Varanasi, Banares, Kashi–Dr C M Seth IFS
Varanasi also known as Benares, Banaras or Kashi is a city on the banks of the Ganges in the Uttar Pradesh state of North India dating 11th century BC. The spiritual capital of India, it is the holiest of the seven sacred cities (Sapta Puri) in Hinduism and Jainism, and played an important role in the development of Buddhism.
Alberuni who accompanied Mahmud Gazani was so much impressed with the intellectual and scientific knowledge of Banares that he stayed at Banares and learnt Sanskrit. He has described Banares as a centre of knowledge in his book Al-Indica and recommended to the muslim world at that time to take few teachers from Banares to their countries for scientific and technical education of their populations.
Varanasi has been a cultural centre of North India for several thousand years, and is closely associated with the Ganges. Hindus believe that death in the city will bring salvation, making it a major centre for pilgrimage. The city is known worldwide for its many ghats, embankments made in steps of stone slabs along the river bank where pilgrims perform ritual ablutions. Of particular note are the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the Panchganga Ghat, the Manikarnika Ghat and the Harishchandra Ghat, the last two being where Hindus cremate their dead.
Among the estimated 23,000 temples in Varanasi are Kashi Vishwanath Temple of Shiva, the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple, and the Durga Temple. The Kashi Naresh (Maharaja of Kashi) is the chief cultural patron of Varanasi, and an essential part of all religious celebrations.
Buddha is believed to have founded Buddhism here around 528 BC when he gave his first sermon, “The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma”, at nearby Sarnath. The city’s religious importance continued to grow in the 8th century, when Adi Shankara established the worship of Shiva as an official sect of Varanasi. Despite the Muslim rule, Varanasi remained the centre of activity for Hindu intellectuals and theologians during the Middle Ages, which further contributed to its reputation as a cultural centre of religion and education. Tulsidas wrote his epic poem on Rama’s life called Ram Charit Manas in Varanasi. Several other major figures of the Bhakti movement were born in Varanasi, including Kabir and Ravidas. Guru Nanak Dev visited Varanasi for Shivratri in 1507, a trip that played a large role in the founding of Sikhism. In the 16th century, Varanasi experienced a cultural revival under the Muslim Mughal emperor Akbar who invested in the city, and built two large temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu, though much of modern Varanasi was built during the 18th century, by the Maratha and Bhumihar kings.