Varanasi, also known as Banaras or Kashi, is one of India’s most fascinating cities. Located on the banks of the Ganges River in northern India, it is one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world.
For thousands of years, Varanasi has been a major center of spirituality, philosophy, culture and commerce. It is considered the holiest city for Hindus, who believe taking a dip in the Ganges here will wash away sins. The city is jam-packed with temples – the most famous being Kashi Vishwanath Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. The waterfront has a string of ghats or steps leading down to the river, where visitors can watch the daily rituals of bathing, meditation, yoga and cremations.
Varanasi is also renowned for its hand-woven silk sarees, ornate carpets and other crafts. The narrow winding alleys are full of artisans skilled in these traditional crafts that have been passed down for generations.
Beyond the spiritual significance, Varanasi has made immense contributions to Indian music, literature and education. It was the birthplace of the Indian classical music tradition called the Banaras gharana. Great writers like Tulsidas, Kabir and Premchand lived and worked here. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Varanasi became a hotbed of nationalism, reform movements and modern education. Schools like the Benares Sanskrit College and Banaras Hindu University were established during this intellectually vibrant time.
Today, locals live side-by-side with priests, pilgrims, tourists, musicians and scholars that flock here. Walking the streets, one can feel the living history of this holy city. The sounds of temple bells, chanting of hymns, aroma of incense and glimpse of colorful saris drying along the river – all make for an unforgettable experience. Many visit Varanasi to connect with their faith and spirituality. But anyone can appreciate the rich heritage and timeless allure of this magical city.
The name “Varanasi” comes from the names of two rivers that form the borders of the old city – the Varuna to the north and the Assi to the south. The ancient name “Kashi” has roots in the Sanskrit word meaning “to shine”, making it known as the luminous or shining city. Kashi was the common name used for Varanasi in ancient Buddhist and Hindu texts.
Various Sanskrit epithets also refer to Varanasi, reflecting its deep spiritual significance in Hinduism:
- Kāśikā – The shining one
- Avimukta – Never forsaken by Lord Shiva
- Ānandakānana – The forest of bliss
- Rudravāsa – The place where Lord Shiva resides
- Mahāshmashāna – The great cremation ground
So the traditional name Kashi highlights the city’s luminosity, while other ancient names emphasize it as a holy site blessed by Shiva and the Ganges. The riverbanks, temples and ghats imbue Varanasi with a divine aura, making it one of the holiest pilgrimage destinations for Hindus.
History of Varanasi
The origins of Varanasi are steeped in Hindu mythology. Legend has it that the city was founded by Shiva, one of the main Hindu gods along with Brahma and Vishnu. During a fight between Brahma and Shiva, Shiva ripped off one of Brahma’s five heads. As was customary after victory in battle, Shiva carried Brahma’s severed head in his hand as a sign of triumph. He even put a bridle in the mouth and paraded around with the dishonored head at all times. When Shiva came to the site of present-day Varanasi still holding Brahma’s head, it finally dropped from his hand and disappeared into the ground. This is why Varanasi is considered such a sacred location.
The Pandavas – the heroes of the epic Mahabharata – are said to have visited Varanasi while searching for Shiva. They wanted to atone for the sins of murdering their own brothers and relatives during the Kurukshetra War. Varanasi is regarded as one of seven holy cities that can grant “Moksha” or liberation from the cycle of rebirth. The others are Ayodhya, Mathura, Haridwar, Kanchipuram, Ujjain, and Dwarka.
The princesses Ambika and Ambalika of Kashi were married off to King Vichitravirya of Hastinapur. Later, they gave birth to Pandu and Dhritarashtra. Bhima, one of Pandu’s sons, married a Kashi princess named Valandhara. Their union produced a son named Sarvaga who went on to rule Kashi later. Dhritarashtra’s eldest son Duryodhana also married a princess of Kashi named Bhanumati. She bore him a son named Lakshmana Kumara and a daughter named Lakshmanā.
An ancient Buddhist text called the Cakkavatti Sīhanāda Sutta states that Varanasi will one day transform into the mythical kingdom of Ketumati when the future Buddha Maitreya arrives.
The origins of Varanasi stretch back thousands of years. Excavations in 2014 uncovered artifacts from about 800 BCE. Further digging at nearby sites like Aktha and Ramnagar revealed objects dating back to 1800 BCE. This supports the idea that the area was already inhabited during that period.
In the time of Gautama Buddha, Varanasi was part of the Kingdom of Kashi. The famous Chinese traveler Xuanzang, also called Hiuen Tsiang, visited around 635 CE. He attested that Varanasi was a thriving center of religion and art, extending around 5 kilometers along the western bank of the Ganges. When Xuanzang came in the 7th century, he called it “Polonise” and wrote of some 30 temples with 30 monks. The religious significance continued growing in the 8th century when Adi Shankara established the worship of Shiva as an official sect there.
Moving into the medieval period, the 15th century Indian mystic poet Kabir and King Chandradeva, founder of the Gahadavala dynasty, both made Varanasi a second capital in 1090. In 1194 CE, the Ghurid conqueror Muizzuddin Muhammad Ghuri defeated Jayachandra’s forces nearby and then ravaged Varanasi itself. Many temples were destroyed as the city was pillaged.
