The Riverfront & Old City
Heritage Zone of Varanasi
Nomination Proposal for
Inscription in the UNESCO
World Heritage List
Proposed by
The Varanasi Development Authority
Varanasi (India)
Varanasi, or Banaras as it is popularly called, is one of the most unique cities in the world….to
be seen to be believed--- in its myriad expressions of religious faith, rituals and festivals,
traditional and ancient forms of worship and belief that are being practised since centuries, in
the varied expressions of asceticism, spiritual and meditative exercises, in the inimitable
rhythm and style of living of the local people, in traditional education, music, dance and art
forms, craftsmanship that still continue to be transmitted through generations. The living
cultural traditions of this city that so matchlessly and magically symbolise Indian culture in all
its manifestations express themselves in an equally exceptional architectural ambience. The
river Ganga that is the source and the culmination of the spiritual and life energy of Varanasi,
enhances and adorns, with a special transcendence, the lofty stone structures that decorate
its eastern banks.
The riverfront and the long uninterrupted stretch of 83 ghats is the façade of the architectural
zone being proposed for inscription in the World Heritage List of UNESCO. These ghats have
been witness, through the centuries, to great saints like the Buddha and Mahavira, to poets
like Kabir and Tulsidas, to religious philosophers like the Sankracharya and to millions of
pilgrims who still carry the light of faith through generations and who make Banaras so special.
It is no wonder everyone who has visited or heard about Varanasi marvels why it hasn’t yet
been included in the UNESCO List.
Visited by thousands of pilgrims, from India and the world over, the old city centre today
faces intense population and traffic pressures, especially during the numerous festivals
held throughout the year. It is today enclosed within the modern city and is being seriously
threatened by pressures of modernisation and development. Proposing Varanasi to the
UNESCO Heritage List is our effort in the direction of preserving the cultural and
associative landscape of the city along with the river on whose banks it stands. The new
shift in the paradigm of UNESCO towards cultural landscapes and in giving more
representation to heritage expressed in living and vernacular traditions- as affirmed in the
Nara document on Authenticity- gives us renewed hope in national and international
support to save the threatened heritage of our city.
As Mark Twain said in 1898 “Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even
than legend and looks as twice as old as all of them put together”
We feel it is extremely important to communicate that the city administration has reacted
very positively to recent moves made by local NGOs, experts and eminent citizens of the
city, to propose the nomination of the riverfront ghats and old city centre of Varanasi to the
UNESCO World Heritage List. The administration has immediately activated proposing
comprehensive measures for the preservation of the cultural heritage of Varanasi. A series
of policy decisions and legislative proposals have been accepted in the past two Board
meetings of the Varanasi Development Authority and their implementation has already
begun. Many illegal constructions, modifications and demolitions to heritage properties
have already been stopped. We strongly feel that the enlistment of the proposed zones of
Varanasi will give a further impetus to the protective measures initiated in the city. We hope
to receive due support from the state and national governments and from UNESCO in our
drive to save Varanasi, the world’s most sacred living city- an unique immensely rich
cultural asset that belongs to humanity.
16500 Hectare
12.74 LAC ( 2001)
77.21 PERSON/Hect.
Growth Rate
Varanasi is a city of 1.5 million inhabitants (as of 2001), situated along the left crescentshaped bank of the Ganga river in the middle Ganga Valley. It is well connected by railway
route with the metropolitan cities of New Delhi (764km), Kolkata (677km), and Mumbai
(1476km); it is also connected by roads (being situated on one of the country’s main road
highways- the GT Road) and air services with most parts of India. The city is known the
world over as the “sacred city” of India and is recognised as the “most ancient continuously
living city of the world”, a fact discovered and proven through excavations, historic
documents and chemical analyses. “The Ganga River and the Riverfront & Old City
Heritage Zone of Varanasi”, are those being proposed for inclusion in the UNESCO World
Heritage List. The old city heritage zone also includes the unique associative cultural
landscape formed by the Ganga river, the riverfront ghats (stone steps that lead up from the
river to the city) and the related cultural, religious and social life.
Varanasi owes its existence to the Ganga river, or Gangā-ji (as the river Ganges is called
in India) considered to be the most holy river for the Hindu people and especially sacred in
Varanasi where its course towards the Bay of Bengal suddenly turns north. Symbolically,
the flow from south to north refers to the life cycle from death (south, the realm of death,
Yama) to life (north, the realm of life, Shiva, i.e. Kailash). This unique directional change of
the river course led to the development of the ancient city, Kashi, on the west banks of the
river, facing the rising of the sun and making thus the ghats of Varanasi sacred for all Hindu
The city today boasts of 5 universities, hundreds
of active cultural institutes and religious
establishments, traditional schools, music, dance
and art forms that have spread to the world, local
artisan and handicraft products in textiles, wood
and metal work. The city has always played a
special role, at least since 5th century BCE in
promoting education--- debates and dialectics,
religious, spiritual and scientific--- traditional
medicine (aired), yoga, astrology.
