Varanasi – History, Facts, Mythology

Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh has been known with many names like Kashi, Banaras, Avimukt Kshetra etc. Varanasi & Kashi find mention in Vedic literature too. Varanasi is popularly called Banaras in local parlance. The city is supposed to be older than the oldest. Because that light, which is unspeakable Shiva, shines here, let its other name be Kashi” {Kashi Mahatmya - Kashi Khand, Skanda Purana). Kashi is said to be a derivative of the Sanskrit root hash which means “To shine, to look brilliant or beautiful”. It promises to bestow the enlightenment because that was a promise made by the Lord Shiva, said to be the founder of the city. The city is perched on the top of three hillocks. According to Padma Purana, Kashi is said to be resting eternally on the trident of Shiva and to be His permanent abode, where he dwells to bestow the enlightenment and the wisdom to attain liberation, Shiva being its protector, Kashi is not subjected to relentless movement of the cosmic cycle of time and space. This city of light has a quality to generate the divine energy which would enable one to seek the enlightened fundamental Truth and Reality.

Where this light of eternal Shiva, intersects the earth that region is known as Kashi. Kashi is Avimukta - a city never forsaken by Shiva. The mythology tells that it was at this place where the lingam of Shiva was established for the first time and was worshiped on earth as the symbol of His perpetual presence. Shiva vowed not to forsake the place even during ‘pralay’ -the periodic universal destruction.

The twin names of Kashi and Varanasi have been inseparably linked to this holy place of not only a pilgrimage but also of learning, heritage, and wisdom to attain liberation. According to Atharva Veda, Kashi was not the name of the city but the name of the kingdom and Varanasi as its capital. In the Mahabharata, two Janpadas have been mentioned— Kasheya and Aparkasheya. In the Vamana Parana, the rivers Varuna and Asi are said to have originated from the body of the Primordial Person (purusha) at the beginning of time. The Varuna issued from the right foot of the cosmic giant and the Asi from its left foot. The tract of land lying between them is the best place of pilgrimage in the three worlds and is potent enough to destroy all sins. Jabala Upanishad says: ‘It is called Varna because it removes (varayati) all sins. It is called Nasi because it destroys (nashayati) all sins of the senses.’ When the seeker asks where this place is located, the sage answers ‘It is the place where the nose and the eyebrows meet. That is the meeting place of heaven and the world beyond.’ Here Varanasi is given an esoteric interpretation. It is the highest of the six chakras, the ‘circles’ of power in Yogic anatomy. It is the place of the eye of wisdom.

In the earliest period, it was on top of three hillocks and this fact gave it the distinction of being situated atop Shiva’s trident, not touching the earth. A change in its boundaries took place when the circular boundary of a 10 mile radius was cut down to a chariot shape. Later on a further reduction on the northern side created a conch shape. Around this unit is performed the sacred Panch Koshi Parikrama.

Lewis Mainford in his book ‘City in History’ has written that “city is the energy converted into culture”. There are few great cities in the world which have converted the energy of an entire civilization into culture and have symbolized and embodied that whole civilization in microcosm. It is no wonder that such cities have become places of pilgrimage for the culture and society they have produced. The name Kashi is the most ancient and was used nearly 3000 years ago and referred to the kingdom to which this city became the capital. In due course of time, the name got affixed to the city as well. Some of the Jatakas have mentioned Kashipur and Kashinagar which appear to be synonymous. While the city has always been mentioned as Varanasi, by the 17th century AD the name Kashi also came to be used.

In some religious texts, Varanasi and Kashi, both have been used to refer to Dharmkshetra. According to archaeologists, Dharamkshetra was not very extensive in the 2nd century BC the city extended along the banks of Ganga. As mentioned in the Mahabharata, the city as well as Dharamkshetra extended on both sides of Varuna river. According to Padma Purana, the area being located between the two rivers, Varuna on southern side and Asi in the east, derived its name Varanasi. Alfred Cunnigham has accepted the location of Varanasi, between these two rivers.

