City of many names, Banaras as it is most commonly called, was officially renamed in 1956 as Varanasi, a name from antiquity. It was first known as Kashi, the city of light, when it was the capital of the kingdom of the same name about 500 BC.
For over 2000 years, Banaras the eternal city has been the religious capital of India. Built on the banks of sacred Ganga it is said to combine the virtues of all other places of pilgrimage and anyone who ends their earthly cycle here is said to be transported straight to heaven.
Banaras was also celebrated as the place where the most profound wisdom dwelt, the seat of all enlightenment and learning. Its permanent advantages include the highest sanctity, fertile soil, and its location on a great river. Hindu rulers built great palaces, temples, and ghats in the city. It is also mentioned in late Vedic literature and in the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The city encompasses Sarnath, where Buddha preached his first sermon in about 530 BC.
From the 4th to the 6th century, Banaras was a great cultural centre, but the onset of Muslim occupation in 1193 resulted in the city’s decline and the destruction of its ancient temples. For nearly six centuries, the city was under Muslim rule. The first raid by Muslims, who sacked and plundered some Hindu temples, occurred about AD 1035. Banaras was finally conquered in 1194 when an Afghan general according to Muslim historians, destroyed nearly a thousand temples and carried off his booty on the back of 1,400 camels.
Temples continued, however to be destroyed and rebuilt, with some emperors taking part in both activities at different times, until the last episode of destruction by Mughal emperor Aurangazeb in 1669.
In the early years, say 1,000 BC, Kashi’s inland acres, behind the high bank of the river were known as the forest of bliss. There beside its ponds and lakes, under the trees, gurus, and their students, ascetics, meditators, scholars, and disciples made their hermitages, their classrooms.
However the essence of the place is that it is a holy city, the most sacred place on the 1,560 mile course of the sacred Ganga river. And it is because of this fact that princes and conquerors, merchants and artisans came to it and left their mark on it. And it is why the pilgrims come. The allure of Banaras is great, for the Hindu who dies here attains moksha or liberation.
Holiest of cities to Hindus and earthly abode of Lord Shiva, Banaras is a beacon for pilgrims who come to bathe in the sacred Ganga river. There are pandas ( brahmin priests) who wait by the ghats to assist pilgrims. For a small contribution, such men provide food and flowers for offerings and coach the uncertain in their prayers.
There are two important paths that pilgrims usually take. One route starts at the Manikarnika Ghat with a ritual bath and devotions performed along the way south to the Panchkroshi road. The road makes a wide loop enclosing the sacred city, and ends on the north at the confluence of the Varuna river and the Ganga. Pilgrims make this journey on foot, starting well before daybreak, stopping at 108 ritual places of worship. The complete pilgrimage takes five days.
The other pilgrimage path takes the devotees to the five tirthas. The first of these is at the Asi ghat where the pilgrim bathes and then follows the Ganga north (downstream) along the famous riverfront, making his offerings and prayers as he goes. As you walk northward from Asi the first important ghat you reach is Tulsi, named for the late 116th century poet Tulsidas, best known for making the great Sanskrit epic The Ramayana accessible to ordinary people in his Hindi version.
Banaras contains more than 1,500 temples and mosques. Almost all of the city’s 5 km of river banks have been converted into ghats. Banaras on the whole has 100 bathing and burning ghats, of which Manikarnika ghat is the most sacred. This is the main burning ghat and one of the most auspicious places.
Day and night the fires burn at Manikarnika ghat and the remains of the dead are scattered upon the river. To die in Banaras is to die blessed; many move here to live out their final days.
The multitudes of pilgrims are among the largest source of revenue to the city. With a constant influx of visitors, Banaras is a haven for medicants – beggars who have quit their worldly pursuits.
The best ghat to hang around is Dasaswamedh. Here you will find myriad people doing myriad things. You will see people bathing, excercising, pandas performing pujas and so on.
Apart from the ghats lining the river, city’s other highlights includes a golden temple built in roofed quadrangle with stunning gilded towers and the Banaras Hindu University. BHU is one of the oldest and largest educational institutions and is one of India’s most prominent seats of learning. Founded in 1916 by the great nationalist and educator Pandit Madan Mohan Maliviya, BHU has a 1,300 acre campus on the outskirts of the city. Today one of the largest residential universities in India, it has schools of both the ancient Indian Ayurveda practice, colleges of engineering, agriculture, commerce, technology, music and fine arts, theology and oriental studies.
It also has one of the finest museums the Bharat Kala Bhavan. There is even an astronomical observatory. The Arabic Centre of Islamic Studies is a reminder of the fact that more than 25 percent of the city’s population is Muslim.
Centre for artisans as well as for the faithful, Banaras produces textile, apparel and carpets. Banaras’ weavers are well-known for their sarees in silk with gold and silver brocades. Jewellery, brasswork, lacquered toys are the other important handicraft products.