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Hindu Varanasi Author(s): Wilbert M. Gesler and Margaret Pierce Source: Geographical Review, Vol. 90, No. 2 (Apr., 2000), pp. 222-237 Published by: American Geographical Society Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/216120 Accessed: 22-03-2015 14:29 UTC

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ABSTRACT. Representations of Hindu faith in the built environment and pilgrim activities in the city of Varanasi, India, are explored through an analysis of the sacred geography of the place, of pilgrim travel to the city and activities within it, and of the act of crossing over from life to death through cremation. The roles of reconciling what seem to be paradoxes or con- tradictions and of the transcendence of geographical scale in reinforcing faith are also exam- ined. Keywords: geography of religion, India, pilgrimage, sacred space, Varanasi.

Studies of pilgrimage sites and pilgrim behavior occupy an important place in the geography of religion. Over the past few decades cultural geographers have contrib- uted to the literature on pilgrimage (Bhardwaj and Rinschede 1988; Tanaka 1988; No- lan and Nolan 1989; Stoddard and Morinis 1997). Examples from India include Robert Stoddard’s examination of the geographical distribution of major Hindu holy places (1968), David Sopher’s look at pilgrimage circulation at different geo- graphical scales (1967), and the work of J. McKim Malville and John Fritz in mapping the sacred geometry of Vijayanagar (1993). Our study of a Hindu sacred site, Vara- nasi, also known to Hindus as Kashi, or the City of Light, and until recently called Be- nares, follows in this tradition of humanistic approaches to the study of pilgrimage (Figure 1).

A Hindu believer encounters and takes away diverse meanings from the Varanasi experience. There is a sacred geography to the built environment; pilgrims travel along sacred routes; and a journey to another life is instigated through cremation. The first two topics are commonly treated in the pilgrimage literature. Indeed, for Varanasi, aspects of the sacred geography and pilgrimage routes are matters of rec- ord (Eck 1982; Singh 1994,1998).

Our study is influenced by a building tendency for pilgrimage studies to move from description to analysis and interpretation (Bhardwaj 1997). We take analysis of the sacred place in new directions that both integrate themes once treated separately and reflect current concerns in the pilgrimage literature, such as interpretation of symbols (Stoddard and Morinis 1997).


Sacred sites comprise natural and human-made assemblages of sacred symbols and landscape markers investedwith special meaning (Tanaka 1988). These symbols may be given concrete expression in various ways. For example, at Gaya, in northeastern India, three forms of expression-a sacred geography, sacred performances, and sa- cred specialists-have been noted (Saraswati 1978). A sacred geography maps a be- liever’s values, aspirations, and beliefs. Mythical worlds are mapped to specific

*fi DR. GESLER is a professor of geography at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599-3220. DR. PIERCE is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Ethnography at Yerevan State University, Yerevan, Armenia.

The Geographical Review 90 (2): 222-237, April 2000 Copyright ( 2000 by the American Geographical Society of New York

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geographies of a holy place; the physical world is imbued with mythological or relig- ious meaning. Such a city as Varanasi becomes a projection of sacred reality (Flood 1993).

Like Rome and Jerusalem, Varanasi has a spatially detailed sacred landscape with several facets. There is a natural environment composed of a river (the Ganges), streams, and pools, all believed to be holy. In this article, however, we focus on the built environment of temples and shrines, which are physical manifestations of relig- ious beliefs at three levels: the cosmos or universe, the national (India), and the local (Varanasi).

At the cosmic level, pilgrims who have read the mahatmyas, or hymns of praise to Varanasi, believe that all the organizing powers of space and time are to be found there (Eck 1982). For example, Kashi is the center of the universe whence all eight

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Everything that is powerful and auspicious is present in Varanasi as a microcosm of the universe (Singh 1997). This abstract concept is given spatial form in the city through its resemblance to a mandala, or cosmic map, “a sacred circle that repre- sents the entire universe, its powers, its interrelations, and its grounding center”) (Eck 1982, 146) . Mandalas may be drawn in the dust, painted on canvas, or expressed in architecture; Kashi’s sacred geography is itself a mandala. The city was not con- sciously laid out to represent the formal geometry of a mandala. Rather, an abstract pattern of concentric circles (Figure ) represents layers of the atmosphere, and lines radiating out in the eight compass directions can be imposed over the city.

