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Iconic Riverfront of the Historic City of Varanasi

Date of Submission: 13/04/2021
Criteria: (iii)(iv)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Uttar Pradesh
Coordinates: N25.28, E82.95
Ref.: 6526
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Description

Excavations, historic documents and scientific analyses support the fact that Varanasi is one of the most ancient continuously living cities of the world. With an abundance of iconic ghats, temples, historic housing and living religious and cultural traditions, Varanasi is one of the highest embodiments of Indian culture and spirituality, and the ghats are an epitome of the traditions attached. Owing to the immense sacred value associated with River Ganga in the Indian context, the riverfront forms the most iconic part of the city. The riverfront, that is the interface of the river with the land, encompasses the ghats (the steps leading to the river bank), the magnificent edifices towering above them, and the quaint alleys behind flanked with temples, mosques, palaces, havelis (traditional courtyard houses), kunds, akharas, gardens and gateways. The ghats portray a considerable part of the city’s cultural traditions and religious symbolism, thus being especially significant to Hindu religion.

The 6.5km (4 miles) long riverfront of River Ganga, forming the eastern edge of the city, possesses a unique history, and presents a specific vision of a magnificent architectural row of lofty buildings and holy sites - thus the ghats are inextricably linked to the structures above them. The history with reference to water-front sacred spots goes back to 8th-9th century, however construction of the stone stepped ghats began from the 14th century. Most of the ghats are active spots for festivities and rituals, a continuing tradition from its historical past.

The ghats (steps to the river bank) form a symbolic chain of holy sites. They comprise of the following 84 ghats: Assi, Ganga Mahal, Rivan, Tulsi, Bhadaini, Janaki, Mata Anandamayi, Vaccharaja, Jain, Nishad, Prabhu, Panchkota, Cheta Singh, Niranjani, Mahanirvani, Shivala, Gularia, Dandi, Hanuman, Prachina (old) Hanumanana, Karnataka, Harish Chandra, Lali, Vijayanagaram, Kedar, Caowki, Ksemesvara/Somesvara, Manasarovara, Narada, Raja(Amrita Rao Ghat), Khori, Pandey, Sarvesvara, Digpatia, Causatthi, Rana Mahala, Darabhanga, Munsi, Ahilyabai, Sitala, Dasashwamedha, Prayag, Rajendra Prasad, Man Mandir, Tripura Bhairavi, Mir, Phuta/Naya, Nepali, Lalita, Bauli/Umaraogiri/Amroha, Jalasayi, Khirki, Manikarnika, Bajirao, Scindhia, Sankatha, Ganga Mahal(II), Bhonshala, Naya, Genesa, Mehta, Rama, Jatara, Raja Gwalior, Mangala Gauri, Venimadhava, Panchaganga, Durga, Brahma, Bundi, (Adi) Sitala, Lala, Hanumanagardhi, Gaya/Gai, Badri Nayarana, Trilocana, Gola, Nandesavara/Nandu, Sakka, Telianala, Naya/Phuta, Prahalada, Raj, Adi Keshava.

Although seemingly a continuous stretch of stairs, the ghats were built in different historical moments, yet all feature around 40-60 stone steps. They are marked by octagonal raised platforms built for public use and smaller rectangular platforms which are closer to the river built for the use of Brahmins for religious rituals. They are the place of numerous activities of the Banarasi culture ranging from the everyday uses to spiritual elements including immersion, rituals, festivals and cremation. Many of the ghats are named after the exceptional personages associated with their history or their mythological and spiritual significance.

As per archaeological excavations from Raj Ghat, the waterfront site was the centre of commercial activities. Habitation developed in the Varanasi area in the first millennium BCE because of commercial trade with neighbouring areas, while being located where the old trade route through North India crossed the River Ganga. Growth of business and educational institutions under the Gupta dynasty (3rd to 6th centuries) is evident from unparalleled trade and warehouse complex. Ancient mythological references even describe the city as a port town. Since at least the 6th century CE, it started growing as a pilgrimage site and by the 12th century, it was revered as one of the holiest centres for the Hindus while the ghats figured as prominent features. The Puranic literature describes their glory vividly in various contexts. Several inscriptions and texts cite the importance of the ghats in terms of rituals. By the 17th century the riverfront became prominent in the overall arena of Varanasi. The palatial buildings along the ghats were mostly built under the patronage of the Marathas during the 18th-19th centuries. Between the late 18th and 20th century, many ashrams (monasteries), Sanskrit schools, temples and pilgrim rest houses were also built by estates, patronised by rulers of different parts of India - thus portraying the architectural vocabulary of various sections of the country. The use of Sanskrit language and Vedic chanting still today (inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008) exemplifies the rich and diverse practices currently extant.

