ramlila and how it began
For travelers who are coming to India for the first time, Ramlila is an intensely personal experience. If you get an opportunity to see this ancient dance-drama, grab it with open hands. You not only get an insight into the soul of India, you also get to rub shoulders with Indians of all classes.
But what is Ramlila?
In one sentence, Ramlila is a docu-drama about the life of Rama, his family, the monkey god Hanuman and the Lord of Rakshasas, Ravana.
Every year, this drama is organized by several theater groups across the country and is watched by millions of Indians. The language of this drama is Hindi.
While there are Ramlilas and Ramlilas, in Varanasi, there is a special kind of Ramlila which goes by the name, Ramnagar Ramlila.
Ramnagar is the name of a small fort or castle in Varanasi. This Ramlila is patronized by the King of Ramnagar and hence the name, Ramnagar Ramlila.
It is said that this Ramlila was started by another King of Benares more than 200 years back. His name was Udit Narayan Singh.
Ask Jai Prakash Pathak, the personal secretary of the present Maharaja, and he will gladly share the history of this Ramlila. According to him, one day Udit Singh had gone to Mirzapur for some work. After he completed his work, he stayed back in the town to watch the local Ramlila. Unfortunately, he couldn’t as he arrived at the venue late.
Feeling bad about the experience, the King decided to create a Ramlila in Varanasi on his own and since then, the Ramnagar Ramlila has been in existence.
The storyline about Ramlila is taken from the great Indian epic, Ramayana composed by Saint Valmiki.
Some experts think that Valmiki lived during the time of Rama, which is several thousand years ago. Others, however, are not sure, they say that Rama lived several million years back.
However, the present day Ramlilas are inspired by Goswami Tulsidas who lived approximately 500 years back. He thought that Valmiki’s Ramayana was difficult to understand by the masses as it was written in Sanskrit. Tulsidas also thought that it was high time that Ramayana is re-interpreted keeping in mind the changes in morality and social values.
Keeping all these factors in mind, Tulsidas wrote the Ramcharitmanas ( the story of Rama) in a local Hindi dialect, Avadhi. A few years later, he decided to lend an audio-visual character to the Ramcharitmanas by starting Ramlilas.
You will agree with me that listening and watching a story is more effective than reading it.
And this is how the concept of Ramlila came into being.
Today, millions of Indians start their day by reciting verses of Ramcharitmanas- this literature has indeed impacted our lives very deeply.
I know what your next question is going to be.
Where is Ramnagar, Mr. Swayam Tiwari?
The answer is -right across Varanasi. To reach Ramnagar, you will have to cross Ganga.
This small place is known for the Ramnagar Fort which is the official residence of Kashi Naresh or the Raja of Benares. The word, Kashi means Varanasi or Benares and Naresh stands for King.
Unlike the other Indian Kings, the Kashi Naresh is not a Rajput. According to some people, he is a Brahmin while others say that he is a Bhumihar ( an amalgam of Kshatriyas and Brahmins).
Ramnagar Ramleela- what is so unique?
Unlike the traditional Ramlilas, the one at Ramnagar is very special.
Firstly, this Ramlila is staged for 30 days or one lunar month. The first episode starts from Ganesh Chaturthi or Anant Chaturdashi (sometime in September) and concludes 30 days later. The traditional Ramlilas are held for only 10 days.
Secondly, the Ramnagar Ramlila does not take place in one central place. The venue keeps changing daily and this means that the audience keeps following the cast from one episode to another.
For a month, parts of the Ramnagar Fort and Varanasi are named after the places mentioned in the ancient epic, Ramayana.
A dusty plot of land represents Ayodhya while a small garden is chosen as the venue for the Sita-Rama meeting. The Sita Swayamvar is held on a small raised platform where Rama pulls the might bow and wins the hand of Sita.
Sometimes, when the action shifts from one venue to another the same day, the audience follows the cast.
Just young boys
All the characters are played by boys and men only. There are no ladies in the cast.
Girls are not allowed to play in the Ramleela at Ramnagar. Since young children have pure hearts, only they can play the roles of Rama, Sita, Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrughna. For the next one month, these children are considered divine by the spectators.
The main cast of Rama, Lakshman, Sita, Bharat, and Lakshman are played by boys under the age of 16. These boys are Brahmins and must know Sanskrit. The Kashi Naresh is personally involved in the selection of all the artists and he indeed makes sure that the best make the cut.
Har Har Mahadev, the crowd chants as the Kashi Naresh finally crowns Rama as the King of Ayodhya. It is midnight and it seems the whole of Varanasi has come to Ramnagar to witness the final event of Ramnagar Ramleela- Coronation
Now this might come as a shocker to you guys. Varanasi is also called Mahashamshaan or the final resting place of humans.
You see, this city is closely associated with Lord Shiva, the God of Death. It is said that anyone who wants Moksha- liberation from Birth and Death, should come to this holy city at the time of his or her death. That is why you see so many funeral pyres burning all the time on the ghats of Varanasi. People who are just on the verge of dying express their desire to their friends and relatives to spend their last days in Varanasi.
Strange? Very strange indeed!
Who is Lord Shiva?
Travelers to India may not know who Shiva is. So here is a bit of gyan to them.
You see, Indians have three main Gods. Brahma is the creator and he is also called Prajapati. Vishnu is the preserver of all things virtuous. He has several temple devoted to himself in not just India but also in many parts of South East Asia as well.
Shiva is the Lord of Death and his job is to remove and destroy all bad and deleterious things from the world.
Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva represent the various functions of the Supreme Almighty who is formless and has no quality.
