For the best experience, open
on your mobile browser or Download our App.

Watch | Indians, Episode 10: The Faiths of Varanasi

How do scholars today view religious conversions and temple desecrations in the city under Muslim rulers?

Watch all episodes here: 1. A Brief History of a Civilisation and Why We Need to Know it | 2. The Aryans and the Vedic Age | 3. The Mauryans and Megasthenes | 4. The Ikshvakus of Andhra Pradesh. | 5. Nalanda and the Decline of Buddhism | 6. Khajuraho and the World of Tantra | 7. Alberuni and Marco Polo in India | 8. The Vijayanagar Empire | 9. The Mughals and Bernier | 10. The Faiths of Varanasi.

Varanasi, or Banaras, is among the world’s oldest living cities. Its archaeological finds go back to the 9th century BCE. Emerging in history as Kashi, Varanasi became an early centre of learning. The Buddha preached his first sermon here, which effectively launched Buddhism. The city has an impressive history of religious pluralism and still hosts Brahminical Hinduism, various major and minor faiths and sects of old India, shrines to sundry matas and folk gods, and many flavours of Islam: Shia, Sunni, Sufi, Ahmadiyya. Located on the left bank of the Ganga, it’s the city of Shiva, of seekers and pilgrims, Pirs and Aghoris, death and instant moksha. Muslims form 30% of its people and most of its weaving industry; their Hindu ancestors made Varanasi famous for textiles even in ancient times.

Foreigners like Xuanzang, Alberuni and Bernier left accounts of Varanasi. How do scholars today view religious conversions and temple desecrations in the city under Muslim rulers? In these centuries, popular religion—including Bhakti and Sufism—thrived in Varanasi with locals like Tulsidas, Kabir and Ravidas. It was Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas, composed in the 1570s during Akbar’s rule, that turbo-charged Rama’s career as a god in north India. The city then also became a major centre of Indo-Persian culture, co-created by Hindus and Muslims at both elite and commoner levels. I’ll close with a few words on its present.

Below is the transcript.

Hello and welcome to Indians. I’m Namit Arora.

In the previous episode, we looked at India under the Mughals, including through the eyes of the French traveller, François Bernier, who lived in India during Aurangzeb’s rule in the 17th century. For this final episode of Indians, we’ll go to Varanasi, one of the oldest living cities in the world. Varanasi contains so much of the crazy diversity and plurality of India, so much of its beauty and its madness. It’s the city of seekers and pilgrims, of Kabir and Tulsidas, of death and ‘instant moksha’. With all its spiritual innovations, its pandits and fakirs, and its shifting political fortunes, Varanasi has seen a lot! Which makes it a significant site of Indian civilization.

The Antiquity of Varanasi

In the north of Varanasi, on the Rajghat Plateau, is an archaeological site where finds go back to the 9th century BCE. Two or three centuries later, Varanasi first appeared in history as Kashi. The kingdom of Kashi was one of the sixteen political units in north India called janapadas, where early Indo-Aryan culture and Vedic religion had taken root.

By the Buddha’s time, 2500 years ago, Varanasi had already emerged as a centre of learning. Perhaps its stature as a religious and cultural centre is what led the Buddha here. It might have seemed like the place to gain a wider audience for his ideas. He apparently avoided the heart of Varanasi, then a stronghold of Brahminism, and stayed at Sarnath, an hour’s walk away. There he famously gave his first post-enlightenment sermon to five companions. The Buddha spoke on his Four Noble Truths of human suffering and the impermanence of everything, including the self. He didn’t favour any gods, rituals, and social hierarchies. Instead, he spoke of human equality, reason, and compassion. One could say that this sermon at Sarnath effectively launched the tradition we call Buddhism. And over time, a large Buddhist settlement arose at Sarnath. That ancient site, now in a suburb of Varanasi, has evocative ruins of ancient stupas and monasteries.

Many Indians downplay the differences between Brahminism and Buddhism. But their differences are profound. As we saw earlier in this series, one of them did much to drive the other out of the subcontinent by the late first millennium CE. The erasure was so complete that Indians even forgot that Buddhism once thrived in India and that a man called the Buddha had ever lived in their past. Indians rediscovered their Buddhist heritage only in the 19th century, thanks to British archaeology, overseas texts, and other sources.