Because Kashi represents the cosmos, all places, especially sacred places, are said to be there, either in concrete form (such as a temple) or in symbolic form. This phe-

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nomenon is known as “spatial transposition.” At the same time, Varanasi diffuses its sacred power by being represented in many other sacred places, often by a temple. And although Kashi encompasses the entire world, it is also thought to be somehow apart from, and above, the world. This special position is represented as the image of Varanasi sitting atop the trident or three-pronged spear of Shiva, the chief god and protector of the city. The three points of the trident are variously interpreted as the three hills on which Varanasi lies or as three worlds: the netherworld, the world of human life and death, and heaven above. Whatever the interpretation, the symbolic role is that of a city that transcends all other places.

India is “engraved with traces of mythic events. It is a living sacred geography,” claims Diana Eck (1982, 35); and Surinder Bhardwaj writes that “the whole of India can be regarded as a vast sacred space organized into a system of pilgrimage centers and their fields” (1973, 7). For believers, Varanasi represents several aspects of India’s sacred geography; it is a microcosm of the subcontinent. It evokes seven holy cities usually associated with one or more of the principal Hindu gods: Ayodhya is the capital of Lord Rama; Matura is the birthplace of Krishna; Haridwar is the gate of the Ganges; Ujjain is sacred to Shiva; Dwarka is the capital of Krishna; Kanchi is sacred to both Vishnu and Shiva; and Varanasi is the city of Shiva (Figure 2). Varanasi, many Hindus believe, is the holiest city, containing the others, which are “located” within it at specific sites (Figure 2 inset). As examples, Rama Kund, a pond just north of Luxa Road, is said to be Ayodhya, and Kanchi is a locale in the Panchaganga Ghat area, beside the Bindu Madhava temple.

Varanasi also contains the four dhams, or abodes of the gods (Badrinath, Jagan- nath Puri, Rameshvaram, and Dwarka). They are each represented by real shrines within the city and at other locales in the north, east, south, and west of India. Fi- nally, places in Varanasi mark the twelve lingas of light, representing twelve places throughout the country where the divine broke through to the earthly in a blinding shaft of light, reminding one of the idea that “Manifestations or evocations of light in particular may be associated with holiness and are critical aspects of sacred place” (Weightman 1996, 59).

In addition to these links to the cosmos and to greater India, the sacred geogra- phy of Varanasi is expressed within the city itself. The course of the Ganges, as it flows past the eastern boundary of the city, is particularly auspicious. Normally west-to-east flowing, the Ganges here angles from south to north, moving symboli- cally from the kingdom of death to rebirth (Parry 1994). On rare occasions, the rising flood-time Ganges completely encircles the city; these times are considered espe- cially auspicious. To the west of the river lies the sacred space of Kashi, the bounda- ries of which are demarcated by the pilgrimage route called the Panchakroshi Road (Figure 1).

Within Kashi are enclosed smaller zones where sacred geography is regionalized. Varanasi’s boundaries are fixed by the Varuna and Asi Rivers; Avimkuta is described in the sacred texts as somewhat smaller; and then, in the “Inner Sanctum” of the city, is a small zone surrounding the Vishvanatha Temple. The concentric circles demar-

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cating Varanasi are marked by eight shrines dedicated to Lord Ganesh, set at the eight compass points. Ganesh is the Lord of Obstades, guardian of thresholds, and thereby protector of sacred space (Figure 3).

Other geographical divisions of the city have religious significance. Sliced into three khands-Omkara to the north, Vishveshvara in the middle (the Inner Sanc-

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tum), and Kedara to the south-Varanasi represents the three points of Shiva3s tri- dent, as does the city’s position atop three hills (Eck 1982). An essential division involves a split between the pucca mahal, the masonry buildings of the older city, and the kachcha mahal, a body of poorly constructed edifices in the interior and lower areas. Most residents live in the pucca mahal, divided into linguistic groups so that, yet again, Varanasi mirrors the regions of India (Vidyarhti, Jha, and Saraswati 1979).

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Echoing the dichotomy is the contrast between an ornately carved wooden temple and ramshackle dwellings that appear to be sliding into the Ganges (Figures 4 and 5). A correspondence exists between the city and parts of the human body; the city has been described as a figure with its head and feet at the Asi and Varuna Rivers, respec- tively, and its loins at Manikarnika Ghat (Parry 1994).

