Banaras (or Kashi or Varanasi) is one of the oldest cities in the world, which have been constantly inhabited. If we look at the archaeological evidences, remains from the year 1200 BC have been found here. While there are also indications that this city could be living since 3000 BC, or even older.
This ancient city has seen many-many generations of human life. Varanasi has seen the progress of human civilisation since very ancient time. This fact helps this city to obtain the status of being the cultural capital of India.
Let’s discuss few selected eras of the history of Varanasi aka Banaras aka Kashi
Varanasi in Vedic Era
According to the Hindu mythology, city was founded by God Shiva. Varanasi is still called ‘The City of Shiva’; and devotion to Shiva can be seen in the city abundantly.
Varanasi has seen the Vedic religion flourishing from its own eyes. References to Kashi is frequently found in ancient Hind scriptures such as Vedas, Upnishadas, and Puranas.
Varanasi holds a divine and important status since the beginning of the history of Hinduism. In Upanishadas, it was referred as the holiest city of all.
Varanasi in Buddhist Era
Varanasi continued to keep its status of importance in the Buddhist Era as well. The city was referred in Buddhist texts in abundance. The ship of Buddhism first sailed circa 528 BC, when Gautam Buddha gave his first sermon near Varanasi, at the places known as Sarnath. It is believed by some scholars that Buddha started the life of Buddhism here because Varanasi held significant power and importance in India that time. Significant enough to affect the religious belief of entire India.
Kashi was among the sixteen Mahajanpadas (refers to the sixteen kingdoms and oligarchic republics) of sixth to fourth centuries BC, and Varanasi was its Capital. Before the era of Buddha, Kashi was the most powerful among the sixteen mahajanpadas of India.
According to the famous Chinese traveler Hiouen Thsang (Xuanzang), who traveled to Banaras circa 635 AD, described Banaras as rich and prosperous place.
Varanasi was important for Hinduism and Buddhism both; and both religions coexisted rather peacefully, while peaceful coexistence of religions was rare in the world
Varanasi in Muslim Invasion Era
Muslim kings and emperors loved Varanasi. Loved for attacking, looting, and demolishing purposes, unfortunately; especially the Hindu buildings. Qutb-ud-din Aibak in the year 1194, Feroz Shah Tuglaq in 1376, and Sikander Lodi in 1496 destroyed every old temples in Varanasi. For centuries Varanasi lived in the era of declination and suppression, and lost thousands of its temples.
This suppression of native culture continued under the Mughal dynasty till the second half of 16th century. In the year 1556, Akbar of Mughal Dynasty became the emperor. Despite belonging to a Muslim dynasty, Emperor Akbar was secular. He built Hindu temples in city, and in his reign, Hinduism began to flourish again. However, the descendants of Akbar did not continue his secular traditions; and they went back to the routine of suppression of Hinduism. Mughal emperor Aurangzeb was particularly fierce against Hinduism; and during his reign, Varanasi again experienced major blows.
Varanasi in the British Invasion Era
After the death of Aurangzeb, Mughal dynasty weakened considerably. Keeping hold on the regions began to become more difficult since many Hindu landlords began standing against the Muslim rule. To address this problem, establishment of a Hindu king who would pay allegiance to the emperor, was decided. It resulted the dynasty of rulers of ‘the Benares State’ that lasted till the independence from the British rule.
Mansa Ram was the first king of the dynasty. After him, Balwant Singh became the king of the Benares State. There was a rustle between Balwant Singh and Delhi. Raja Balwant Singh with the aid of British, disconnected state of Banaras from the Delhi rule. Raja Balwant Singh also managed to keep sovereignty of the state while keeping peace with the British. However, British grasp on the State of Benares continued to get stronger. After Balwant Singh, Chait Singh continued the struggle on. However soon the Benares state was forced to remain only a princely state in the British Raj. Afterwards, Benares State remained a princely state and paid allegiance to the British Raj.
Post Independence Era
India achieved the Independence on 15 August, 1947. Hopes were high after the independence, when the nation began a new journey on its own. However, a demon of corruption culture raised its head, and continued to grow stronger.
Post independence era has not been very fruitful to the ancient city which has a glorious distant past. Due to the negligence from the governments and various other reasons, development of the city is slower than other major Indian cities. As a result, Banaras region saw its citizens leaving the city to larger cities for opportunities, while also attracting immigrants in large count from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states.