Varanasi may be old, but it has changed tremendously. Today it’s a noisy, chaotic, and congested city, but in ancient times it was full of gardens and groves; mini lakes and lotus ponds; ashrams and hermitages. Even in the late 18th century, Varanasi’s riverfront ‘was a long spectacular bluff crowned with trees and a few prominent temples’. Only faint traces of that past now remain in isolated pockets. Most of the densely packed cement buildings that now line the iconic riverfront were built in the last two or three centuries.

A City of Religious Pluralism

Varanasi, also called Banaras, has a long history of great religious diversity and coexistence. It has harboured not just Brahminism but countless major and minor faiths and sects of old India, including folk beliefs of particular castes and tribes, and shrines to all kinds of matas and folk gods & goddesses like Adi Keshava, Kinaram, Narasimha, Shitala, Siddheshwari, Annapurna, yoginis, and even Sati. The mallahs, or the boatmen, pray to an impressively moustachioed god called Nishadraj, who has a temple on the ghats. Some devotees offer liquor and meat to the tantric deity Kal Bhairav, who wears a garland of skulls. Varanasi was also home to social rebels and reformers, especially Kabir and Ravidas, who still have a robust following. They have a strong anti-caste and pro-equality message that deeply influenced Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, and their verses became a part of the Guru Granth Sahib. Many other poets and thinkers of the Bhakti Movement were solidly anti-Brahminical.

About 30% of Varanasi’s population is now Muslim, comprising Shia, Sunni, Sufi, and Ahmadiyya sects. A large proportion are weavers, whose ancestors made the city famous for textiles even in ancient times. Mirza Ghalib spent many months here in 1860 and fell in love with the city. He wrote a poem in praise of it called Temple Lamp. Hindus visit sufi shrines like Chandan Shahid ka Mazar and Muslims visit Aghori babas seeking relief from mundane troubles. Such syncretic expressions of Hindu-Muslim culture among the common people has long been a part of Varanasi’s character. Many call it the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb.

Perhaps Shiva himself inspires the pluralistic ethos of Varanasi. Shiva bears strong features of pre-Aryan folk deities. For instance, he’s depicted as being dark-skinned, a forest dweller, a healer, a dancer and player of drums. He wears long matted hair, tiger skin, and a garland of snakes. Very non-Aryan! Shiva was so popular that Vedic Brahminism appropriated him into its pantheon very early. He became perhaps the most popular god of the first millennium CE. He then acquired many new attributes: a Himalayan home, a third eye, the powers of a creative destroyer, and more. Nowadays, he even boasts six-pack abs! But his non-Brahminical roots remain strong. As historian Diana Eck wrote, Shiva betrays no ‘concern for purity, [nor] disdain of the polluted’. He ‘challenges any facile distinctions between sacred and profane, rich and poor, high and low’. Shiva is a half-naked yogi, who hangs out in cremation grounds, covers his body with ash from the funeral pyres, and is said to smoke ganja and hashish. That’s the kind of God everyone should have! No wonder he’s loved by rebels, misfits, and renunciants. Of course, there are also domesticated forms of him that appeal to more conservative Hindus. On the whole, he’s not a bad leading deity for a multicultural city.

A History of Peace Among Faith Communities

Varanasi’s reputation for religious pluralism is well-founded too. Which may seem puzzling. With so many creeds, one might expect periodic violent conflict between communities. But historians have found surprisingly little evidence of organised communal violence based on religion until the 19th century. I can think of three reasons why people-to-people relations were largely peaceful in medieval Varanasi, and often elsewhere in India:

(1) Segregated / Self-absorbed Living: For the most part, Varanasi’s religious and caste groups were highly fragmented, self-absorbed, and inhabited different physical and social spaces. You can still see their segregated quarters in the city. Most communities of faith pursued their own ways, with a ‘live and let live’ attitude. This attitude was likely reinforced by the otherworldly, devotional and the relatively pacifist traditions of Bhakti and Sufism. It fostered a kind of pluralism, which helped keep the peace. This Indian pluralism differs from the kind of pluralism valued in modern Western political thought, but this too is valuable, and it lives on in India.

