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Varanasi (Kashi) – The Holy City of India

Varanasi, also known as Kashi or Benaras (anglicized version of Varanasi) is regarded as a supremely holy city by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains and one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in India. It is located on the banks of River Ganga in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the oldest in India. Hindus yearn to do “Kashi Yatra” (pilgrimage to Kashi) at least once in their lifetime. They also prefer that the mortal remains (ashes from cremation of the deceased) be scattered in the River Ganges at Kashi.

Varanasi is often referred to as "the holy city of India", "the religious capital of India", "the city of temples", "the city of lights", "the city of learning", and "the oldest living city on planet earth." The city of Varanasi possibly got its name from the names of the two rivers Varuna and Assi that surround the old city. These two rivers are tributaries of River Ganga. In the Rigveda, the city is referred to as Kasi or Kashi, "the luminous one". The name Kashi alludes to the city's historical status as a center of learning, literature, art and culture. Many Hindu scriptures, including the Rigveda, Skanda Purana, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata, mention the city. Kasikhanda describes the glory of the city in Skanda Purana.

According to legend, the city was founded by the Hindu deity Lord Shiva, several thousand years ago. It is believed to be resting on Shiva’s “Trishul" (Trident).  The holy shrine of Kashi Vishwanath (a manifestation of Lord Shiva) is standing for thousands of years on the western banks of River Ganga. It is one of the twelve holy Jyotirlingas (pillars of light of Shiva) in India.

Varanasi is considered to be of the seven Punya Kshetras (sacred grounds or fields of active power) where Moksha or final release can be obtained. The other Kshetras are Ayodhya, Mathura, Maya, Kanchi, Avantika and Dwaraka. A visit to the temple and a bath in the river Ganges is believed to lead one on a path to Moksha (liberation). There is also a tradition that one should give up at least one desire after a pilgrimage to the temple, and the pilgrimage would also include a visit to the temple at Rameswaram in South India, where people take the water samples of the Ganges to perform prayer at the temple and bring back the sand from near that temple.  Kashi is also regarded as one of the Shakti Peethas, and the Vishalakshi Temple stands on the spot where Goddess Sati's earrings fell. Hindus of the Shakti sect believe that river Ganga is the Goddess Shakti.

The city is a noted center for silk weaving (Benarasi silk) and brassware. Fine silks and brocaded fabrics, exquisite saris, brassware, jewelery, woodcraft, carpets, wall hangings, lamp shades and masks of Hindu and Buddhist deities are some of Varanasi's shopping attractions. Varanasi has its own culture of fine art and literature. Great Indian writers like Kabir, Ravidas, Tulsidas (of Ram Charit Manas fame) to many modern day writers like Jaishankar Prasad, Acharya Shukla, Munshi Premchand, Jagannath Prasad Ratnakar, Devaki  Nandan Khatri, Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, etc., have made this city their base. Many noted musicians like Pt. Ravi Shankar, Pt. Bismillah Khan, Omkarnath Thakur and many others have kept the city alive to the spiritual aspect of fine arts. Numerous festivals are celebrated that preserve traditional styles of classical and folk culture.

Banaras Hindu University (commonly referred to as BHU) is a public university located in Varanasiand is one of the Central Universities of India. It is the largest residential university in Asia, with over 24,000 students on its campus. BHU was founded in 1916 by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya under the Parliamentary legislation.

Varanasi was originally an independent Bhumihar Brahmin state and became an independent “Kingdom of Kashi”, a British territory in 1775. Then in 1911 it was declared as an independent state. It is the site of the Ramnagar Fort and its museum, which are the repository of the history of the kings of Benares and, since the 18th century, has been the home of the Kashi Naresh (King of Kashi). Even today the Kashi Naresh is deeply revered by the people of Varanasi. He is a religious leader and the people of Benares consider him an incarnation of Lord Shiva, He is also the chief cultural patron and an essential part of all religious celebrations.

Be it the Kashi Vishwanath temple,  the legendary Ghats of Kashi, or the thousands of years of history and culture of this city, Varanasi is a place to be experienced and cherished first hand.

Varanasi (Kashi) – The Holy City of India