Kashi of course finds a mention in Vedic literature. According to the description found there, Koshal, Magadh and Kashi were adjacent kingdoms. Varanasi has also been linked with the name of a river Varnavati mentioned in Atharva Veda. The name Banaras is a distortion of Varanasi which came to be in use at the time of British regime.

According to Huen Tsang, kingdom of Banaras-Kashi was 667 miles in circumference. The capital was in the west side of the kingdom and was near the Ganga and was 3 miles in length. The villages had dense population. The climate was temperate and crops were good. The fruit trees were luxuriant and the earth was covered with tufted vegetation. There were about 100 temples of gods and the people mostly worshipped Maheshwara.

Macaulay described Banaras in eloquent terms. He wrote, “A city, which in wealth, population, dignity and sanctity, was among the foremost of Asia. It was commonly believed that half a million of human beings were crowded into that labyrinth of lofty alleys, rich with shrines and minarets and holiness, and carved oriels, to which the sacred apes clung by hundreds from the rooms of Banaras. The most delicate silks that adorned the halls of St James’s and of Versailles; and in the Bazaars, the muslins of Bengal were mingled with jewels of Golconda and Kashmiri shawls.”

Even in the era of Mahajanpadas, Kashi was referred to as Janpada and Varanasi as its capital and this is how it has been referred in other Sanskrit texts like Puranas, Jain books and Jatakas. The reference to the name Kashi dates back to about 3000 years. MA Sherring, a mid-nineteenth century missionary who lived in Banaras and wrote profusely about the city, said, “The history of a country is sometimes epitomized in the history of one of its principal cities. The city of Banaras 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. In Banaras, Buddhism was first promulgated; and at last Hinduism has had her home in the bosom of her most impassioned votaries. This city therefore, has given impulse and vigour to the two regions which to this day govern half the world” (1886).

Etymologically, the name Kashi came from Kasha, the name of an ancient king whose dynasty later produced the famous legendary king Divodasa of Kashi. Kasha is also the name of a tall silver-coloured flowering grass which grows wild along the river banks. The region was known to be jungle of such grass.

According to Padma Purana, Varanasi spread between the two rivers which merge into Ganga in the north. The knowledge derived from archaeological excavations and its fold descriptions of the city proves that ancient Varanasi initially existed in the north and on the high plateau of Raj Ghat. The description of the early city being on the plateau of Raj Ghat has been corroborated by a number of early Sanskrit texts and at that time it did not stretch along the Ganga as it does today. Asi was said to be only a rivulet or a rain-fed river.

One incident mentioned in Brihadaryanaka Upanishad is of significance in this context. Janakpur in Mithila (Bihar) seems to have surpassed in philosophical knowledge. Varanasi’s king Ajatshatru too was a great philosopher. There was a learned philosopher Gargya Balaki who was held in high esteem for his learning and the knowledge of the Supreme. Once he told Ajatshatru that he would give his discourse on ‘Brahma’ in Kashi instead of Mithila where probably all such discourses were held. That pleased the king Ajatshatru (who was different from the other Ajatshatru of Magadh) immensely. During the discourse, Ajatshatru proved that Balaki’s philosophic hypothesis was wrong. It was this incident which earned Varanasi the name of “Brahma Vardhan” which meant the philosophical light head.

From the Pali version of the name Baranasi came the distorted version Banaras, the name by which the city came to be known in later years. In British India, it became ‘Banaras’. It was after Independence, the earlier name was restored. Anandvan, the forest of bliss, the most significant part of Kashi needs a special mention because it is situated on the plateau of Raj Ghat and was the spot where the idyllic city had originated. It was a verdant forest in the beginning.

It spread out towards south. It was idyllic surroundings to sit and ponder over metaphysical subjects. Yogis could sit here and meditate and ascetics and hermits could find a place to practice. Panch Koshi is another landmark without which the description of the city is incomplete. Panch Kosi or the radius of 5 kos is considered very sacred as it is said to encircle the holy city. This road roughly forms a semicircle from Vishwanatha Temple at a radius of 5 kos (1 kos = 2 miles). It cannot form a complete circle without crossing Ganga. However the perambulation being considered very sacred, every pilgrim takes this round which has to be made on foot. During this pilgrimage, which is completed in 5 days, one gets a good opportunity to visit a number of ancient temples, pools and streams.