The five ghats described as the most merit-giving and sacred, called Panchatirthis, are the following and their importance has been first mentioned in the ancient text Matsya Purana, ca 6th century:

- Asi, named for its location at the former confluence of the Asi and Ganga Rivers (both religiously, culturally and spiritually significant in their own right);

- Dashashvamedha, the most important and active ghat with respect to historicity and continuity of traditions, where according to myth, Brahma performed the-ten horses sacrifice and where many important pilgrimage journeys and associated shrines are located;

- Manikarnika, which is popularly eulogized as ‘the cremation ground’ and which contains what is considered to be the holiest spot in the city, and is the meeting point of Shaiva and Vaishnavite traditions;

- Panchaganga, which is one of two sacred tirthas mentioned in ancient mythologies and is believed to be the meeting point of the five rivers: the Ganga, Yamuna, Sarasvati, Kirana and the Dhutpapa (of which only the first is visible), and which has strong ties to notable people such as Ramananda and Tulsi; and lastly

- Adi Keshava, which is believed to be the original site of Lord Vishnu (it is amongst the oldest puranic listings of sacred sites in the city).

Cultural geography: Varanasi has numerous symbolic connotations and owes its existence to the holy River Ganga - the entire river bed is a distinct example of natural heritage. The unique directional change of the river course led to the development of the ancient city, then known as Kashi. The sudden northward turn of the river at this location symbolises the life cycle from death to life. It is believed that by taking holy dip in River Ganga at the ghats, the individual soul can get purified. The old city grew into a semicircular form along the flowing Ganga due to a unique geological formation. The crescent shape is symbolically described as a crescent moon on Lord Shiva's forehead. This exceptional shape is the result of fluvial processes through which the coarser sediments get deposited on its western bank. Kashi Kshetra is a sacred region around Varanasi that represents the entire cosmos, manifested in the Panchkroshi pilgrimage circumambulation.

The architectural heritage of Varanasi’s riverfront and its historic core are linked strongly to the living cultural traditions. Presently more well-known as a microcosm of Hindu pilgrimage, the city has been a centre of learning and revere, spanning other religions including Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Throughout its history, it has been an established centre for exchange of ideas with potential to attract people in large numbers, being situated at the crossroads of ancient cultural routes Uttara (north) Path and a highway from the Himalayas up to the Dakshina (south) Path. The city, epitomized by its riverfront, has been and continues to be a magnet for philosophers, reformers, ascetics, religious and spiritual groups for many centuries. Traditional education, music, dance, craftsmanship and art forms continue to be transmitted through generations. Christianity was another significant factor exerting influence on the city during the English colonial period, when Sanskrit teaching and Hindu theological institutions, seminaries, churches and hospitals were established.

The invasions of Mahmud of Ghazni in 1021-30 CE opened doors to Muslim settlement in Varanasi which developed significantly during the Mughal period in medieval times. They are an integral part of many living cultural traditions including saree weaving, dance and music. Between the 11th and 17th centuries, the city was invaded and destroyed at least four times, but its temples, ghats, and quarters were repeatedly revived. Varanasi thus presents tenacity in its ambition to sustain its spiritual merit through the continuation of the architectural elements which serve as representative form and space for practice. Thus, it can be deduced that Varanasi exemplifies pan-Indian religion, spirituality and culture, and these characteristics are embodied in its iconic ghats.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The city of Varanasi, as manifested in its iconic riverfront, holds sacred and spiritual value through time immemorial. Its Outstanding Universal Value lies in the fact that it is one of the most ancient continuously inhabited cities of the world since atleast 1200 BCE. The unique confluence of history, geography, mythology, intangible heritage, cultural institutions and urban forms is expressed in the riverfront of this eternal city. It is distinctive on account of its position as a scholastic and philosophic centre. The ancient association of the River Ganga (and thus the riverfront) with the religious, traditional and cultural fabric of the city and its immense influence on the development of economic and social life, and related tangible and intangible cultural expressions, is unique in the world. The iconic riverfront exemplifies this sacredness and the relationship of the holy river with the land, representing the meeting of the sacred and the profane.

The stepped Ghats are a unique technological form of an interface of the river with the land, specific to the Indian subcontinent, and the Varanasi Ghats are the most exceptional representation of this value. Though ghats in other places of India are significant in their own right through religious mythology, spiritual embodiment, or cultural activity, none are as architecturally prolific as the home of this unique typology. Mathura’s ghats are known for being on a human scale, incomparable to Varanasi’s prolific grandeur as well as being organically developed as opposed to the design of Varanasi’s ghats. Over the past few decades Vrindavan’s ghats have been considered to be unusable for ritualistic and bathing activities. Bithur similarly has experienced detrimental change to its ghats. Ujjain’s ghats, although spiritually significant, have been described as second to Varanasi when making Hindu pilgrimages, as well as being considered to not have equal aesthetic value. Nowhere else in the subcontinent have continuous ghat steps been constructed over such a long distance as in Varanasi.