Like Vishnu, Shiva too has several temples across India and the world.
Why is Varanasi associated with Shiva?
It is said that Banaras was founded by Lord Shiva! I have never heard of any other city in India that has been founded by God. Have you? I would love to know. Should you want to to write to me, you may send an e-mail to me at email@example.com
Ok, let me make a tall comment- Varanasi is associated with the dawn of time! No body knows when this city was actually founded.
In Rigveda, Shiva is the source of the prime energy and the Big Bang Theory is closely associated with His creation of the Universe.
Can we say now that the origins of this city are covered in the mists of time ?
An interesting tale
There is an interesting tale as to how this city, also called as Kashi, came to be associated with Shiva. It is said that one day, the God was expelled from his home (Himalayas) by his wife, Goddess Parvati.
Upon his banishment, He came to this city with his followers and begun living there. While He lived in exile here, Shiva sent his two friends , Brahma and Vishnu to persuade the Goddess to take him back.
After some time, Goddess Parvati allowed Lord Shiva to come back and live in the Himalayas. During all that time, his home in Himalayas was guarded by hsi two attendants- Kalbhairav and Dandapani.
I don’t believe in Moksha and all that, do you?
In fact, I have a different take on the theory of Moksha. It is this.
You and I and the rest of the world can get liberation because of knowledge. This knowledge can come to us only if we have a good guru. Since Kashi in the ancient times had a lot of gurus, many people came to this city in search of knowledge.
Over time, Kashi- the City of Light- lost its initial significance and became associated with the idea of death. I find this notion ridiculous. Do you?
Various names of Varanasi
By the way, did I tell you that Banaras is the corrupt form of Varanasi? When the Britishers came to India, they had trouble spelling this name, hence the word Banaras or Benares.
Another name of this city is Kashi which means “the City of Light”.
My favorite name of this town is Anandvana- the forest of Bliss.
Since Lord Shiva (Rudra) resides in this forest, it is also called as “forest of Rudra”
What does the word, Varanasi mean?
Friends, the word Varanasi is made up of two parts, Varuna and Asi. These are two rivers that merge together in this ancient holy town, hence the name Varanasi. It is much like Budapest of Hungary. Get the drift?
The City of Great Debates
In the ancient times, Varanasi was the center of knowledge and learning. This city housed men and women of the highest intellect.
Not surprisingly, these men and women were all the time engaged in debates and arguments on the finer points of life, philosophy , language etc. If some person in any other part of India had any doubt on any aspect of life, he could come to Varanasi and seek a solution.
No wonder, another name of Varanasi was “City of Light” in ancient times.
The Buddha connection
Have you heard about Gautam Buddha?
He chose Varanasi as the place for his first sermon. If you have Benares on your travel radar, then make it a point to visit Sarnath, the place where he delivered his first sermon. Preserved wonderfully well by the Archaeological Survey of India, Sarnath gives you goosebumps. Imagine, this place, Sarnath, has a history of more than 2500 years!
Probably he chose Varanasi as the place of his first sermon because he felt that his teachings would be easily accepted in Kashi, the land of the open minded.
City of Ghats
Now you will ask me- what are ghats? Well, my dear, ghats are stairs that lead down to the river. The river in this case is Ganga.
Varanasi is also called City of Ghats as it has a lot of them.
Many Indians use these ghats to cremate their dead relatives. The ashes are then immersed in the river Ganga. This is o because many of us believe that this immersion liberates the soul from the cycle of Birth and Death.
Other ghats are meant for the people to bathe in the Ganga. It is quite a sight to watch the devotees take their holy dips in the river early in the morning.
The evening aarti of Maa Ganga on the ghats of Varanasi are a sight to behold. It is a surreal experience and I hope to watch that spectacle one day.
Watch this Ganga aarti on the Dashashwamedh Ghat, Varanasi;
An aarti means an invocation to God or Goddess. We consider Ganga as Maa or mother because she tends us like a mother.
Don’t stay away, more stories on the way
I must confess, I am a compulsive storyteller, so I want you to be around….
Story No. 1-This one is about Manikarnika Ghat. Many 100,000 years ago, the wife of Lord Shiva, Parvati once wished to go over to her parents’ house to attend a ceremony. When she told her husband about her intention, Shiva advised her to not to go.
When you haven’t been invited to this party, my dear, why do you want to go, Shiva asked.
But Parvati was insistent and later left for her parents’ house.
Daksh Prajapati , her father, was not too pleased at seeing Parvati at his house. He considered Shiva as inferior to his social standing. There was no question of Daksh inviting Shiva and Parvati to his house.
Why did Daksha not invite Shiva to this ceremony?
You see, Daksh had never wanted his daughter, Parvati marrying Shiva. According to him, Shiva did not have a social standing. But she was strong willed and went ahead and later married Shiva. Daksh felt offended.
Feeling insulted, at the behavior of her dad, Parvati immolated herself at her parent’s house.
What followed was hell and fury. The Lord of Death was enraged at seeing her wife die in such circumstances. He carried Parvati’s body and started dancing in a manner that shook the entire world.
This dance is called Tandava and represents the cosmic dance of the Lord.
Alarmed, Brahma and Vishnu, decided to calm him down. Vishnu took out his celestial discus and began dismembering the dead body of Parvati. He thought that Shiva could be calmed down this way.
One of her parts fell in Varanasi. The Manikarnika Ghat marks the exact spot where one of her body parts fell down on the earth. There is a temple that marks that spot and is called the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. This temple radiates energy and is one of the most important religious sites of the Indians.
There are several such temples in India which mark the places where the body parts of Goddess Parvati fell down.