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How the Marathas Shaped Varanasi

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From being the spiritual fountainhead of the Indian civilization to being one of the ancient living cities anywhere today, Varanasi- the timeless city has seen it all. In the 18th century, India witnessed a political revival of the Indian society with regional dynasties – largely the Marathas making it big in the subcontinent. With the rise of the Marathas, Varanasi witnessed a massive surge in the new construction of Temples and Ghats on the banks of Ganga and the redevelopment of the old ones. 

The unprecedented construction of the Ghats in Varanasi by the Maratha Rulers is very little known. It is a glorious sequel to the Islamic onslaught on the city when Aurangzeb destroyed The age-old Kashi Vishwanath Mandir – the epicentre of all spiritual activity in the city. The epoch created by Ahilyabai Holkar when she rebuilt this temple in the 1880s is well known. This article, however, explores the relationship of the Maratha Empire with Kashi through their patronage of Ghats in the city.

Built in the latter half of the 18th century by none other than Ahilyabai Holkar, the Maratha Queen from Indore, Manikarnika Ghat remains one of the oldest ghats which continued to be revived and rebuilt from the Puranic age. Stone shrines, richly crafted pillars with Maratha motifs, terraces projecting into the water edge, as well as smaller shrines that partly sunk into the stream are a language from Ahilyabai’s architectural legacy in her capital – Maheshwar.  Along the Manikarnika ghat are two Bhoomija style temples at the extremities which flank the Scindia and Dashashvamedh Ghats. A seated figure of Ahilyabai in white marble in the south end of the ghat adds grandiose to the forgotten memory of Maratha Heritage in the holy city. 

Talking about the annual festivities which take place here, E.B. Havell writes in his memoir,  “There is no perhaps extraordinary sighting in the whole world than Manikarnika ghat presents any morning in the month of Kartik…” Manikarnika Ghat is spectacular not only because it offers great vistas of the spiritual fulfilment on the banks of Ganga, but it is also here that the architectural insight of this stepped riverfront plays a role. 

Bajirao Ghat, Photograph by Dr. Kurt Boeck, Photochrom

When The last of the Peshwas — Bajirao – II visited Varanasi, he built the Bajirao ghat as an extension to the ancient Tulsi ghat, where said to have been the residence of Swami Tulsidas. Many of the buildings built on the Bajirao ghat served as dharmshalas for the wandering hermits. On Bajirao Ghat once stood a visually imposing building that housed wandering hermits and spiritual travellers. A series of steps led to the multistorey mansion with a door opening into a big scale. On this ghat very close to the Ganga also stands today a temple of ‘Dattatrayeshwara’ dedicated to the deity Dattatreya who was very much revered by the Peshwas in Maharashtra.

The ‘Dashashvamedh Ghat‘ derives its title from a telling which is often heard by many in Kashi. Here it was where history tells us that Bramha performed the Ashwamedh Yajna with ten horses. When Peshwa Nanasaheb found his way to Kashi around 1734, he was blessed by a saint called Swami Advaitanand and thus decided to build a ghat for him. Sadashiv Naik, a prominent banker of the Peshwa who stayed at Varanasi writes of completing the construction work in 1735 itself. This Ghat is central to the city and is one of the most famous of the five ones (Panch-teerth).

A letter to Peshwa Nanasaheb who built this ghat talks about Radha bai – his grandmother spending an entire month of Kartik in Kashi.  The month followed by the celebration of Diwali – Kartik seemed a perfect time for people from the Deccan to go on a pilgrimage to spiritual centres like Kashi, Mathura and Gaya owing to the suitable climate. In the Peshwai era, the women specifically had a great attraction for the Dev Deepawali festival taking place on the full moon of this month. In his account of an erstwhile prominent banker in the city, Narayan Dixit writes, “On the Kartik Pournima day, when the lights are placed, it becomes Shri Kailas. All those who come from Maharashtra say these ghats are Baji raoji’s.”

on the eve of Full Moon Eclipse, 1825, British Library

In many ways, The Munshi Ghat is the most remarkable in the pantheon of Ghats at Varanasi. The imposing appearance comes from an array of pilasters on the facade of Munshi Mahal or The BrijRama Palace as it is known today. It was built by Shridhar Narayan Munshi, the finance minister in the court of Bhonsales of Nagpur between 1812 to 1824.

The Bhonsale Ghat, 1905  Credits: British Library 

 The Bhonsale Mahal, a palace built by the patrons of the Bhonsale ghat – The Bhonsales of Nagpur stills stands unique in the spiritual ethos of Varanasi. The double-arched door welcomes the rough and tumbles on the stepped ghat to a poised royal corridor to the palace. When in 1838, Raghuji Bhonsale – III was on a pilgrimage to Kashi,  he built a pavilion for ascetics to reside on the top of the building. Bhonsale Ghat along with the Munshi Ghat gave rise to a fluidic style of Maratha architecture where Maratha sensibilities meet Northern aesthetics.

Brijhrama Palace courtyard
The courtyard of Brijrama Palace built by Shridhar Narayan Munshi. Picture credits: Amit Mehra

Besides these, The Scindia dynasty from Gwalior also remained an ardent contributor to the redevelopment of Kashi. The Gai Ghat and Scindia Ghat built by Baizabai Scindia in the early nineteenth century and the Sankata Devi Temple built by Gehna Bai are fine examples of spiritual patronages to mention. 

The heritage of Varanasi doesn’t speak much about its Maratha Patrons. Instead, it negotiates time with the life around, being one with it. The Marathas never directly ruled Varanasi but always had an ambition to rescue the city alongside Mathura and Ayodhya from the foreign rule. However, with the construction activity of new Ghats, temples and hermitages they commissioned, the city of Varanasi breathed a new life and a character which remains alive even today. 

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