The headquarters of an administrative division, Commissioner, comprising 4 districts,
Varanasi today is a bustling city with wholesale and retail centres for diverse commercial
activities. Varanasi, considered the microcosm of Hindu pilgrimage, visited by thousands
of Hindu, Buddhist and Join pilgrims and foreign visitors each day, is extremely rich in
architectural, artistic and historical buildings (temples, palaces, maths, mosques,
ashrams, etc.). Besides being an indelible part of the city’s heritage, these buildings,
along with the local religious and cultural life, constitute an immense resource for tourism
(both religious and cultural tourism- Indian and foreign) that is one of the major economic
activities of the city.
The identified “The Ganga River and Riverfront & Old City Heritage Zone of
Varanasi” satisfies the UNESCO Cultural Heritage Criteria as set out in Article 1
of the Convention, and as set out in the Operational Guidelines- Cultural Criteria
Para 24 (a). i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, and Para 27. ii, and the Cultural Landscape Criteria
para 39.ii. and iii.
Country- India
State- Uttar Pradesh
“The Ganga River and the Riverfront & Old City Heritage Zone of Varanasi”,
consisting of three main zones, is proposed for inscription in the World Heritage
List. The detailed geographical data and maps, descriptive data and information
on the present status of each of these heritage zones and properties are given in
sequence. The following are their main boundaries:
1. The Ganga river and the Riverfront Heritage Zone . On the Eastern side, this
heritage zone is flanked by a strip of green belt of trees along the sand belt of the
river. On the Western side, it is delineated by the road that connects the Asi locality
to Rajghat via Shivala, Pandey Haveli, Godaulia, Chowk, Maidagin, Macchodari and
Bhaisasur. The Eighty-four riverfront ghats cover a length of 6.8km along the
crescent-shaped bank of the Ganga river, from the confluence of Asi drain in the
south to the confluence of the Varana river in the north. These ghats are
characteristic, with a unique flights of stone steps emerging from the river and
leading towards the city- steps incomparable in the world for their magnificence. The
84th ghat, Adi Keshava Ghat, is not taken into consideration with a view to avoid the
discontinuity of settlement between the last two ghats.
This whole area can be divided into SIX sub-zones/ Districts: (i) Rural Buffer District, the
300m wide green strip, lying between the eastern bank of the Ganga river and the edge of
the settlement area, (ii) Landscape conservation District, the sandy-silty loam area subject
to annual inundation and seasonally used to cultivate summer vegetables and melons and
for summer recreation, (iii) the 5.5km long crescent shaped basin of the Ganga river from
Nagwa to Raj Ghats, (iv) the 5.3km stretch of 83 Ghats (stairways to the bank) along the
western bank of the Ganga river, (v) the Urban Preservation Sub-Zone, the Old City
Heritage Sub-Zone, and (vi) the Urban Buffer Sub-Zone, a strip of 50m to 100m wide from
the western road marking the boundary, of course sometimes its boundary goes along
with the road towards west with a view to covering some very pertinent sites, e.g. Adi
Vishvanatha and Razia Bibi Mosque in Bansaphatak.
2. Core Heritage Area -The core heritage area lies within the Old City Heritage Zone. It is
demarcated by the path linking Vishalakshi Devi, Dharmakupa, Vishvanatha, Annapurna,
Adi Vishvanatha and Razia Bibi Mosque. The Vishvanatha temple is the nucleus. There
are about 70 important shrines and temples in this area.
3. Outer Heritage Property, across the river. This outer circuit is demarcated by the
pilgrimage path that covers 88.6 km, starting from the Manikarnika Ghat, going south,
south west, then north west and covering 108 shrines and temples. 4 major temple
complexes have been included as heritage units.
