Banaras City of Light by Diana L Eck is the most authoritative contemporary book on Varanasi. You look for books on Kashi and this book comes on top. I spoke to many people in Varanasi about books on the city and everyone pointed me to this book. My first rendezvous with this book was in December 2012 when my friend Hema and me spent a week in Varanasi. She was reading this book, and we used it as a reference to locate some of the ancient temples in the lesser known areas of the city. In fact, we ended up finding a mistake also in the book.
Since then I have been wanting to read this book. In between, I read India – A Sacred Geography by Diana L Eck and loved it. She presented the geography of India as I had never seen it. So, I knew her research would be impeccable. I have made a couple of more trips since then to Kashi including one for Panch Kroshi Yatra. These trips gave me a sense of the city. I have spent a year in Kashi as a kid but there are only faint memories that I have of those times.
In Banaras – the city of light, Prof Eck looks at the ancient city from various angles. She takes you through the geography which she equates to a Mandala. You see the city in its geometry. She then takes you through the various aspects of the city, its mention in various Indian scriptures especially Kashi Khand of Skand Puran and Kashi Mahatmaya. She compares notes from the Puranas with the observations of various travelers. And She brings alive many temples that no longer exist but has been described in various traveler accounts.
I learned so much about our own myths as they are mentioned in the Puranas or the Mahatmayas. I knew a bit about the popular places of Varanasi but I came to know a lot more. The Panch Kroshi Yatra that I did makes far more sense now. I realized that inadvertently I have done a few parikramas in Kashi. It was a joy to know. You know how the city that we know as Shiva’s city is also home to Vishnu and Shakti and million other deities.
Did you know Banaras comes from Baranasi – the Prakrit version Varanasi?
I assume the book was somewhere written for the western audience in mind. However, it is just in the beginning that Prof Eck compares Kashi to other ancient cities of the world. Later on, her discourse is completely soaked in Indian ethos for Kashi. She beautifully brings out the yearning for Kashi that Shiva has and now all his devotees have. She talks about the story of Ganga as it is an inherent part of Banaras – City of Light.
What is interesting is that from the point of view of history, she takes you to the original site of Kashi that lies north of the current city of Varanasi. She tells you how Kashi lives in rest of India and how all of India lives in Kashi. Every other pilgrim site of India has its own space in Kashi. Banaras becomes the microcosm of India. It also traces the Buddhism and Jainism along with other unconventional paths of Hinduism like Aghora.
In the Banaras City of Light, you get introduced to the million Tirthas that exist in Kashi. You wonder where the so-called Anand Van is? You wonder where all those lakes are and you wonder if the Manikarnika Kund was as small with so many legends attached to it. And You want to go and see all the 56 Ganesha temples who guard the city or the Bhairav who takes care of your immigration in Kashi and then also gives you ‘Bhairav Yatna’. You want to see the original temples at Jnan Vyapi and Panchganga Ghat. Well, you have to be there to see how death is just another event in the life of Banaras, unlike other cities where it invokes sadness and detachment.
As she mentions Lewis Mumford in ‘The City in History’ – Varanasi is an energy converted into a culture. Is that not what we have always said – when we say it is the city of light.
Towards the end of the book, Prof Eck takes us through a year in Banaras through its various festivals and fasts. As Indians, we know most of these. But when you read it in one go, you realize that we live from festival to festival. It is a year-long celebration where at the end of the year we just come back to the beginning – for the next cycle. There are some festivals that are more prominent in Kashi than other places like Dev Deepawali, Ramnagar Ram Lila, and Budhwa Mangal.
Buy this book Banaras City of Light by Diana L Eck at Amazon.
Banaras City of Light is a celebration of the oldest living city in the world through its mythology, legends, geography and living culture.
A highly recommended book to read on Varanasi.