(2) Economic Dependencies: Different communities specialised in different trades in Varanasi: the Mallahs, Weavers, Dhobis, Doms, Pandas, and others. This created a thick interdependence of communities on each other’s traditional trades and skills. Even today, while most weavers of the beautiful Banarasi silk sarees are Muslim, most yarn suppliers and the retailers of the finished products are Hindu. This has long created natural incentives to cooperate, maintain peace, and oppose those who seek political mileage from communal polarisation.

(3) Extreme Diversity: The very diversity that could have created conflict also made it harder for larger numbers to rally behind narrow religious or political ideologies. Remember that people did not elect their leaders back then. There were no political parties, no candidates promising a ‘better’ world. No demagogues either! Only in modern times did new kinds of public politics harden religious identities in India. And this coincided with the rise of representative rule, electoral competition, and technologies of mass mobilisation.

The City of Death and Moksha

Varanasi also brims with mythological stories, a factor that of course cuts both ways. Myths can edify and inspire, but they can also reinforce conformity, obedience, and an oppressive social order. Take the cringe-inducing morality tale of Satyavadi Raja Harishchandra. In the tale, the Raja destroys himself and his family while trying to honour a Brahmin at any cost, despite the Brahmin’s horrible conduct. It advocates blind devotion to a dharmic and caste order, and it ends with the gods showering rewards on the king. The mythmakers even honoured the dutiful king by naming a ghat after him in Varanasi, with a temple dedicated to him and his wife.

Perhaps no other city is more famous for death than Varanasi. And no place in Varanasi brings this home more than its two main burning ghats: Manikarnika and Harishchandra. In Hindu lore, anyone who dies and is cremated in Varanasi gains instant moksha, or freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth. Normally, moksha is gained in one of two ways. First, by a demanding process of self-realisation in which one dispels all illusions and comes to know one’s unity with Brahman—the ultimate reality beneath the world of shifting appearances. Or the second way, which is through love of God and surrendering oneself to him. However, in Varanasi, it is said, Shiva himself bestows ‘instant moksha’ by whispering the taraka mantra, or ferryboat mantra, in the ear of all who die in the city, granting them the requisite knowledge of Brahman.

But this ‘backdoor’, this moksha-for-all, poses a major problem. It messes up the law of karmic causation that’s central to Hinduism. In other words, our deeds in this life or in previous lives count for nothing. It suggests that the scoundrels who die in Varanasi also gain instant moksha, despite their deeds. And doesn’t instant moksha threaten the livelihood of the priest by making priestly rituals irrelevant? These questions may seem flippant to some, but the theologians of Hinduism have long struggled for satisfactory answers. Their leading answer is to say, yes, Lord Shiva grants moksha to all, but it’s not instant. Before the soul is liberated, they say, some period of post-death suffering occurs in accord with karmic law. So priestly services are still required. Phew, that was close!

The maverick poet and thinker Kabir, who lived in the 15th century, made fun of this whole instant moksha business. Though claimed by sections of both Muslims and Hindus as one of their own, Kabir called himself the ‘foolish baby’ of both Ram and Allah. He is famous for ridiculing silliness and dogma in all organised religions. A free spirit, he employed a gentle and ironic wit to poke fun at both mullahs and pandits, the Quran and the Shastras, Mecca and Kashi. One of his verses begins like this: ‘Saints, I see the world is mad. If I tell the truth they rush to beat me, if I lie they trust me.’ He could as well be talking about our post-truth world today.

Foreign Travellers in Varanasi

Many foreigners left accounts of their travels to Varanasi throughout history. The Chinese monk Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang) visited in 635 CE. He noticed many Buddhists and a larger number of devotees of Shiva. Some of them, he wrote, ‘cut off their hair, others tie their hair in a knot, and go naked, without clothes; they cover their bodies with ashes, and by the practice of all sorts of austerities they seek to escape from [the cycle of] birth and death’.

In the early eleventh century, Alberuni called Varanasi a leading centre of the ‘Hindu sciences’, though he didn’t think much of their quality. The city attracted Hindu ascetics, he wrote, much like how Mecca attracted pious Muslims.