Currently, Varanasi is a major city. It serves as a major commercial centre in the eastern Uttar Pradesh state and western Bihar state. Holding 4 universities (including Banaras Hindu University – BHU, one of the most prominent universities in India), Banaras is a notable centre of education.
Religious and cultural importance is maintained, and Banaras is respected by Hindus and Buddhists in particular from entire world.
In the 2014 parliamentary elections of India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected as the ‘Member of Parliament’ from Varanasi. Prime Minister has vowed to return the city its glory.
The numerous ghats along the bank of the Ganges present a varied scene from dawn to dusk. A ghat is a series of well-paved steps that lead to the water. A ghat in Varanasi usually has small temples built into its side, while the larger structures, housing the powerful gods and goddesses from the Hindu pantheon, form a formidable backdrop to the serene beauty of the meandering river. These ghats numbering more than a hundred, with their entourage of temples, form the axis on which the city developed. For centuries, the Hindus considered it very auspicious to bathe at the ghats of Varanasi. Everyday at dawn thousands of pilgrims can be seen offering salutations to the Sun God in waist-deep water, secure in their conviction that the muddy waters of the Ganges will wash away all the accumulated sins of their life. The oil lamps (diyas) and flowers set afloat on the river at dusk make a fascinating sight.
There are five important ghats in Varanasi where the pilgrims flock to take a bath-the Assi, Dasawamedha, Barnasangam, Panchganga, and Manikarnika. Each ghat has its own history and its own following. Many of the ghats were built and owned by the royal families of India; the Maharaja of Benaras built the Kali (or Sivala) Ghat, Maharaja Man Singh built the Mansarovar Ghat, while Ahilyabai Ghat is named after that legendary Queen Ahilyabai of Indore.
The best time to visit the ghats is at the break of dawn, when pilgrims perform the Surya Pranam immersed waist deep in the waters of the holy Ganges.
The best way to catch the essence of Varanasi is to travel down the Ganges by boat at six o’clock in the morning. Boats can be hired by the hour from the main steps of the Dasawamedha Ghat. The steady creek of ancient oars, the slap of wet garments, incessant chatter of the bathers amid a tinkling of scattered temple bells, watching Varanasi from the environs of a gently swaying boat is truly an experience worth treasuring.
Although Varanasi is famous as a Hindu pilgrimage center, one cannot ignore its distinct Muslim heritage. The powerful Sultans of Delhi and later the emperors of the Mughal dynasty were instrumental in constructing several mosques, and this predominantly Hindu city gradually attained a degree of cosmopolitanism. Aurangzeb, the last of the mighty Mughals, hastened this process of evolution and the mosques that he built still stand today. The great mosque of Varanasi, Gyanvyapi Masjid, has minarets towering 71 m above the Ganges and is an integral part of the city’s skyline.
There is also the Golden Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva. The temple today sits across the road from its original site. The present temple was built in 1776 by Rani Ahilyabai, while three and a quarter ton of gold plating on the towers were provided by Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore. Next to the temple is the Well of Knowledge, where, as legend goes, the original Shiva lingam lies hidden.
There is another temple in this holy city-a temple dedicated not to the gods, but to Mother India. The Bharat Mata temple, as it is known, does not have idols or images of gods and goddesses: what it has is a marble relief map of Independent India. The father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi, inaugurated the temple.
Benaras Hindu University is the largest residential university in Asia, a center of Sanskrit, Indian art, culture, and music. This university covers an area of 2000 acres, and was gifted by the king of Varanasi, a scholar of Sanskrit and Hindu philosopher himself. The university is around 10 km from the railway station.
Of the numerous temples that dot this ancient city, the important ones are the Durga Temple, Tulsi Manas Mandir, Vinayaka Temple, Annapurna Temple, Kal Bhairav, Jateshwar Mahadeo, and Maha Mritunjaya Temple.
PLACES AROUND VARANASI
A tourist to Varanasi must make it a point to visit the Ramnagar Fort and Sarnath, both situated on the outskirts of this city. The former, situated on the opposite bank of the Ganges, is the residential palace of the former Maharaja of Varanasi. The hall of public audience (Durbar Hall) and the royal museum housing collections of palanquins, elephant saddles, arms, furniture, costumes, etc., are of great interest. At the other end of the city is Sarnath. Here in the fabled deer park, where the Buddha preached his sermon enshrining the principles of his teaching into laws. There is a stupa and a large complex of ruined monasteries. Nearby also stands the Ashoka Pillar commemorating the Mauryan emperor’s visit to the place more than 2,000 years back. The archeological museum located nearby holds a rich collection of items belonging to the Kushan and Gupta periods as well as from the Ashokan era.