Varanasi remained an intellectual and theological hub in the Middle Ages, furthering its reputation as a cultural center of religion and learning. Major figures of the Bhakti movement were born here, like Kabir in 1389 and Ravidas in the 15th century. Ravidas was a socio-religious reformer, mystic, poet, traveler and spiritual figure. He was born in Varanasi and worked in the tannery industry.
Early Modern to Modern periods (1500–1949) of Varanasi
From 1500 to 1949 CE, Varanasi attracted numerous eminent scholars and preachers from across India and South Asia. Guru Nanak visited for Maha Shivaratri in 1507, a trip that greatly influenced the founding of Sikhism.
Around 1567, the Mughal Emperor Akbar sacked Varanasi during his march from Allahabad. However, later the Kachwaha Rajput rulers, who were Mughal vassals, rebuilt various temples and ghats under Raja Man Singh. The Raja of Jaipur constructed the Annapurna Mandir. The 200-meter Akbari Bridge was also built then. The first tourists started arriving in the 16th century. In 1665, French traveler Jean-Baptiste Tavernier described the spectacular Vindu Madhava temple by the Ganges. Road infrastructure also improved, including the famous Grand Trunk Road extended by Emperor Sher Shah Suri from Kolkata to Peshawar.
In 1656, Emperor Aurangzeb ordered destruction of temples and constructing mosques instead. This temporarily set the city back. But after Aurangzeb’s death, most of India was ruled by a pro-Hindu confederacy and Varanasi expanded, especially under Maratha and Bhumihar Brahmin rulers in the 18th century. The kings governing Varanasi maintained power and importance even during the British Raj, including the Maharaja of Benares, as the people there called him.
The Mughals granted official status to the Kingdom of Benares in 1737. The dynasty ruled the area until Indian independence in 1947 under Vibhuti Narayan Singh. In the 18th century, Muhammad Shah had an observatory built on the Ganges at Man Mandir Ghat to improve calendars and astronomical tables. Tourism started flourishing then too. As Mughal authority declined, the Benares estate became the state of Banaras, so Balwant Singh of the Narayan dynasty regained control in 1740, declaring himself Maharaja. The strong clan organization allowed lesser known Hindu princes like the Benares rajas to succeed. They had 100,000 men backing them in the regions of Benares, Gorakhpur and Azamgarh. This proved decisive when facing their rival, the Nawab of Oudh, in the 1750s and 1760s.
Raja Chait Singh of Benares State (r.1771–1781) of Varanasi
Raja Chait Singh ruled the Benares State from 1771-1781 CE. He waged an exhausting guerrilla war against the rival Oudh camp using his own troops. This forced the Nawab of Oudh to withdraw his main force from the region. The area was eventually ceded by the Nawab to the Benares State in 1775. The British East India Company recognized Benares as a family dominion then.
In 1791, the British resident Jonathan Duncan founded a Sanskrit College in Varanasi. In 1867, establishing the Varanasi Municipal Board led to major improvements in infrastructure and basic health services, drinking water, and sanitation.
Rev. M.A. Sherring’s 1868 book “The Sacred City of Hindus” refers to a 1830s census by James Prinsep counting around 1000 temples in the city. Sherring wrote:
The history of a country is sometimes epitomized in the history of one of its principal cities. The city of Benaras represents India religiously and intellectually, just as Paris represents the political sentiments of France. There are few cities in the world of greater antiquity, and none that have so uninterruptedly maintained their ancient celebrity and distinction.
Author Mark Twain wrote in 1897 of Varanasi,
The famous American author Mark Twain wrote after visiting Varanasi in 1897:
“Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
In 1911, Benares became a princely state with its capital at Ramnagar. But it had no jurisdiction over the city itself. Since the 18th century, the religious leader Kashi Naresh had been based at the Ramnagar Fort, which also housed the history of Varanasi’s kings. It stands east of the city across the Ganges. The Kashi Naresh was deeply revered by locals as the cultural patron, with some devout inhabitants even considering him an incarnation of Shiva.
The British educator Annie Besant founded the Central Hindu College in Varanasi, which later developed into Banaras Hindu University in 1916. She started the college to “bring men of all religions together under the ideal of brotherhood in order to promote Indian cultural values and to remove ill-will among different sections of the Indian population.”
Varanasi was ceded to the Union of India in 1947 at Indian independence, becoming part of Uttar Pradesh. That same year, the ruler Vibhuti Narayan Singh merged his territories into the United Provinces.
21st-century of Varanasi
In recent times, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has represented Varanasi in the Indian Parliament ever since winning the seat in 2014. He has taken special interest in the city’s development.
In December 2021, PM Modi inaugurated the ambitious Shri Kashi Vishwanath Corridor project. It aims to boost the city’s spiritual vibrancy by better connecting the many ghats along the Ganges to the historic Kashi Vishwanath Temple. The renovated corridor is a key initiative to enhance pilgrim facilities in Varanasi, which Hindus consider one of their holiest sites.