Traditional and ancient forms of worship are still practised in Varanasi in a conglomeration of faith, rituals and festivals, and the site of the ghats is the focal point for these. The presence of different religious communities that live in harmony, express the waterfront as a manifestation of unification and a synthesis of diversity. In Hinduism, it is one of the rare places on earth that is naturally endowed with spiritual aura and deemed holiest of the seven holy cities of Hindus and the most important pilgrimage destination. Lord Buddha chose to give his first sermon "Turning the wheel of Law" in 528 BC at Sarnath near Varanasi, thus making it extremely significant for Buddhists. The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak visited Varanasi twice in the 16th century. This is also the birthplace of some of the 24 Jain Tirthankars (supreme leaders and guides of Jainism), including the leading prophet, Passhvanatha in the 8th century BCE.

The living cultural traditions of this city epitomise culture in all its manifestations in an exceptional architectural ambience especially of the riverfront. The amalgamation of different building styles along the waterfront from patrons all over India, so closely connected to their spiritual beliefs, represents a microcosm of both the tangible and intangible worlds of India - providing merit as a cultural capital. Varanasi as an archetype of the whole of India dates as far back as before the 12th century - during the period in which all of the sacred sites of India were replicated here. The continuous survival of the ghats and their associated riverfront architecture is a testament to the strength of the beliefs and their relationship with the city of Varanasi.

Whilst the ghats are unique as a single entity, they also encompass the core values of the city of Varanasi and are a tangible representation of its sacredness and history connected to especially the Hindu religion. The national and international significance of Varanasi’s riverfront is exemplified by the long pilgrimages undertaken by people from all over the world. It is thus a cultural and spiritual centre which embodies a unique form of sanctity found nowhere else. Lastly, the juxtaposition of the sacred and the mundane, life and death, spiritual and material facets associated with the River Ganga on the Varanasi ghats, embodies a wholly significant interaction between the natural and urban elements of the city.

Criterion (iii): The city of Varanasi, specifically in the relationship of the riverfront with the River Ganga, is unique in architectural, artistic and religious expressions of traditional Indian culture. It is a living symbolization of Indian culture and traditions, in all its religious rituals, multi-ethnic artistic traditions, architectural treasures, its particular relationship with life and death and ancient educational forms and methods. The festivals and rituals which occur on the ghats are passed down to generations, creating a living memory associated with the riverfront and thus contributing to a personal heritage for so many visitors and residents. The dynamic relationships between the tangible and intangible heritage of the site promote social and functional diversity, something which must be maintained in living heritage sites in order to create a sustainable balance between the needs of the present and future generations and the legacy of the past. The ghats of Varanasi exemplify a living culture extant for centuries which still flourishes today.

Criterion (iv): The stepped ghats are a unique Indian typology of an architectural interface of the river with the land, and the Varanasi Ghats are the most brilliant representation of this form. The built heritage of the riverfront includes the magnificent edifices towering above the ghats, and the quaint alleys behind flanked with multiple typologies of architectural and open spaces. The steps at the riverfront and the built forms at the platforms are a distinct response to the unique geographic conditions formed by the River Ganga and are befitting the cultural traditions which have continued for centuries. The outstanding universal value rests on the rare and unique living expression of the cultural importance of the River Ganga whose sacredness has led to the settlement and growth of the ancient city and which still continues to be the main reason for the significance of the city in the world. The ghats form this momentous relationship of the sacred river with the land and represent the resilience of the architectural landscape in its recovery from natural disasters and cultural upheavals.

Criterion (vi): The tangible heritage of Varanasi, especially of its riverfront, is linked strongly to the living cultural, spiritual and religious traditions of three of the major religions of the world - Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Traditions practised here include wooden toy making, saree making, silk weaving, metal, wood and terracotta handicrafts, particular painting forms, the use of Sanskrit language and Vedic chanting. The age old traditions which the city is famous for are inseparable from the architecture which expresses and upholds them, most notably the ghats. Furthermore the River Ganga is the source and culmination of the spiritual energy of Varanasi. Together, the natural and built components of the ghats represent a cultural heritage and are a setting for the continuing enactment of ancient traditions which have sustained cultural memories, beliefs and values. They demonstrate a spatio-temporal order created from self-organised systems of worship and pilgrimage. The culmination of a plethora of cultures and religions along the ghats, an amalgamation present for multiple centuries, highlights the iconic nature of this location and its power to unite and celebrate diversity.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Authenticity needs to be seen from the perspective that Varanasi is an ancient living city, continuously evolving and that the ghats are the vital location for performing sacred customs. In the case of Varanasi, authenticity can be found in the continued presence of the riverfront architecture which is true to its original purposes and form. Even where changes have been made to the ghats, owing to continual use, the riverfront remains intact in terms of the footprint. And thus remains as a significant interface of the city with River Ganga. Certain degree of change must be maintained in the city’s future in order to ensure the survival of the unique traditions and cultural practices associated with the spiritual and everyday life at the ghats of Varanasi.

