Varanasi is the city that is also seen as a microcosm. With more gods and goddesses (33 crore=0.33 billion) in the city than people (few lakh=0.1 million), it can definitely boast of housing the whole pantheon of the Hindus. What’s more, it also holds the distinction of being one of the earliest cosmopolitan cities of at least India, long before the term was first used. Foreign nationals from all over the world come to see and experience the city. Some make it their second, and some, even primary home.
Many Hindus from all over the world look at Kashi as the centre of their spiritual world. There has been a steady influx of streams of Hindus from all parts of India to the city. Some came with their eyes on Kashi labh. Others, the more materialistic ones, with eyes on the various profitable possibilities that entrepreneurship could open to them. Then, there were some who came with others and were assimilated by the city. They all became Banarsis.
I was never totally unaware of the importance of such migrant Banarsis in the development of the composite culture of the city despite my being such a migrant: third generation (no humour intended). Their real impact dawned upon me with its full force while I was doing a post on the ghats of my city. I discovered that most of our prominent ghats were made pukka or reconstructed by the Marathas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One cannot imagine the majestic ghatscape of the city sans the contributions of the Marathas.
Photo from Edwin Greaves’s Kashi: The City Illustrious
What’s more the one temple for which the city is known all over the world, the abode of the one and only God-king of Kashi: Kashi Vishwanath Temple was constructed by Queen Ahilya Bai Holker and the gold for plating its shikhar was donated by King Ranjeet Singh of Punjab. There is a large number of Banarsis who trace their origin to Punjab or Sind of the pre-partition India. There are a couple of Gurudwaras in Varanasi too.
I have known a family, my neighbours for over two decades, whose sons spoke Malayalam as their father’s and Hindi/Banarsi as their mother tongue. They are as more Banarsis than I, maybe more than I am. There are large areas in the city known for being populated mostly by the people who speak Tamil or Telugu as their father’s or grandfather’s mother tongue and Hindi as their own mother tongue.
(Temple with South Indian Architectural Elements, Hanuman Ghat)
Hanuman Ghat is one such area. It has a high density of Tamil speaking Banarsis. They retain their links with their place of origin, their language and customs. They also send their roots deep into the soil of the city and have been amongst the foremost contributors in the field of culture and art. Similar to their contribution is that of the Bengalis of Kashi. It’s said that not even half a century ago Varanasi used to be the city with the largest number of Bengalis outside (then) Calcutta. The name of the region Bengali Tola, and that of the school Bengali Tola Inter College are remnants from such a past.
Bengalis have long been attracted towards the holy city of Varanasi. There have been many illustrious pandits of Sanskrit who either came to the city for their studies or came here to spread the light of knowledge among those willing to receive such knowledge. Their cultural contribution has also been immense. Who does not know about the contribution of Rani Bhavani to the cultural/architectural landscape of the city? The Kings of Kooch Behar and Panchkot have also made their various contributions to the same. And then, one mustn’t forget to mention the merging of the cultures of the Renaissance Calcutta that reached Kashi through the literate Bengalis with that of Banaras.
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