Overall, Varanasi has maintained its status as an important religious, cultural and political center over its long history spanning thousands of years. The city seamlessly blends ancient traditions with modern development. With its famous ghats, temples and association with Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, Varanasi continues to captivate residents and visitors alike. Its rich past also makes it a fascinating site for historians, archaeologists and tourists from around the world.
Tourism in Varanasi
Tourism is the second biggest industry in Varanasi after religion and spirituality. Most domestic tourists visit for religious purposes, coming from states like Bihar, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and other parts of Uttar Pradesh. Foreign tourists are attracted by the ghats along the Ganges and the Buddhist site of Sarnath. Sri Lankans and Japanese make up the majority of foreign visitors. Tourism peaks between October and March.
In total, there are around 12,000 hotel beds available in Varanasi. About half are in budget lodgings and a third in dorm-style dharamsalas. Overall, tourism infrastructure is still developing.
In 2017, InterContinental Hotels Group signed an agreement to open Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza properties in partnership with the JHV Group. This will expand high-end hotel options in the city.
Domestic tourist arrivals to Varanasi have increased rapidly in recent years. Over 5.2 million domestic tourists visited in 2017, up from around 2.7 million in 2014. Foreign tourist arrivals numbered about 0.5 million in 2017.
Prominent malls and multiplex cinemas in Varanasi include JHV Mall in Cantonment, IP Mall in Sigra, IP Vijaya Mall in Bhelupur, Vinayak Plaza in Maldhaiya and PDR Mall in Luxa. The city is also home to several major banks, such as Indian Bank, Andhra Bank, Bank of Baroda, Canara Bank, Central Bank of India, Corporation Bank, Indian Overseas Bank, and State Bank of India.
The city has plenty to offer visitors beyond just spiritual activities. Temples, festivals, shopping, and the vibrant Ganges aarti ceremonies at sunset make Varanasi an unforgettable destination. However, infrastructure and facilities still have room for improvement to match world-class tourism cities.
Healthcare in Varanasi
Varanasi has many hospitals, including the Sir Sunderlal Hospital at Banaras Hindu University, Heritage Hospital, Marwari Hospital, Pitambari Hospital, Mata Anand Mai Hospital, Rajkiya Government Hospital, Ram Krishna Mission Hospital, Shiv Prasad Gupta Hospital, Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital run by the state, and Varanasi Hospital and Medical Research Centre.
In 2010-2011, the infant mortality rate in urban parts of Varanasi district was 70 per 1000 live births. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who represents Varanasi in parliament, intervened to have the Railway Cancer Hospital run by the renowned Tata Memorial Centre. This improved cancer care services in the city.
Varanasi is home to ancient medical history too. The physician Sushruta, primary author of the important Sanskrit text Sushruta Samhita on surgery, lived here around the 5th century BCE. He practiced medicine and pioneered surgical techniques in Varanasi during the period.
The Banaras Hindu University has offered training in Ayurveda, the traditional Indian system of medicine, since 1922. In 1927, a separate Ayurvedic College was established. Many Ayurvedic centers operate in Varanasi today, providing treatments like Panchakarma cleansing as well as other therapies.
However, like most Indian cities, public healthcare infrastructure remains a major challenge in Varanasi. The infant mortality rate indicates there is substantial room for improvement. Access to quality affordable healthcare for the general population has a long way to go. But rising private investment and facilities aim to address the gap. The city’s capacity for medical tourism can also be enhanced based on its history as a health destination.
Infrastructure and administration in Varanasi
The Varanasi Development Authority (VDA) oversees infrastructure development in the city. It operates under the Housing Department of the Uttar Pradesh state government. The divisional commissioner of Varanasi serves as ex-officio chairman of the VDA. An appointed Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer works as vice-chairman handling day-to-day matters. The current vice-chairman is Pulkit Khare.
The Varanasi Municipal Corporation is responsible for civic administration. The directly elected mayor heads the corporation. The municipal commissioner appointed by the Uttar Pradesh government handles executive functions and administration. The commissioner is either a senior IAS officer or Provincial Civil Service (PCS) officer. The present mayor is Mridula Jaiswal, and Nitin Bansal is the municipal commissioner.
Water supply and sewage systems are operated by the Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam department.
Like other old cities, Varanasi faces challenges of congestion, overcrowding, and aging infrastructure. But major upgrades to water, sanitation, and urban transport have taken place in recent years under the Smart Cities Mission and other campaigns.
Some key infrastructure initiatives include:
- Wi-Fi access along the 84 ghats and major public areas
- Revamped Varuna and Assi Ghat pump houses to improve water supply
- Refurbished Lal Bahadur Shastri International Airport terminal
- New sewage treatment plants and underground drainage networks
- Restoration of historic buildings and ghats along River Ganges
- Ring road, flyover and bypass construction to ease traffic congestion
Further infrastructure and urban renewal plans are underway, with the aim of preserving Varanasi’s spiritual and cultural heritage while equipping it with modern amenities.