"Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together."
- Mark Twain

Formerly known as Benares and Kashi, the city of Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh is the oldest and most sacred city in India, and is one of the oldest living cities in the world. Hindu legend has it that Varanasi is the center of the universe, the first city created by the gods on Earth, and it is certainly true that it was already an old city when Rome was created. The only thing I can find consensus on is that Varanasi has been the captial city of its region since roughly 650 B.C., but some sources state that it has existed as a city as far back as the Aryan culture in the second millennium B.C. It is mentioned in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata under many different names. It sits between two tributaries of the Ganges river, varuna and Asi, from which it takes its name. About 12 kilometres away is Sarnath, the first place where the Buddha preached, and both places receive huge amounts of tourists every year. It is said that if you die in Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges, you will attain instant liberation, or moksha.

Varanasi is full of ancient temples, far too many for one person to see even in several visits - a couple of the most important are the Golden Temple and the Durga Temple. The Golden Temple is the most important in the city, dedicated to Shiva. The original temple was incredibly old, but Varanasi has been through a rough time in its history, and the temple has been destroyed several times, most recently by a Muslim ruler called Aurangzeb, who built a mosque in its place using columns and stone from the razed temple. The current temple was rebuilt across the road from the original site in 1776. The Durga Temple is popularly known as the Monkey Temple, because of the large numbers of monkeys who now live there and are tolerated by the priests. It was built in the 18th century. There is also the Bharat Mata temple, which is highly unusual in that it is not dedicated to any god or goddess, but to India itself. It was inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi, who is regarded as the father of modern India.

The main tourist attractions, however, and the centre of sacred life in Varanasi, are the ghats. These are, at their simplest, carved stone steps leading from the city streets down to the bank of the Ganges. Most ghats have small temples built at their sides, while the larger and more important ones have increasingly impressive structures adorning them. There are more than a hundred ghats in Varanasi, but the five most important are Assi, Dasawamedha, Barnasangam, Panchganga, and Manikarnika, each of which has built up its own history, sacred function and following of devotees. Pilgrims are supposed to bathe in each of these five ghats in that order in one day. Every day at dawn pilgrims immerse themselves waist-deep in the water and perform Surya Pranam, the devotion to the sun. At dusk flowers and oil lamps are sent floating down the river. Some ghats, such as Manikarnika, are used for cremations. Everyone is equal on the banks of the Ganges, and high-caste men and women mix with sadhus and sudras in the water.

Varanasi is also a thriving city in economic terms - Benarasi silk is in demand all over India, and has been for centuries. Benarasi mithais (milk-based sweets) are also famous, and are very important in the Hindu culture, being used as sacred offerings and as prasad in the temples. There is always some kind of festival going on - no sooner does one end when another begins, which means that the city is always heaving with some kind of sacred activity in which most of its inhabitants participate in some way. It is also renowned for its musicians, particularly sitarists, and even more particularly Ravi Shankar, probably the greatest Indian musician of modern times. It also contains the largest residential university in India, Benaras Hindu University, which was founded in 1917 and covers 2000 acres. If anyone is thinking of visiting, best not to go in the summer, when temperatures get up to 45 degrees Celsius, or during monsoon season, unless you really, really like water, a lot. During the winter months, the climate is warm during the day and cool in the evenings.


References and further reading:
http://www.varanasionline.com/
http://www.shubhyatra.com/htm/uttarpradesh/varanasi.htm
http://www.indiatouristoffice.org/North/varanasi.htm
http://www.freeindia.org/tourism/varanasi/introduction/page1.htm
The fact that it is holy to die in Varanasi prompts a lot of old people to go and settle in Varanasi. As you walk along the roads of Varanasi, it is a common sight to come across a dead body being carried in a rickshaw or an autorickshaw. Touching or seeing a dead body is considered inauspicious in Brahmin culture. You are required to have a head bath if you do come across one. When I was in Varanasi, I was intrigued and asked one of the Brahmin friends who accompanied us (he lived there), what they do about the inauspiciousness. He said, you see so many corpses that it is just not possible to go have head bath everytime. Rather he said something interesting - each time you see a corpse - utter the words "Ram Nam Satya Hai .. Satya Bolo Satya Hai" .. translation "The Word of Lord Rama is the truth and it is the only truth". This is supposed to purify your body/soul. After hearing this, I started noticing around that a lot of people do this.

All this aside, Varanasi is famous for its kachoris and mishti dahi (sweetened yogurt).

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