Twain on Varanasi: ‘Older Than History’

VARANASI, India — Before setting foot in Varanasi, one of the oldest, continually inhabited cities in the world, I had read a quote from American author Mark Twain from his visit to the city on the Ganga:

Banares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.

Benares — one of the names given to Varanasi, which had also been known as Kashi — is believed to have been settled approximately 1,200 BCE. For an author coming from a nation that was then barely a century old, Varanasi must’ve seemed especially old.

Given the rough-hewn stone construction of many buildings, the narrow and winding walkways, the ups and downs of its various steps leading to the ghats, and the medieval design of its occasional fortresslike buildings, I saw a bit of what Twain experienced. No museum I’d ever visited provided such an all-encompassing sense of history as wandering the dusty warrens of the old city.

While reportedly not a fan of bathing in the Ganga, Twain was nonetheless impressed by Varanasi:

I think Banares is one of the most wonderful places I have ever seen. It has struck me that a Westerner feels in Banares very much as an Oriental must feel while he is planted down in the middle of London.

I’d have to agree.

A woman sweeps the pavement above the ghats in Varanasi. At top, what looks like a stone fortress looms over the ghats. (Photos by Bruno J. Navarro)
Stone steps vary in height, direction and depth. Sometimes they’re nonexistent.
Advertising is painted right on to the walls like frescoes.


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