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FIG. 5-Dwellings on the edge of a ghat leading down to the Ganges. (Photograph by Margaret Pierce, February 1999)

Hindu believers who go to Varanasi are imbricated in layers of concrete and ab- stract symbols that reinforce their faith. For a city that may appear spatially disor- dered, there is a distinct set of orders to the eye of the believer. Representations of the divine link Varanasi with India and the cosmos. Spatial patterns reinforce specific Hindu beliefs.


The faith of the pilgrim is strengthened further by physically moving through Vara- nasi along paths that symbolize Hindu beliefs. Many cultures embrace the idea that life is a pilgrimage, a journey of return to celestial origins (Tanaka 1988). Pilgrimage to a specific place lets believers act out religious tenets in concrete ways. Whether they wish to absolve sins, cure diseases, or pay homage to deities, people undertake

journeys, often arduous, that they believe will transform them. Although a particu- lar pilgrim’s progress can be traced on a map, the true believer follows a trajectory of spiritual refinement and transformation that cannot be represented cartographi- cally (Bocking 1993).

Some people come to Varanasi to die; more come with the corpses or ashes of their relatives; the largest number come on pilgrimage to atone for sins or ask for boons related to their goals of artha (material and political advantage), kama (sen- sual appetites), dharma (moral and religious duty), or moksha (attainment of salva- tion) (Parry 1994). People have heard of Kashi through mahatmyas found in the

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puranas, or stories of the gods, kings, and saints. They know that the place confers blessings above and beyond all others. Pilgrims follow the path taken by saddhus (holy men) and sannyasins (renouncers), people who have given up a settled life “to live out the spiritual truth that all people, finally, are travelers and pilgrims on earth” (Eck, 1982, 20-21). Pilgrims travel to many a sacred place, including the other six sa- cred cities, but Varanasi is the ultimate goal for many, just as Mecca is for Moslems and Jerusalem is for several religions. So important is Varanasi that mock journeys to it are enacted at ceremonies such as weddings.

“Kashi’s sacred geography is itself a spiritual path that one travels simply by walking its streets and visiting its temples,” writes Eck (1982, 317). Special routes through the city’s sacred space are taken by many pilgrims (Figure 1). One follows the boundary of Kashi, outermost of the sacred circles, called the Panchakroshi; it is a journey of nearly 50 miles and usually takes five days. Pilgrims walk in a clockwise direction, keeping divine space-that is, space within the boundaries of Kashi-and visiting temples and shrines to the right, and performing ablutions and bodily func- tions on the left. Three shorter pilgrim routes lie within the Panchakroshi. The Na- gar Pradakshina and Avimkuta Kshetra routes correspond roughly with the two innermost concentric sacred circles. The fourth pilgrim trail, the Antargrahi (inside the house), circumnavigates the heart of the city (Parry 1994; Singh 1994).

Even though pilgrims in Varanasi mingle with fellow believers as well as unbe- lievers from many parts of India and places beyond, they still identify with their home town, state, or region. Maintaining a native-place identity while at the sacred site is aided bypandas who, like the mutawifs at Mecca, act as travel agents for incom- ing pilgrims (Rowley 1997). Pandas stake out territories throughout India and meet pilgrims from their claimed areas as they arrive by train, arrange for their accommo- dations, and then oversee the rituals of their pilgrimage around the city. The railway stations are in many ways keys to a panda’s success; he-all pandas are men-has to know where and at what times pilgrims will arrive from different parts of India. Thus it may be more opportune for a panda to memorize a railway timetable than a mantra or prayer. Indeed, station platforms become contested space and may lead to violence as rival pandas struggle for control over them (Parry 1994). These entrepre- neurs play an important pilgrimage function, keeping open channels of communi- cation between the holy city and client families who live in the territories they serve (Caplan 1997).


Throughout Hindu sacred space, places where pilgrims can cross bodies of water are known as tirthas, from the Sanskrit root tirath, which means “crossing point” or “place of pilgrimage” (Parry 1994). Tirthas are associated with special acts or appear- ances of the gods; shaped by geography, they are long lasting. They carry both literal and symbolic meaning: People can, of course, physically cross the Ganges at Varanasi by bridge or boat, but far more significant is the fact that this is a place where one crosses from this world to the “far shore” of a new life (Eck 1982). This concept re-

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minds one of the significance of “crossing over” from life to death in other religions, such as Christianity.