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The principal grounds for including “The Ganga River and the Riverfront & Old City
Heritage Zone of Varanasi” in the World Heritage List rests on the unique outstanding
universal value of its architectural heritage, symbolising and linked strongly to the living
cultural and religious traditions of three of the major religions of the world- Hinduism,
Buddhism and Jainism, for whom the city is the most important destination for religious
pilgrimage. The proposal to inscribe Varanasi further rests on the rare and unique living
expression of the religious and cultural importance of the Ganga river whose sacredness
has led to the settlement and growth of the ancient city and which still continues to be the
main reason for the religious and cultural importance of the city in the country and in the
The presence and sacrality of the Ganga river has always attracted sages, philosophers,
travellers, mystics to this place. Mystics and sages have stayed on once they reached the
river banks and here they have discovered new realms of the spiritual being. The old city
has been the meeting place, for centuries, of leading philosophers and religious thinkers of
India, who have participated in and promoted philosophical dialectics and debates,
accepting defeat and even adopting the new victorious philosophical and logical axioms
and reasoning. The city has always possessed a strong force of spiritual magnetism for
those desiring to cross over from this world to the world beyond. It is for this that the city
has found its place in all the great Indian epics, Puranas and other ancient Hindu and
Buddhist literature.
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Religious rituals, beliefs and traditional worship are still practised. It was in Banaras that
Buddhism was first promulgated and in Banaras that Hinduism has had her home. The
city has thus given vigour and support to the two religions that to this day spiritually
govern half the world. Ancient meditative practises and studies are still pursued here.
From the ceremony of shaving off the hair of the new-born to the immersion of ashes, the
city still witnesses the rituals and sacraments that existed in the Vedic period. The city
continues to be the centre for disciples, followers and groups of all major Indian
philosophical and theistic schools of thought. Contemporary Indian spiritual gurus too
desire having at least one base in Varanasi, such is still the spiritual, sacramental and
cultural vibration and importance of the city. Varanasi is also considered to be a veritable
jungle of fairs and festivals with respect to variety, distinction, time, sacred sites,
performers, overseers and side-shows. The popular saying that 13 festivals happen in 7
days of a week, express this richness. “Every day is a great festival in Banaras” – so says
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The Banarasi music and dance traditions are manifested in a special local style known as
the Banaras Gharana (style). Many great musicians and performing artists have been born
here and still regularly return to visit and to perform for the public as their tribute to the
spirit of the soil. Besides renowned artists of the last century like Sharda Sahai and Anokhe
Lal for tabla, Pt. Mahadev Misra for vocal singing, some of the most internationally famous
contemporary names in Indian music and dance belong to this city- like Ravi Shankar, the
maestro of Sitar, Bismillah Khan maestro of Shehanai, Girija Devi and Siddheshwari Devi
acclaimed as vocalists, Kishan Maharaj for Tabla, Sitara Devi for Kathak dance forms and
many others known for their contributions in the field of music and performing arts.
Handicrafts. The city is famous not only as a seat of learning and art, but also as a centre
of cottage industries and textile manufacturing even in Pre-Buddhist times. Silk weaving
and sari making, metal, wood and terracotta handicrafts, toy making, particular painting
forms, etc., comprise the continuity of the historico-cultural tradition. The silk of Varanasi is
famous in India and people come here from all corners of the country to buy this silk for
marriages and for special religious festivals. Saris are still woven on handlooms through
indigenous methods and are still in demand. Also famous are the intricate metal works in
bronze, especially the statues of Gods, wooden work for making toys and special pink
enamel work for wall paintings.
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Evidence of a disappeared civilisation
The city has two remnants of a holy past: the first one being Sarnath where Buddha
gave his first sermon, “Turning the wheel of law” in ca.528 BCE. Later during 3rd century
BCE, king Ashoka built a monastery township there that continued its existence till 12th
century CE and was later destroyed. The second one is Rajghat Plateau, where the
archaeological findings and the C14 dating of some of the wares excavated from the
earliest level (upper part of IA layer, sample No. TF-293) refer the existence of urban
settlements in the period during 800-500 BCE.
Since ancient times, the natural and cultural landscapes of the city have retained an
active social role in contemporary society closely associated with the traditional way of
life. The city is a place of pilgrimage and a holy site for taking sacred baths in the Ganga
River, to have a good death, to get relief from transmigration, to learn and receive
spiritual merit, etc. The city has still maintained its traditions. In spite of invasions and
political downfalls, traditions are fully alive even today in the presence of “dying homes”,
charitable homes, pilgrims’ rest houses, ghats (stairways) along the Ganga that are
some of the city’s unique characteristics.
This synthesis of diversity in regional identity, language and tradition converges to form
the personality of an all-India city, Varanasi. In this manner Varanasi has evolved as a
mosaic of social-cultural space, representing the whole of India. Brahmins from different
parts of the country came and settled around the important Hindu temples.
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The Guru-ka-Bagh (Gurudvara at Gurubagh) commemorates the locality where
Guru Nanak stayed and the Asu Bhairava Sangat, the place where the 9th Guru
Tegh Bahadur (1664-1675) had stayed in 1666. Asu Bhairava had also been the
residence of Guru Govind Singh (1675-1708), the 10th and the last guru.
