Varanasi (Sanskrit: वाराणसी Vārāṇasī, Hindustani pronunciation: [ʋaːˈraːɳəsi]), also commonly known as Benares or Banaras (Hindi: बनारस, Urdu: بنارس, Banāras [bəˈnaːrəs] ) and Kashi (Hindi: काशी, Urdu: کاشی, Kāśī [ˈkaːʃi]), is a city situated on the banks of the River Ganges in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, 320 kilometres (199 mi) southeast of state capital Lucknow. It is regarded as a holy city by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and probably the oldest in India.
The Kashi Naresh (Maharaja of Kashi) is the chief cultural patron of Varanasi and an essential part of all religious celebrations. The culture of Varanasi is closely associated with the River Ganges and the river’s religious importance. The city has been a cultural and religious centre in North India for several thousand years. The Benares Gharana form of the Indian classical music developed in Varanasi, and many prominent Indian philosophers, poets, writers, and musicians resided or reside in Varanasi, including Kabir, Satguru Ravidass, Trailanga Swami, Munshi Premchand, Devkinandan Khatri, Bhartendu Harishchandra, Jaishankar Prasad, Acharya Shukla, Ravi Shankar, Girija Devi, Sitara Devi, Gudai Maharaj, Hariprasad Chaurasia, and Bismillah Khan. Tulsidas wrote Ramacharitamanas here, and Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon at Sarnath located near Varanasi (Kashi).
Varanasi is home to four universities: Banaras Hindu University, Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth, Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies and Sampurnanand Sanskrit University. Residents mainly speak the Hindi and Kashika Bhojpuri, which is closely related to the Hindi language. People often refer to Varanasi as “the city of temples”, “the holy city of India”, “the religious capital of India”, “the city of lights”, and “the city of learning.”
Painting of Benares in 1890.
The name Varanasi has its origin possibly from the names of the two rivers Varuna and Assi, for the old city lies in the north shores of the Ganga bounded by its two tributaries, the Varuna and the Asi, with the Ganges being to its south. Another speculation about the origin of the name is that the river Varuna itself was called Varanasi in olden times, from which the city got its name. This is generally disregarded by historians, though there may be some earlier texts suggesting it to be so.
Through the ages, Varanasi was variously known as Avimuktaka, Anandakanana, Mahasmasana, Surandhana, Brahma Vardha, Sudarsana, Ramya, and Kasi.
In the Rigveda, the city was referred to as Kasi or Kashi, “the luminous one” as an allusion to the city’s historical status as a centre of learning, literature, and culture. Kasikhanda described the glory of the city in 15, 000 verses in the Skanda Purana. In one verse, God Shiva says,
The three worlds form one city of mine, and Kasi is my royal palace therein.
According to legend, the city was founded by the Hindu deity Lord Shiva, several thousand years ago, thus making it one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in the country. It is also a general belief that it stands on the weapon “The Trishool” of Lord Shiva. It is one of the seven sacred cities of the Hindus. Many Hindu scriptures, including the Rigveda, Skanda Purana, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata, mention the city.
Varanasi is generally believed to be about several thousand years old. Varanasi was an industry centre famous for its muslin and silk fabrics, perfumes, ivory works, and sculpture. During the time of Gautama Buddha (born circa 567 BCE), Varanasi was the capital of the Kingdom of Kashi. The celebrated Chinese traveller Xuanzang attested that the city was a center of religious and artistic activities, and that it extended for about 5 km along the western bank of the Ganges.
Kashi Naresh and Ramnagar
Varanasi became an independent Kingdom of Kashi in the eighteenth century, and under subsequent British rule, it remained a commercial and religious centre. Varanasi suffered during the raids into India by Muhammad of Ghori, as described by Kamil-ut-Tawarikh of Ibn Asir: “The slaughter of Hindus (at Varanasi) was immense; none were spared except women and children, (who were taken into slavery) and the carnage of men went on until the earth was weary.” In 1910, the British made Varanasi a new Indian state, with Ramanagar as its headquarters but with no jurisdiction over the city of Varanasi itself. Kashi Naresh still resides in the fort of Ramanagar. The Ramnagar Fort of the Kashi Naresh is situated to the east of Varanasi, across the Ganges. The Ramnagar Fort was built by Kashi Naresh Raja Balwant Singh with creamy chunar sandstone in the eighteenth century. It is a typically Mughal style of architecture with carved balconies, open courtyards, and picturesque pavilions. The other fort of the Kashi Naresh is the Chet Singh Palace, near Shivala Ghat, Varanasi built by Maharaja Chet Singh.
Ramnagar Fort and its museum are the repository of the history of the kings of Benares and since the 18th century has been the home of Kashi Naresh. Even today the Kashi Naresh is deeply revered by the people of Benares. He is the religious head and the people of Benares consider him the incarnation of Lord Shiva. He is also the chief cultural patron and an essential part of all religious celebrations.
The city of Varanasi is located in the middle Ganges valley of North India, in the Eastern part of the state of Uttar Pradesh, along the left crescent-shaped bank of the Ganges river. It has the headquarters of Varanasi district. The “Varanasi Urban Agglomeration” — an agglomeration of seven urban sub-units — covers an area of 112.26 km 2 (approximately 43 mi²). The urban agglomeration is stretched between 82° 56’E – 83° 03’E and 25° 14’N – 25° 23.5’N. Being located in the Indo-Gangetic Plains of North India, the land is very fertile because low level floods in the Ganges continually replenish the soil.
On a local level, Varanasi is located on a higher ground between rivers Ganges and Varuna, the mean elevation being 80.71 m. As a result of absence of tributaries and canals, the main land is continuous and relatively dry. In ancient times, this geographic situation must have been highly favourable for forming settlements. But it is difficult to ascertain the original geography of Varanasi because the city’s current location is not exactly the same as the one described in some old texts.
Varanasi is often said to be located between two confluences: one of the Ganges and Varuna, and other of the Ganges and Assi, (Assi having always been a rivulet rather than a river.) The distance between these two confluences is around 2.5 miles (4.0 km), and religious Hindus regard a round trip between these two places—a Pancha-kroshi Yatra (a five mile (8 km) journey) ending with a visit to a Sakshi Vinayak Temple as a holy ritual.
A view of the Ghat of Varanasi from the River Ganges
Varanasi experiences a humid subtropical climate (Köppen climate classification Cwa) with large variations between summer and winter temperatures. Summers are long, from early April to October, with intervening monsoon seasons and are also extremely hot, even by South Asian standards. The temperature ranges between 32°C – 46 °C (90°F – 115 °F) in the summers. Winters in Varanasi see very large diurnal variations, with warm days and downright cold nights. Cold waves from the Himalayan region cause temperatures to dip across the city in the winter from December to February and temperatures below 5 °C are not uncommon. The average annual rainfall is 1,110 mm (44 in). Fog is common in the winters, while hot dry winds, called loo, blow in the summers.