The Frenchman, François Bernier, visited Varanasi in the 1660s, in the first decade of Aurangzeb’s rule, about 140 years into the Mughal Empire. He saw a thriving city and called it ‘the Athens of India’, located in an ‘extremely fine and rich’ territory. He described many aspects of Varanasi’s traditional culture and systems of learning based on the guru-shishya parampara, which was practised in gurukuls set in private homes or gardens across town, serving a minority of Hindus. Each teacher had 4 to 15 students, who received 10 to 12 years of education, much of it based on Brahminical texts.

To Bernier, the students seemed lethargic, lacking in interest and enthusiasm. He found no colleges in the city, but he saw a large hall filled entirely with books, including ancient texts on medicine written in verse. The students were taught Sanskrit, ‘a language known only to the Pendets,’ he wrote, and which had ‘long become a dead language, understood only by the learned’. Sanskrit had of course become an elite language long before the Indo-Muslim period. Linguists tell us that by the second millennium, Indo-European prakrits of the ancient period, such as Shauraseni and Magadhi, had evolved into the new languages spoken around Varanasi, such as Khariboli, Awadhi, and Braj.

Varanasi in the Second Millennium

From about 1090 CE, the Gahadavala dynasty made Varanasi their capital city and a centre of pilgrimage. Some of the earliest temples to Rama in India were built in their domain. They patronised religious literature and culture and gave land and money to temples and to Brahmins. The later Gahadavala kings even destroyed Buddhist sites at Sarnath to build Brahminical temples in place of them—an all-too-common story in medieval India. Fortunately, the Buddhists of today have been wise enough to not try to reclaim historical sites for Buddhism in the name of ‘correcting historical wrongs’.

In 1194, a weak Gahadavala king was defeated by Muhammad Ghori, ruler of the Ghurid kingdom of Afghanistan, whose ancestors had been Buddhist. His mercenary troops, who got paid with the spoils of war, sacked Varanasi and looted or damaged some of its wealthy Brahminical temples.

Varanasi came under the sway of the Delhi Sultanate until 1526 and then under the Mughals. During these centuries, writes Diana Eck, the Indo-Muslims ‘were far from monolithic in their policies toward the sacred sites of the Hindus’. ‘There were certainly high moments in these centuries, when [Varanasi] recaptured something of its lost glory. There were times of ambitious temple construction and stimulating scholarly activity. But for the most part these were hard centuries.’ Nevertheless, she writes, Varanasi ‘continued to be an important center of intellectual life and religious thought’.

In the previous episode, I discussed religious conversions and temple desecrations under the Mughals. How did that play out in Varanasi? Well, we know that a sizable minority in the city voluntarily converted to Islam. Most converts were lower-caste Hindus, like the julahas (or weavers), who included Kabir’s parents. People converted for various reasons, which included the promise of spiritual equality in Islam—a promise that had once drawn people to Buddhism. And as always, there were also many practical benefits of adopting the rulers’ faith and culture, such as greater social mobility, access to ‘better’ education, improved job prospects, a more exciting life, and so on.

It was such practical considerations (and incentives) that had once led Indians in Aryavarta to embrace the newly dominant Indo-Aryan culture. And a similar dynamic occurred with British culture in modern times. That’s just how any dominant culture spreads. The Indo-Aryans were in fact far more successful than the Indo-Muslims in imposing their culture, language, religion—and even their genes—upon the indigenous population. Think about the fact that, in north India, everyone speaks Indo-Aryan languages today. What happened to all the pre-Aryan languages of the north? Well, they were wiped out by an aggressive Indo-Aryan culture that originated in Central Asia. Or consider the fact that, on average, over 15 percent of the Indian male lineage comes from Indo-Aryan men, versus as estimated one percent or less from Turk, Persian, or Arab men. On the whole, the Indo-Muslim impact on India was far less disruptive than that of the Indo-Aryans. But today, those who identify with Indo-Aryan culture tend to ignore the cultural turmoil and harm caused by the Indo-Aryans who happened to migrate earlier into the subcontinent.