Presently, there are eleven important churches in Varanasi, viz. St. Thomas (at
Godaulia), Red (Nadesar), St. Paul (Sigra), David’s Church (Teliabagh), St. Mary
(Cantt.), Bethlehem Gospel (Mahmoorganj), Evangelical Church of India (D.L.W.),
St. Mary Cathedral (Cantt.), Church of Varanasi (at Sunderpur and Kakarmatta),
and Pilgrims’ Mission (Cantt.).
They are: Masjid (mosque) 415, Mazar
Imamchauk (the crossing sites for
Taziya) 197, Takiya (burial ground) 88,
Idgah (place of special prayer) 11,
Imambara (the burial site for Taziya) 3,
and Others 375. The total number of
sacred places reaches to 1,388 of
which about 30 per cent fall under the
mosque category.
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Varanasi was established and recognised as a great sacred place (tirtha). During the
first half of the 7th century the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, Hsuan-tsang arrived in the city
and described it as thickly populated, prospering and an important seat of learning. He
mentions twenty important temples, and one of the Shiva lingas was about 30m high
covered with copper plate. This in fact, was the Mauryan pillar, the fragment of which,
called the Lat Bhairava, is presently only 1.5m tall. The arrival and preaching of Adya
Sankaracharya in 8th century mark the revival of the Brahmanical thought, which finally
uprooted Buddhism from this soil.
During the reign of Akbar’s grandson Shah Jahan (1628-1657), the imperial policy
changed again. By his order, about seventy-six temples under construction were
destroyed. By the order of his successor, Aurangzeb (1658-1707), in 1669-1673, once
again around thousand temples including the city’s greatest temples like Vishveshvara,
Krittivasa, and Vindu Madhava, were razed and their sites were forever sealed from
Hindu access by the construction of mosques. In 1665 the French Traveler Jean
Baptiste Tavernier, a dealer in jewels, paid a visit to Varanasi and described the grand
temple of Vindu Madhava at the riverside, which he called a “great pagoda”. His
account is notable because the temple was demolished in 1673 by the armies of
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Despite its reputation as stronghold of Hindu orthodoxy and conservatism, Varanasi
participated in the vibrant devotional resurgence during 14th to early 17th centuries.
Among the active poets and reformers the most notable were Ballabha, Ramananda,
Kabir, Raidas, Tulasi, Caitanya and Guru Nanak. Kabir, indeed, was one of the greatest
in all of Indian literature, whose colloquial songs are still sung today. Tulasi retold the
epic story of the Ramayana in vernacular Hindi, naming it the Ramacharitamanasa and
it remains today the single most popular classic, the Bible of the Hindi-speaking people.
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British rule brought a major change in the ancient pandit-student pattern of learning that
had predominated in Varanasi for 2,500 years. By the approval of the British GovernorGeneral Warren Hastings in 1791, Jonathan Duncan, a British resident in Varanasi,
founded a Sanskrit College, and in 1853 the present buildings of the college were built
in Gothic style. The oldest local educational initiative goes back to Jay Narayan Ghosal,
a rich landlord from Bengal, who with the British support founded a school in 1814. On
similar lines in 1898 Annie Besant, the founder of Theosophical Society in India started
a Central Hindu College, a campus which proved to be only the nucleus of a growing
university. In 1916, the Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge, laid the foundation stone of
what would become one of the largest and most beautiful universities in Asia, the
Banaras Hindu University.Another aspect of the British period was the expansion of the
activities of Christian missionaries. In 1816, the Baptist Society became the first
Christian body to introduce a mission in the holy city. The Church Missionary Society of
the Church of England had started to work in Varanasi beginning in 1817 and opened
one churche at Sigra and another in the centre of the city at Godaulia crossing. The
London Missionary Society was located in the British Cantonment beginning in 1820.
Later in the century, the Wesleyan Missionary Society launched its Varanasi mission,
and the Zenana Bible and Medical Mission started a hospital for women. These
attempts of the Christian missions never had a chance of gaining momentum in
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In 1948 The Banaras Improvement Trust was constituted for making ‘Master Plan of
Varanasi’, and in 1951 the first such plan was prepared. Its revision and modification
were made in 1973 and 1982 when the revised plans were prepared. Not a single one of
these plans was implemented; all of them were delayed and recommendations were
made for further revision. The latest plan was submitted on 26th February 1996, when for
the first time the concept of heritage planning and preservation of heritage zones was
proposed. This plan was approved and accepted by the State Government in July 2001.
