Tolerant cultural tradition of Banaras

JK Bank
A ghat in Banaras.
A ghat in Banaras.

Tolerance is that capacity of human mind and soul which stands for or practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others. Being tolerant means articulating a fair, objective and permissive attitude towards those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc. differ from one’s own and free from bigotry. The tolerant culture has a deep respect, reverence, understanding and accommodating approach towards diversity, difference and heterogeneity of faiths and beliefs. It requires on our part the readiness as well as willingness to allow the freedom of choice, behavior irrespective of caste, creed, class, religion, race, ethnicity etc. its opposite is the tradition of conflicts, division, segregation and exclusion. In our society we come across that sort of people who always display a sense of empathy and hatred towards those whose ways of living and their opinion do not conform to their expectation. This sense of hatred sometimes takes the form of conflict giving way to the birth of social riots between two groups with conflicting idea, opinion and faith. In order to establish the supremacy of their world views people from one group sometimes vehemently try to impose their opinion on those from different group. The conflicts and social riots occurring in our contemporary society only prove this point. Some minority of the majority class often take upon themselves, without having the consent the majority, the charge of propagating the superiority of their culture against that of those called minority.

Cultural diversity is vital and essential for the long-term survival of humanity as biodiversity is thought to be essential for stable and long-term sustenance and survival of life on earth. The biodiversity of the earth, for its sustenance, has to be able to maintain its structure in which each species contribute something in return for what it receives. The conservation of indigenous cultures may be as important to humankind as the conservation of species or ecosystem is to life in general. The culture which is stiff, rigid and lacks resilience or flexibility is bound to perish.


Banaras is variously referred as “the city of temple”, “the holy city and the religious capital of India”, the city of lights, the city of learning and “the cultural capital of India”. There would be no exaggeration if we name Banaras as “the secular capital of India”.  Banaras is a multicultural and multi-religious city. It is multicultural in both descriptive as well as normative terms. In its descriptive sense, Benaras is a demographic make-up of a specific place. As a normative term, it refers to ideologies or policies that promote this diversity. The infinite and unlimited elasticity could be noticed in the social fabric of Banaras. ‘Cultural Vigor’ which means cultural resilience, fluidity, adaptability that results from mixing, mingling and exchange between various cultures and sub-cultures around the world, is to be clearly felt and experienced.

Banaras is charmingly cosmopolitan and secular and its spirit captured and reflected best in Banarasi saree, a joint enterprise between Hindu and Muslim. ‘Ganga-Jamni sanskriti’ is a glowing local term for Hindu-Muslim co-existence. The intersection between two worldviews renders any place susceptible to communal hostilities, but Banaras’s in-built attribute for tolerance does not allow it to occur.

The culture of Banaras is all-encompassing and all-inclusive and because of these qualities it has survived since time immemorial. We can say that tolerance is in the very gene of its people. As Mark Twain famously said about Banaras- “Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older than even legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”.

Many famous cities around the world are known for their incredible architecture, Banaras, a city of lanes or streets, temples and many Muslim mosques, noted for its cultural tolerance or its immense promptness to accommodate diverse cultural ethos.

Banaras played an important and instrumental role in the growth and expansion of Buddhism. It is here that the Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon. The celebrated Mantra “Buddham Sharanam Gachhami” owes its origin to Sarnath. On the day before his death Buddha included Sarnath along with Lumbini, Bodh Gaya and Kushinagar as the four places he thought to be sacred to his followers.

Banaras and its adjoining areas are associated with the birth place of four Jain Thirthankars viz, Suparshav, Chandraprabhu, Shreas and Parshva. Hence, it is one of the most important religious centers of Jainism. Lord Sri Parshwanath- 23rd Thirthankar was born here. He lived in Banaras around 880B.C. There are two Jain Temples (Digamber and Shvetamber) dedicated to Parshwanath adjacent to each other.

The man who best embodies the spirit of cultural tolerance of Banaras is Bismillah Khan. Khan had traditionally been employed by the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir. His own bond with the city was of entirely different kind. He went here and there to perform, but always returned to root to get the soil, the air, the water that nourished him and his craft. As he liked to say, he was worshipper of both Allah and Saraswati.

Banaras presents a unique and classical model for the dictum ‘unity in diversity’. It gives quintessential model for Hindu-Muslim integration and harmonious co-existence. The repeated attempts have been made by many antisocial elements to disturb and destroy the harmony and rapport of Hindu-Muslim relationship, but these conspiracies have been tactfully thwarted by the deep sense of mutual cohesiveness of both the groups. In the two recent bomb explosions- first at SankatmochanTemple on March 7, 2006 and the second that occurred on December 7, 2010 close to ShitlaTemple at the main ghats of Banaras, the outstanding mutual harmony and understanding was demonstrated. By the next morning residents of the city- Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians demonstrated peaceful outrage against the acts of terror.

It is this uniqueness or distinctiveness that has attracted people of various sects and religions like Vaishavites, Shaivites, Tantrics, Buddhists, Jains and Muslims Sufis. It appears that as various tributaries after merging into the ocean lose their individual differences and distinctions and identity is recognized by the identity of the ocean. Similarly all the cultures and religions of the world which come in the contact with Banaras’ culture completely lose their individual differences and identify themselves with one unified culture of Banaras.

Here, there are over 3000 Hindu shrines and temples, about 1400 Muslims shrines and mosques, 12 churches, three Jain temples, nine Buddhists temples, three Sikhs temples (Gurudhwaras) and several other sacred sites and places. This is the only city in the world where such a huge number of Hindu and Muslims sacred places co-exists.

There is a kind of jolliness, conviviality or we can say the ‘masti’ in social fabric of Banaras which mesmerizes or rather hypnotizes tourists, visitors, pilgrims, scholars, artists and musicians alike coming from myriad social, economic, religious, cultural, linguistic background. Banarasi masti finds its best expression in some of the renowned literary creations also. One of them is Kashinath Singh’s Kasi Ka Assi. Others like Rashid Banarasi and Nazir Banarasi, both of them belonged to the weaver’s community known as Ansari. They celebrate the theme of communal harmony. In one of his poems, Rashid says that the Ganga protects those who respond to the conch of Hindu, the call to prayer of Muslim, the devotional songs of Sikh and the church bells of Christian. Before them Ghalib penned a masnavi on Banaras in 1807 which is considered a celebration of the ‘synergy of cosmopolitanism’ of Banaras.


Krishna Nand Mishra is a Research Scholar at the Department Of English, Banaras Hindu University, India.

Photograph by Matthieu Aubry/Flickr