As for temple desecrations during the Mughal era, two campaigns took place in Varanasi: one under Shah Jahan (1632), the other under Aurangzeb (1669). Twice in 200 years is bad enough, but it’s nowhere near the devastation alleged by Hindu nationalists. It also appears that the motivations behind these desecrations were largely political, not religious. That’s also the conclusion of a 2017 study conducted by scholars at Cambridge University, in which they examined a large database of medieval temple desecrations and their contexts. In their own words, ‘political tactics were the main stimulus of temple desecrations by medieval Muslim states’.

Which is to say that the Mughal rulers were not targeting ‘Hinduism’, if by ‘Hinduism’ we mean the religion of the non-Muslims of India. That religion was simply too amorphous and diverse—not cohesive enough to be targeted as a whole. In reality, outside a few urban upper-caste groups, the vast majority neither called themselves Hindu, nor had a unifying religious identity. Even the popular Bhakti movement was about a direct relationship of devotion, love, and surrender to various gods, largely bypassing Brahminical priests and their temples.

In Varanasi too, temple desecrations seem to have targeted the standing of specific rivals, who patronised those temples and claimed their right to rule from their deities, as I discussed in the previous episode. For example, Aurangzeb had issued a farman in 1659 to protect all Hindu temples and their staff, and he often gave land and money to temples. But ten years later when political circumstances changed, he ordered the destruction of Varanasi’s Bindu Madhav and Vishwanath temples, replacing them with Alamgir and Gyanvapi mosques. This was the same Vishwanath temple that had been built by two of Akbar’s top ministers, Man Singh and Todar Mal. Aurangzeb tore it down to punish other Hindu royals now associated with the temple, who had switched allegiance to Aurangzeb’s rival, Shivaji.

A century later, the Vishwanath temple was rebuilt by Ahilyabai Holkar, of the royal house of Indore. Most royals did such things to signal their piety and bolster their legitimacy to rule. Similar political objectives are evident even today when heads of state undertake such reconstructive works in electoral democracies.

Would desecrating such royal temples have troubled the common people in medieval times? It’s not clear. Remember that the Vishwanath Temple didn’t even allow ‘untouchables’ to enter until the 1950s. I mean, we still see events like this today, and headlines of this sort are not rare. Even the Shudras were likely not welcome inside these medieval times. So it’s more accurate to say that they were Brahmanical temples of the twice-born, rather than temples meant for all Hindus. In other words, the Mughals targeted Brahminical temples patronised by royal houses, not temples to Hindu folk deities like Shitala, Annapurna, yoginis, Baba Kinaram, Siddheswari, and countless other temples where most Hindus actually worshipped. It’s important to recognize this difference. And considering such realities, the number of people potentially upset by temple desecrations seems greatly reduced.

Consider some other factors too. Think about how and where most people lived in Mughal times. Over 85 percent were rural. Most of them lived close to subsistence levels, in villages segregated by caste. Life expectancy was below 30. There was no electricity or radio; news and people travelled slowly. Is it likely that lots of them would have felt upset or violated by the desecration of a distant royal temple by another set of royals, both of whom were fighting for the right to exploit them in a feudal system? I don’t think so. I think it’s foolish to project today’s politically motivated upper-caste grievances on premodern realities.

Popular Religion Under the Mughals

Having said that, it’s also fair to say that patronage for Brahminism—which is the elite layer of Hinduism—declined under the Mughals, as did the fortunes of many of its urban upper-caste members in Varanasi. But what’s also clear is that much of Hinduism, in all its folk diversity, actually thrived in Varanasi under the Mughals. The Bhakti Movement was huge in Varanasi. It was led by many thinkers from the lower rungs of the caste ladder, but also by Brahmins like Tulsidas and Ramananda.

In fact, it was Tulsidas and his Ramcharitmanas, composed during Akbar’s rule in the late 16th century, that really turbo-charged Rama’s career as a god in north India. Ramcharitmanas was a devotional poem of the Saguna school of the Bhakti movement, and it became wildly popular in north India. It helped that it was composed in Awadhi, the language of the masses, and not in Sanskrit, which hardly anyone spoke. It also launched many related cultural traditions of north India, including Ram Katha and Ram Lila. All of this happened under the Mughals.

