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The Many Names of the Holy City

Text excerpts from Banaras – City of Light by Diana L. Eck 

While many of us know our home as Banaras, as many as 6 titles have been bestowed on the ancient city owing to its historic and glorious past.

We go back in time to mythological tales and religious texts to discover the city’s many names.


One of the ancient names of the city is Kashi, from nearly 3000 years ago. Several talessurround its origin where one leads to the name of an ancient king – Kasha whose dynasty produced the acclaimed King Divodasa of Kashi while the other is inspired by the tall silver-flowering wild grass which grows alongthe riverbank.Many associate the name to the Sanskrit word, Kash,translating to “to shine, to look brilliant or beautiful”. Carrying forwardthe basis of this foundation, the city is also called the “City of Light, which illuminates liberation” –moksha-prakāshikā Kāshī.


This is another ancient name with its origin dating back to the Buddhist Jataka tales and the Mahabharata. Varanasi was the name given to the sacred city as part of the independent India. The name itself holds a momentous place in vedic and dharmic texts where Padma Purana describes the city between the Varuna River and Asi River flowing into the Ganges on the north and south.

However, many state otherwise, crediting the name to the single river that bordered the city on the north, known as Varanasi River as per early literature. The Jabala Upanishad breaks the name as Varana – the obstructer of all sins of the senses and Nasi – the destroyer of all sins of the senses.


Diana states, “In one Puranic mahatmya, Shiva says, “Because I never forsake it, nor do I let it go, this great place is therefore known as Avimukta”. Avimukta translates to “not let loose”, referring to the city ‘Never Forsaken’ by Lord Shiva. It is believed that the ancient city, the place where the linga was first established and worshiped remained in Lord Shiva's protection even during the pralaya, the periodic universal destruction.


As per the Hindu religious text mahatmya, Shiva explains, “My lingas are everywhere there, like little sprouts arisen out of sheer bliss.” The author adds, “The puranic mahatmyas describe the Forest of Bliss as a garden paradise, sprinkled with the waters of the heavenly Ganges, abundant with flowers and blossoms, filled with the songs of birds, the buzzing of bees, and the tinkling of the anklets of lovely women. The name refers to this place in idyllic times of its mythical beginnings. It was not the urban Varanasi that sat on the Rajghat Plateau, but the forest paradise thatspread out to the south.”

In Brahman, the term Ananda – translating to bliss, is used to explain the essence of Kashi as the ‘Forest of the Bliss of Brahman’.


The name, Rudra is inspired by the ancient name of the Supreme God himself. The author goes back to a popular saying in Banaras, “the very stones of Kashi are Shiva”, before reciting the mahatmyas where not only the stones are saturated with Shiva but so is everything else from the trees, animals and the people of the city. Rudravasa is thus, for everyone who lives and breathes the city.  


In many cultures, cremation grounds are considered to be the most inauspicious places but not in Kashi. The cremation grounds, particularly at Manikarnika Ghat are considered to be one of the most auspicious places. To break the irony of the varied names, the author explains, “Shiva is the Holy One who challenges ordinary distinctions of pure and impure, auspicious and inauspicious. He is the deity who may be beautiful or terrifying, who may anoint his body with the fragrant oil of sandalwood or with the gray ashes of the dead. It is fitting that his city be called the Great Cremation Ground as well as the Forest of Bliss.”

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