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History of Varanasi

Varanasi, also called Benares, Banaras, or Kashi city, southeastern Uttar Pradesh state, northern India. It is located on the left bank of the Ganges (Ganga) River and is one of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism.
Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It was one of the first major urban settlements in the middle Ganges valley. By the 2nd millennium BCE Varanasi was a seat of Vedic

religion and philosophy and was also a commercial and industrial centre famous for its muslin and silk fabrics, perfumes, ivory works, and sculpture. It was the capital of the kingdom of Kashi during the time of the Buddha (6th century BCE), who gave his first sermon nearby at Sarnath. Varanasi remained a centre of religious, educational, and artistic activities as attested by the celebrated Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuqnzang, who visited it about 635 CE and said that the city extended for about 3 miles (5 km) along the western bank of the Ganges.
The city is host to numerous religious festivals. Mahashivaratri, the great night of the god Shiva, is celebrated by a procession from the Mahamrityunjaya Temple to the Kashi Vishvanatha (Vishwanath) Temple. The Ganga festival in November or December is dedicated to the goddess of the Ganges River, considered sacred by all Hindus. Thousands of lamps are placed on the ghats and set afloat on the river. The festival of Bharat Milap in October or November commemorates the reunion of Lord Rama with his younger brother Bharat after 14 years of exile. A five-day festival of dhrupad (classical Indian vocal style) in March attracts renowned artists from all over India to the city’s Tulsi Ghat along the river.
Mark Twain said, "Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together."
Varanasi presents a microcosm of Hinduism, a city of steeped in the traditional culture of India. Glorified in Hindu mythology and sanctified in religious scriptures, it has attracted devotees, pilgrims and worshipers from time immemorial.
The original name of Varanasi was 'Kashi,' derived from the word 'Kasha,' meaning brightness. It is also known variously as Avimuktaka, Anandakanana, Mahasmasana, Surandhana, Brahma Vardha, Sudarsana and Ramya. Steeped in tradition and mythological legacy, Kashi is believed to be the ‘original ground' created by Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati.
According to the ‘Vamana Purana’, the Varuna and the Assi rivers originated from the body of the primordial being at the beginning of time. The present name Varanasi has its origin in these two tributaries of the Ganges, Varuna and Asi, which flank its northern and southern borders. The tract of land lying between them was named ‘Varanasi,' the holiest of all pilgrimages. Banaras or Benaras, as it is popularly known, is only a corruption of the name Varanasi
Historians have now ascertained that the Aryans first settled in the Ganges valley and by the second millennium BC, Varanasi became the nucleus of Aryan religion and philosophy. The city also flourished as a commercial and industrial center famous for its muslin and silk fabrics, ivory works, perfumery and sculptures.
In the 6th century BC, Varanasi became the capital of the kingdom of Kashi. During this time Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon at Sarnath, just 10 km away from Varanasi. Being a center of religious, educational, cultural and artistic activities, Kashi drew many learned men from around the world; the celebrated Chinese traveler Hsüan Tsang is one of them, who visited India around AD 635.
Varanasi subsequently declined during three centuries of Muslim occupation, beginning in 1194. Many of the city’s Hindu temples were destroyed during the period of Muslim rule, and learned scholars fled to other parts of the country. The Mughal emperor Akbar in the 16th century brought some relief to the city’s religious and cultural activities. There was another setback during the reign of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in the late 17th century, but later the Marathas sponsored a new revival. Varanasi became an independent kingdom in the 18th century, and under the subsequent British rule it remained a commercial and religious centre.
The 18th century again brought back the lost glory to Varanasi. It became an independent kingdom, with Ramnagar as its capital, when the British declared it a new Indian state in 1910. After India's independence in 1947, Varanasi became part of the state of Uttar Pradesh.

Author’s Bio:
Aritri Ghosh
Amity University Kolkata.

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