Rajghat – The Origins Of Kashi

Right up at the very northern end of present day Varanasi (Baranas) is Malviya Bridge, spanning the Ganga where for over three thousand years boats have ferried people and goods across this great river. This vital river crossing formed part of the ancient Northern Road, connecting the far north-west of India to Bengal in the east, and is likely to have followed the same route as the modern-day Grand Trunk Road. This would have been the route used by Buddha in the 6th century B.C. as he made his way from Gaya where he attained enlightenment to Sarnath, the site of his first sermon.

The Malviya Bridge is very much the partition between the urban sprawl of modern day Varanasi, and a far more rural landscape at the confluence of the Varana and Ganga rivers. This lofty plateau, well protected on three sides by rivers and with a place to ford the Ganga, became the obvious place to establish a city. A short distance north of Malviya Bridge you can see some of the remains of this city, the oldest part of Varanasi found to date, and almost certainly the origins of Kashi.

The archaeological remains that can be seen today was found by pure chance in 1940. A railway contractor was digging as part of the extension and remodeling of Kashi Railway Station, and reported what appeared to be ancient remains he had come across. The ASI quickly got involved, with some trial trenches dug in late 1940 to determine the nature of the remains, under the leadership of Krishna Deva. Further excavations were undertaken between 1957 and 1969 by Prof. A.K.Narain and his team from the Banaras Hindu University.

The archaeological record revealed some amazing stratigraphy and evidence of material culture, from which six distinct periods of occupation were identified, with the initial period having three sub-periods. Finds from these individual layers helped archaeologists tie down the specific dates associated with them. Below is the chronology of the excavated site, and the key finds that helped identify the specific dates.

PeriodDateMaterial Culture
VI1200 – 1700 A.D.Muslim glazed ware
V700 – 1200 A.D.Medieval stonework
IV300 – 700 A.D.Inscribed Gupta terracotta sealings
III0 – 300 A.D.Animal beads
Terracotta seals
II200 – 0 B.C.Burnt brick structures
Red ware
IC400 – 200 B.C.Mud walls
Cast copper coins
IB600 – 400 B.C.Iron objects
Northern black polished ware
IA800 – 600 B.C.Dull red ware with ochre wash
0None – natural geology

The remains that can be seen today date from the turn of the 2nd century B.C or later, when burnt bricks became common for building structures, although for more humble lower status dwellings mud and wood was used. The excavated plan of the city revealed open spaces between houses as well as lanes. There appeared to be no planned design to the lanes or buildings. This is a city that grew organically, and probably suffered with the issues of encroachment in much the same way as all urban areas of India today.

Cess pits were constructed by digging vertical pits that were lined with terracotta bricks, with wells located close to the main buildings. There was also evidence of ditches and drains near to the blocks of houses, so it would appear there was a functioning sewerage system.

The material culture unearthed from the Gupta periods really starts to add a lot of colour to the archaeological record, as the variety and density of finds increases. Specific trades from the merchant community can start to be associated with buildings, warehouse complexes indicating a high volume of trade, whilst mud houses with far less finds co-exist from the poorer and artisan classes.

Viewing the archaeological site today can be a little challenging. Whilst the area is well tended and the layout of the structures obvious, there is no signage to indicate what the buildings are thought to be. All that recovered archaeological evidence has not been articulated down on the ground, leaving the visitor somewhat in the dark as to what exactly is going on. I may be slightly bias here as being an archaeologist I’m always keen to understand the interpretations, but with a little effort this site could offer so much more.

Whilst the excavations here have taken the site of Kashi back to 800 B.C., a far larger extent of the city remains completely unexcavated. Nearby archaeological excavations at Aktha and Ramnagar have hinted at settlements dating as far back as 1800 B.C., so this site at Rajghat may still have many secrets to yield.

In terms of antiquity, no one knows exactly how old Kashi is. I don’t think anyone could argue with Mark Twain when he described Banaras as :

“…older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”

All this archaeological evidence is of course also backed up by the documentary evidence. The Jataka Tales contain a wealth of historical traditions, legends, and cultural information that shed a significant amount of light on the times of the great kingdoms in India. These tales makes it abundantly clear that the city of “Baranasi” was the capital of the Kashi kingdom. It describes the city walls that were twelve leagues around, the chief city in all of India, and one that all kings coveted.

As so often occurs at sites I visit in India, I seem to be in the footsteps of Hiuen T’sang. The famous Chinese Buddhist monk-scholar Hiuen T’sang (also known as Husan Tsang and Xuanzang) traveled extensively throughout northern India between 634 and 645 A.D, and documented his visit to Kashi. He describes the city full of congested houses, with gardens and water pools, separated by tight narrow lanes. He also notes the large number of Shiva temples and shrines, with beautifully carved wooden and stone pillars.

Inscriptions found here from the Mauryan and Gahadavala periods clearly inform us that Rajghat was considered one of the most sacred spots in Varanasi. It remained the busiest ghat until the 12th century, when its importance slowly declined as people shifted to the southern parts and other ghats on the Ganga became more prominent.

Rajghat continued to serve as a ferry point until the construction of the Malviya Bridge was completed in 1887. Long before then the exact location of the original Kashi had been forgotten, sealed and lost, until a railway workman’s mattock struck brick 80 years ago.

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Categories: India, Rajghat, Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi

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5 replies »

  1. A typo has appeared in line no. 6. It needs to be B. C., to read ” This would have been the route used by Buddha in the 6th century B. C. as he made his way from Gaya where he attained enlightenment to Sarnath, the site of his first sermon.”
    Your posts are always very good – informative, readable, and a visual treat. Waiting for more…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So much insight! I’m typing this just after I arrived from visiting the tomb and the excavation site. I’m shocked and glad at the same time that very few people visit the place. It’s also surprising to see no one protecting these places properly as anyone could break a brick and take it along with them.

    However great information here! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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