Interrelated aspects of Hinduism reinforce Varanasi’s role as a place of transfor- mation or crossing over. Metamorphosis from human to nonhuman, and vice versa, is a universal Hindu belief; significantly, these transformations are often associated with holy waters (Kumar 1983). Varanasi is famous for its philosophical traditions, especially for a wisdom that transforms or elevates the scholar above earthly things. Based on a spatial metaphor, Ganesh, guardian of thresholds (Figure 3), symbolizes change; he can remove or impose obstacles, he can open or shut doors (Eck 1982). A liminal deity, Ganesh is between human and divine, human and animal, a middle passage between the pilgrim’s origin and destination, a passage in which the pilgrim is being transformed (Turner and Turner 1978). The ambivalent, many-faceted Shiva is no less a transformer: Shiva can be both terrible and blessed, destroying or creating; Shiva causes and cures disease, wounds and heals.

For many Hindus Varanasi is the preferred place for the final transformation of one’s life-namely, death-which occurs as one is liberated and makes the final cross- ing, the last sacrifice (Eck 1982; Parry 1994). Death, like the pilgrim’s journey, is a dan- gerous time because it is liminal, a time of transition, a space between life and death and then life again. In cremation, the body is transformed (heat is believed to be the preeminent agent of change), refined, and even perfected. In Hinduism, the con- suming “fire and its illumination symbolize either the cosmic cycle of creation and dissolution or Samsara, the earthly cycle of birth and death” (Weightman 1996, 62). Postcremation rites convert the deceased’s pret or ghost into the ancestralpitr, in or- der to facilitate the difficult journey to the abode of the ancestors. Eating, an impor- tant part of these rituals, is symbolic transformation; each time the soul acquires a new body the old one is “eaten” or consumed by the fires of digestion. The Brahman priest who performs the ceremonies is likened to a medieval European alchemist who, using a philosopher’s stone, can turn base metal into gold, or to the Ganges, which transforms the city’s sewage into holy water.

The west bank of the Ganges, which borders Varanasi on the east, is divided into segments of river frontage from 30 to 200 yards in length, each consisting of a series of long, often crumbling, steps down to the river. These are the ghats, places where people bathe, wash their clothes and domestic animals, and cremate the dead (Ga- neri 1993). Ghats are a hive of activity, noisy places where prayers are chanted, hymns are sung, temples bells ring, and priests assist pilgrims through various rituals (Fig- ures 6 and 7). Harischandra and Manikarnika are the two most important ghats that specialize in cremation; Manikarnika, halfway between the northern and southern boundaries of the sacred zone, is preeminent: It contains the well Vishnu dug at the beginning of time and is the place where all creation, or the cosmos, will burn at the end of time (Eck 1982).

Approximately eighty corpses a day are burned at the two main ghats, three- quarters of them brought from outside the city. Both the distance and the diversity of the corpses’ place of origin have increased considerably over time, though the

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number of corpses still decreases as distance increases (Parry 1994). A chain migra- tion of the dead may also be in effect: Streams of corpses tend to build up in Varanasi over time from certain regions of India. Although many bodies are burned, the ashes

FIG. 8-A local shrine to Kali, in Varanasi. (Photograph by Mar- garet Pierce, February 1999)

of far more people are brought in for immersion in the Ganges. Some corpses go un- cremated (such as those who had smallpox in the past or who died of cholera); they are simply weighted down and immersed in the river.

A funeral priest presides over the rituals performed by relatives for the “ghost” of the departed for eleven days after cremation, accepting gifts from the deceased’s fain- ily. It is his job to confer salvation and allow the soul of the departed to “swim across” to the other world (Parry 1994). The rituals during and after cremation are extremely important and highly symbolic. They reenact the austerities of Lord Vishnu as he

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created the cosmos, so that cremation becomes an act of creation. Cremation, which destroys the microcosm of the human body, is equated with the conflagration that will destroy the macrocosm at the end of time; at once, both body and universe are re-created. Life is made out of death; ancestors are created. Cremation removes the specificity of individual death and assimilates the person into a timeless prototypical model.