In this plan five cultural zones have been identified with the purpose of a special handling
of these zones.
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At the Municipal level, the State Govt. had created the Varanasi Development
Authority under U.P. Urban Planning and Development Act 1973 Act 11 & 1973
(State Act). This authority is responsible for planning the development of the city
and is also responsible for the protection of Heritage zones, sites and properties
and the surrounding physical environment. The Govt. of India and State Govt of
Uttar Pradesh, with the participation of a local body at the Municipal level are
involved in implementing the protective regulatory measures through the
agencies enlist herewith:
Varanasi Development Authority (VDA) with the Commissioner of the Varanasi
division as its Chairman, the Vice Chairman, Chief Town Planner VDA, Secretary
VDA. The VDA has technical assistance and experts in its division of Town
Planning, Architecture, Engineering and Surveying; the VDA is a State Government
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A Conservation Cell has been created within the Varanasi Development Authority
comprising the four eminent citizens of the city knowledgeable in issues of heritage
preservation, the Superintendent Engineer, Chief Town Planner and the Statistician of the
VDA, is currently responsible for the conservation and protection of the heritage sites with
participation of Tourism Department of State Government and Government of India. This
Cell is responsible for monitoring the preservation of heritage sites. It is intended that the
Conservation Cell take regular advise from an Expert Panel of local and national experts for
formulating bylaws, ensuring their implementation and continuously evaluating the impact of
policy initiatives and by laws.
It has been proposed in the Varanasi Development Authority Board Meeting, held in
the month of April 2002, that a Heritage Conservation Committee be formed Under
Section 16-Q U.P. Urban Planning & Development Act Rules and Procedure in April 2002
in the direction of saving the city’s heritage properties. This Committee will comprise of
administrative authority representatives, eminent citizens, experts and local NGOs.
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After the Mahabharata War (ca 1400 BCE), changes and transformations in Hinduism
had took place. At this moment Jainism appeared as an alternative reformation
movement. The Jain literature refers to Banaras as a Jain Tirtha (holy place) because
here were born 4 of the Jain Tirthankaras (the “ford-makers”). In the 8th century BCE
Parshvanatha was born around Bhelupur in Varanasi who established the triad-principle
of the Mahavratas (‘great vows’): Ahimsa (non-violence), Asteya (non-stealing) and
Aparigraha (non-accumulation). The main Jain images excavated at this site belong to
the 9th-11th centuries. Parashvanath was followed in the 6th century BCE by Mahavira, a
younger contemporary of the Buddha, who also visited Varanasi during his 42nd year of
itinerant teaching. The birthplace of Suparshvanatha, the 7th Tirthankara, is also
described in the Jain literature, though its location and identification have still not been
confirmed. The temple of Suparshvanatha in Bhadaini (house no. B 2/ 89)
commemorate that incident. It is believed that the present Jain temple in Sarnath, near
the Dhamekha Stupa, was built to commemorate the birthplace of Shreyamshanatha,
the 11th Tirthankara. He was born in the nearby village of Simhapur. The birthplace of
the 8th Tirthankara Chandraprabhu, is identified with Chandravati. This is an ancient
village lying on the Varanasi-Ghazipur road at 23km northeast from Banaras at the
western bank of Ganga River. There are two Jain temples belonging to the Svetambara
and Digambara groups of the Jains. These temples were built in 1892 and 1913,
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The spiritual magnetism of Varanasi had attracted the Buddha here in the 6th century
BCE to ‘Turn the Wheel of Law’. By the turn of 3rd century BCE, the great Buddhist
king Ashoka had built a monastery township that flourished till 11th century CE. Now,
the restored Sarnath has become a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists, and a place of
spiritual tourism for others.
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The Sarnath zone, which is within the wider city precincts, is extremely important for
Buddhists, the world over. The culture as seen and lived here is a rare heritage asset
for Indians and for the citizens of the world, contributing to the cultural, philosophical
and intellectual knowledge, of Indian culture and the cultural community of the world.
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The birthday of Buddha (Vaishakha, full moon day), and the day he preached his first
sermon at Sarnath are the two major festivals of the Buddhists. Among the Jain
festivals the notables are the birthday of Mahavira, 24th Tirthankara, on the 13th day of
the light fortnight of Chaitra, and his death on the 15th day of the dark fortnight of
Karttika, the Mukuta Saptami on the 7th day of the light fortnight of Shravana,
Ratnatraya Vrat on the 14th day of the light fortnight of Bhadrapada, and Oli on the 6th
day of the light fortnight of Ashvina.
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Varanasi_Heritage_Zone - Varanasi Development Authority