Integrity lies in the continuity of the traditions, rituals and festivities which exist in relation to the architectural landscape of the riverfront and the symbiotic relationship which prevails between the survival of each. Here, the tangible landscape of the ghats, the sacred characteristics inseparable from them, and their continued functionality have been maintained to consistently represent the Varanasi ghats as an unparalleled phenomenon. The social-functional integrity of the site is epitomised by the spiritual responses that have occurred as well as the vast movement of people to the Varanasi ghats, a process which has informed its development over time. The integrity of the ghats is ultimately defined by its survival as a living sacred site of the present rather than of the past.

Comparison with other similar properties

Historic Centre of Santa Cruz de Mompox (Colombia, inscribed 1995):The city was founded in 1540 on the banks of the River Magdalena, the country’s principal waterway. Mompox played a key role in the Spanish colonization of northern South America. From the 16th to the 19th century the city developed parallel to the river, with the main street acting as a dyke, growing freely and longitudinally along the river bank. The historic centre has preserved the harmony and unity of the urban landscape. Most of the buildings are still used for their original purposes, providing an exceptional picture of what a Spanish colonial city was like.

The city of Varanasi dates much earlier in comparison (about 1200 BCE). The city grew into a semicircular form along the flowing River Ganga due to the unique geological formation. The riverfront especially is similarly used for its original purpose and the city continues through history in being one of the most significant centres of spirituality and religious, cultural traditions. The high revere and active interface with the river for a variety of purposes is what makes the ghats of Varanasi so unique.

City of Bath (Avon, England, inscribed 1987): The city of Bath in South West England was founded in the 1st century AD by the Romans who used the natural hot springs as a thermal spa. The Roman remains, especially the Temple of Sulis Minerva and the baths complex (based around the hot springs at the heart of the Roman town of Aquae Sulis, which have remained at the heart of the city’s development ever since) are amongst the most important Roman remains north of the Alps, and marked the beginning of Bath’s history as a spa town. Bath’s quality of architecture and urban design, its visual homogeneity and its beauty is largely testament to the skill and creativity of the architects and visionaries of the 18th and 19th centuries who applied and developed Palladianism in response to the specific opportunities offered by the spa town and its physical environment and natural resources (in particular the hot springs and the local Bath Oolitic limestone).

The riverfront of Varanasi in comparison, is a harmonious conglomeration of various styles of architecture by different rulers in the form of palatial buildings constructed on the ghats (steps leading to the river) and beyond them. The steps at the riverfront and the built forms at the platforms are a distinct response to the unique geographic conditions formed by the River Ganga and serve the purpose of continuing cultural traditions. The still extant intangible practices associated with the riverfront demonstrate Varanasi as an outstanding example of the continued relationships between people, nature, architecture and spirituality. In comparison to the city of Bath, Varanasi presents a rich living cultural heritage which has not become static in its aim for preservation, it instead embraces authentic change and evolution. Furthermore the ghats, associated with religious and spiritual significance provide an active interface with the river for many purposes unlike anywhere else. Varanasi has been a symbol of Hindu Renaissance, knowledge, philosophy, culture, devotion to Gods, Indian arts and crafts, and has flourished in this location for centuries. These core values are still maintained and are integral to the understanding of the future of Varanasi, as a living city embodying the layers of time and traditions. They are the most comprehensive, most alluring and most visited ghats in the country. They are truly iconic. 

Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove (Osogbo, Osun State, Nigeria, inscribed 2005): The sacred grove of Osun-Osogbo is manifested by the many sanctuaries and shrines, sculptures and artworks which have been erected in honour of the Goddess of fertility, Osun, (one of the Yoruba Gods) and other deities, dotted along the River Osun, which takes its name from the god and signifies its sacredness. The grove is located on the outskirts of the city of Osogbo and is seen as a symbol of identity for the Yoruba people and is probably the last in Yoruba culture. Its restoration over the past 40 years has meant that it has become a sacred place for the whole of Yorubaland and is currently a religious site, where daily, weekly and monthly worship takes place.

Varanasi similarly acts as a tangible symbol for Hindu worshippers. It is the epicentre of their religion, embodying a myriad of expressions of religious faith, rituals, festivals, art, language, philosophy, education, value, and belief among a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural and interdisciplinary diverse community. The multifaceted nature of the Varanasi ghats is further expressed in the exceptional architectural formation which is the basis and construct for the continued manifestations of the site. Restoration in the past, and planned for the future will similarly ensure that the site continues to be a sacred place for Hindus from across the globe to visit.