Pilgrim studies do not usually describe rituals such as cremation in such detail. However, this act of transformation is a third way-in addition to the sacred geogra- phy and pilgrim paths-that devotees strengthen their religious faith.


Our discussion may have created the impression that there is unvarying order and meaning to the symbolism and activities in Varanasi. Not so. Among the most inter- esting aspects of religion, induding its geography, are the seeming contradictions or paradoxes. An expression of this is the daim that “pilgrimage is above all an arena for competing and secular discourses” (Eade and Sallnow 1991, 2).

Other aspects of Varanasi life echo this paradox. Here, where pilgrims come to approach their deities, some have complained that the heterogeneous temples, shrines, and dogmas separate people from God. The fifteenth-century low-caste weaver and poet Kashi wrote that “The images are all lifeless, they cannot speak; I know, for I have cried aloud to them” (quoted in Berwick 1986, 124). In the City of Light, still acute is the tragic phenomenon of widows coming to Varanasi to die, some of them driven from their homes because they were believed to have caused their husband’s death. Those who arrived as teenagers may have waited more than fifty years to die, living in abject poverty. To survive, widows may turn to begging or prostitution. The widow’s lot has been well expressed in this statement: “Kashi might be the gateway to heaven, but for the poor, abandoned widow, it is undeniably a hell on earth” (Menon 1983, 150). The character of the Lord Shiva, chief god of Varanasi, challenges the usual distinctions between pure and impure, auspicious and inauspicious. Beautiful, Shiva may be also terrifying, covered in fragrant oil or ashes, with Varanasi both the Forest of Bliss and the Great Cremation Ground; Shiva cannot be categorized in anyway-as either male or female, young or old, for exam- ple.

The notion that religions separate space into sacred and profane realms is com- monly invoked (Eliade 1959). Sacred geographies are intended to separate ordered sacred space from chaotic or unorganized profane space (Malville and Fritz 1993). However, even though one can demarcate sacred zones such as the Domain of Our Lady in Lourdes, the sacred geography of a holy place does not always lend itself to simple separation (Gesler 1996). In Hinduism, the distinction between sacred and profane is not always clear, if only because it is believed that one’s knowledge of the sacred can only be partial (Saraswati 1978). Nor is the sacred geography of the city immutable: It is subject to both natural and human alterations. Therefore, “even the most veteran geographer may fail to decide where to begin and where to end draw-

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ing the boundaries of sacred and secular” (Vidyarhti, Jha, and Saraswati 1979, 148). Even the sacredness of an entire holy site is subject to change. Although Hindus be- lieve that some places have become special through divine interventions or personal experiences, these sites may come and go, especially if they are associated with the goals of artha and kama; moksha sites are more permanent. In a sense, the whole earth is sacred, so the Varanasi pilgrim always feels that he or she is walking on hal- lowed ground. And here is perhaps the ultimate contradiction: Although people seek places of sanctity, ancient Hindu texts declare that looking for particular sites is unnecessary and that, in fact, place is itself an illusion (Sopher 1997).

The motivations and activities of the pilgrims may also be contradictory. People travel to Varanasi for various reasons: wealth, pleasure, religious duty, liberation- goals that may appear to conflict. In contrast to the ostensibly spiritual atmosphere of the place, pilgrimage has a very materialistic side: It is big business (Figures 8 and 9), for about three-fourths of Varanasi’s residents depend on pilgrims for their liveli- hood (Vidyarhti, Jha, and Saraswati 1979). The pandas, for example, have a great deal to gain from their pilgrim contacts.

The material-spiritual paradox is clear in the ghat “crossing-over” process. At the climax of one’s spiritual journey, funeral priests-often very aggressively-pres- sure the dead person’s family for more money and gifts. Half-burned bodies have been found floating in the Ganges, presumably the product of importuning that failed. And, of course, there is a belief that dying creates new life.

What can one make of these contradictions? Perhaps they only appear paradoxi- cal to outsiders. Religious belief may enable people to reconcile seeming opposites, as does pilgrimage to Medjugorje, Bosnia (Jurkovich and Gesler 1997). The juxtapo- sition of the profane and the sacred strengthens the role of the sacred

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