One may also undertake quite a few enjoyable excursions from Varanasi. The fort of Chunar, about 37 km away, is famous for its close association with the Afghan ruler Sher Shah Suri. Kusumi Forest (8 km) and the Rajdari and Deodari Falls in the Chandraprabha forest (70 km) are beautiful picnic spots.
FAIRS AND FESTIVALS
The festive magic never ends in Varanasi. If Poornima cleanses, Maha Shivratri blesses. If Holika-Dahan is a celebration, Dhrupad Mela is a revelation…. One does not require making his itinerary according to the dates and months of the festivals. One can come and enjoy the festive season anytime of the year here.
Benarasi mithais (sweets) and the famous Benarasi paan (betel leaf) are two specialties that can be found in this magical city. Both are very dear to the people-traditional and crucial to the social system-far beyond the simple act of cooking, preparing, and eating.
Milk-based sweets are flavored with cardamon, saffron, essence of rose extract, a garnish of nuts, and a fine layer of edible silver foil. Layers of fresh cream lovingly embrace dry fruits that are hidden in the interiors of malai paan. Thickened milk is left out in the dew overnight and then flavored with saffron. This mix is then beaten to a stiff froth-it would put any soufflé to shame. Nimmish is undisputedly a delicacy only for the well to do and that too only in winter. The Benarasi paan is a very heavily flavored betel leaf smeared with catechu (a tannin rich powder called katha), lime paste (chuna), and wrapped around shredded betel nut (supari) and often cardamom pod, aniseed and tobacco. Secured by a clove pierced through the folds of the betel leaf, sweetening agents, peppermint, menthol, and local aphrodisiacs are also added to this elaborate package. Given the acclaimed digestive qualities of all ingredients, it is a perfect way to round off a good and wholesome Indian meal (though most people have a paan safely tucked away into the recesses of their mouth perpetually).
WHERE TO STAY
Accommodation is not a problem in Varanasi. Hotels ranging from high-end to economy class are all available. Many of them have magnificent views of the Ganges in exclusive suites.
HOW TO REACH
BY AIR – Varanasi is well connected by air to several cities in India. It is on the popular daily tourist service Delhi-Agra-Khajuraho-Varanasi route.
Varanasi Flight Schedule
Airline Time Days Duration & Stops
VNSAMD SpiceJet (SG 972) Check Time-TWTFSS2h 5m & Non StopCheck Fare
VNSHYDSpiceJet (SG 705) Check TimeMTWTFSS1h 55m & Non StopCheck Fare
VNSCCU Air India (AI 421) Check Time—-F–1h 10m & Non StopCheck Fare
VNSDEL Vistara (UK 817) Check TimeMTWTFSS1h 20m & Non StopCheck Fare
VNSDEL Vistara (UK 955) Check TimeMTWTFSS1h 45m & Non StopCheck Fare
VNSDEL Jet (9W 2424) Check TimeMTW-FSS1h 30m & Non StopCheck Fare
VNSDEL Jet (9W 715) Check TimeMTWTFSS1h 35m & Non StopCheck Fare
VNSHYD IndiGo (6E 6913) Check TimeMTWTFSS2h & Non StopCheck Fare
VNSDEL IndiGo (6E 6635) Check TimeMTWTFSS1h 35m & Non StopCheck Fare
VNSDEL Air India (AI 428) Check Time-TW-F-S1h 50m & Non Stop
BY RAIL – Varanasi has two railway stations-Kashi and Varanasi Junction (also Cantonment Station).
The station of the city is named as VARANASI JUNCTION and its station code is BSB. The station takes care of all the basic amenities of the passengers.
The station is well-connected to a number of Indian cities. Some of the major routes include to the places of Kanpur Central, Lucknow Nr, and New Delhi. There are 22 weekly trains connecting Kanpur Central to Varanasi, 1 weekly trains connecting Lucknow Nr to Varanasi, and 5 weekly trains connecting New Delhi to Varanasi.
Some of the popular trains traveling to Varanasi are Budhpurnima Exp(14224) to Rajgir operating 7 times a week, K V Exp(14257) to New Delhi operating 7 times a week, Daily Rajhdhani Express to Delhi and Bundelkhand Exp(11108) to Gwalior operating 7 times a week. Traveling in one of these trains will be a memorable experience.
The attractions of Varanasi are many. As soon as you enter the city, you may begin your tour as there are varied points of interest located near the Varanasi station itself.