Major religious sites like Varanasi and Gaya in fact benefitted from the political unification created by the Mughal Empire. It created new travel opportunities for pilgrims, scholars and traders. It gave the pilgrim a high ‘degree of security on his journey; and the state had a positive interest in promoting this freedom of travel [because] it derived substantial revenues from trade and pilgrim taxes’. The Mughals built thousands of caravanserais, or travel lodges, across India. In Varanasi, wandering ‘gurus, pirs and sants’ of all backgrounds happily preached ‘a religious mélange that defied identification with a particular religion’. Imagine Kabir, Ravidas, and Nanak running into each other in town, which they did! In short, the Indo-Muslim period was very fruitful for popular religiosity in Varanasi.

In parallel, India’s syncretic Indo-Persian culture also thrived in Varanasi. Many upper-caste Hindus were enthusiastic co-creators of this high culture, and it made them more worldly and cosmopolitan. Its legacies now pervade modern Indian art, architecture, clothing, music, dance, cuisine, and more. Music, including religious music, was deeply enriched in north India by the fusion of Indian classical and Persian music; sitar and sarod, for instance, have Persianate origins. Varanasi became central to the evolution of Hindustani vocal styles like Thumri, Dadra and Tappa, and later produced maestros like the sitar player Ravi Shankar; the shehnai player Bismillah Khan, who regularly played during the aarti in Balaji temple; and the Hindustani vocalist Girija Devi, whose family kept mannats on Muharram.

A New Force: Colonial Modernity

In the 19th century, India collided with modernity, which fostered a new political consciousness among the elites. It politicised culture and religion to produce new identities, group interests, imagined communities, and associated mythmaking about the past. Varanasi got roped in this too. For instance, modern standard Hindi was largely created in Varanasi (and western UP) in the 19th century. The dominant regional language then was Hindustani, quite close to Khariboli. Modern Hindi was created by literary men like Bharatendu Harishchandra who took Hindustani and added more Sanskritic words into it while reducing Persianate ones. Urdu is the same core language that retained its Persianate loan words and uses a different script.

Modern Hindi came out of an anti-syncretic move, of which more examples would follow, in Varanasi and across India. The same cultural instincts that powered this Hindi movement also drove Hindu revivalism in the 19th century. This movement was met with a parallel, and equally deplorable, Indo-Muslim chauvinism. As modernity spread, European concepts of cultural nationalism also took hold in India, starting its long, pathological life in the subcontinent. But I’ll have to save that, and other stories from the colonial period, for another day.

Varanasi Today

No journey to Varanasi is said to be complete without an early morning boat ride on the Ganga. Many outsiders have waxed poetic about this ride. To feel its magic, it helps to not think about the shrunken summertime Ganga and its toxic water. But faith in its purity and cleansing power runs deep [sadhu clip]. This faith comes from a metaphysical belief in the Ganga’s ritual purity, which transcends mundane physical impurities like human and industrial waste.

Varanasi’s character has changed in recent years, especially the last decade. The rise of Hindu nationalism has coarsened life and worsened communal polarisation. It threatens to derail the city’s heritage of pluralism. In early 2019, I met a prominent Banarasi thinker who had pensively wondered: Will his fellow citizens defeat the communal forces, or will they lose their pluralistic soul and usher in a spiritually arid city not worth inhabiting? His question has lost none of its relevance.


It’s true that history can be approached in many ways. None of them are ‘perfect’, but some are clearly better than others. At one end of the spectrum are trained scholars from diverse backgrounds, who lean on the latest evidence, make reasoned interpretations, and debate one another in peer-reviewed forums to evolve our knowledge of the past.

At the other end of the spectrum are chauvinists who interpret the past to favour one ethnic group over others. They often willfully ignore or fabricate evidence, deride academics, and allege conspiracy theories. Their ‘histories’ thrive by inflating the fears, resentments, and tribal affinities in their audience—and worsen civil and communal strife. It is our collective responsibility to resist attempts to rewrite history led by ethnic chauvinism. Why? Because we are the stories we tell ourselves. By misreading our past, we risk messing up our present and the future.

And that brings me to the close of this series. I know I’ve tackled many charged and sensitive topics in this series, which means almost everyone will find something to dislike in it! I hope you found some insights and perspectives in it that made you think. I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a note, tell me what you liked and what you didn’t. And thank you for watching!

Make a contribution to Independent Journalism
facebook twitter