Mahagovinda Sukta of Digha Nikaya says that Varanasi was founded long before Buddha. The founder of the city has been named as Mahagovinda, the Brahmin minister of king Renu who was the first ruler. Renu has been mentioned as the son of Vishwamitra in Sakhyana Shrauta Sutra. Vishwamitra’s defeat in the battle of Parushni River is mentioned in the Rig Veda. The founding of kingdom of Kashi and the city of Varanasi has been regarded as simultaneous events. In Puranic Sanskrit literature, names of following kings of Varanasi have been mentioned in chronological order: Divodasa, Astarath, Haryashva, Sudeva, Divodasa-II & Pratardan.

In Jain literature of about first century, Varanasi and Kashi have been mentioned as synonymous in the first century. The remains of ancient town of Varanasi (from the 3rd century BC to 7th century AD) were found in the excavation carried out at the plateau of Raj Ghat where the city is said to have been originally founded. The excavation revealed houses of different sizes but along narrow streets and interspersed by temples. This pattern continued to be followed even till the 18th century.

Kashi is said to have risen to glory and greatness before Rome had become known or Greece had contended with Persia. Mark Twain in his journey around the world had quipped, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Unlike other ancient cities of the world, Banaras has hardly been important politically. A city said to be founded by Shiva has its take of sanctity. There are a few cities in India which are truly as symbolic of Hindu culture as Banaras.

In the earlier history when emperor Renu ruled, the city is said to have a well- established administration. The initial problem of administration having been solved, the king decided to perform the Ashwamedha Yagya. Though the venture was thwarted by the king of Kuru-Panchal, the progress continued through centuries. As mentioned in Jatakas, Varanasi had become the most important city in Jambudweep. A mention is found of a Kashiraja having participated in the Mahabharata from Pandava’s side. But since the name of the king has not been mentioned, one does not know which Kashiraja was the one who fought in the battle, though his fleet of caparisoned horses has been mentioned in detail.

The next mention of a war seems to be that of Lord Krishna. For same reason, after the Mahabharata war, Vasudev Krishna’s army is said to have attacked the kingdom of Kashi and burnt it down. This was followed by other encounters with Magadh and Koshala janpadas as Kashi kept shuttling between the two kingdoms. After those earlier encounters, came the sacking and destruction carried by Shahab-ua-din Ghori who attacked Banaras in the 12th century. Aurangzeb’s regime marked a particularly troubled period for Banaras. He said to have destroyed the sacred Shiva temple and got a mosque constructed at that spot. After the reign of Aurangzeb, the strife and confusion that followed, Banaras had to go through many vicissitudes. Ultimately it was handed over to Sadat Khan, the Nawab Wazir of Awadh. It was during this period that Maharaja Mansa Ram, the king of Banaras, acquired a position. His son Balwant Singh not only retained the title of Raja, but managed to strengthen his hold over the province and set up an independent kingdom. He built Ramnagar across River Ganga and made it his capital and also made a fort there. The castle is known as Ramnagar Fort that houses palace, museum and Vyas Temple.

Varanasi continued to be the seat of higher learning, philosophy, culture, tradition arts and crafts. The countryside remained abundant in agriculture. The city also developed as a prominent centre of education and trade. Some of the educational institutions are said to have been older than Taxila. Though there was a free exchange of pupils between the two academic centers at all times. Graduates of Taxila came and settled down at Varanasi and brought credit to the town by their achievements.

Commercial magnets, known as ‘shresthis’, had fabulous wealth. They said to have dealt in the trade of maunds (an ancient measure of weight equal to more than 30 Kilograms) of copper and silver coins every day. Agriculture and cow breeding was yet another sphere which was flourishing well.

The sages continued their quest of the cardinal truth for which they positively found a congenial and serene atmosphere and surroundings in Varanasi. It was the exposition of such higher knowledge and fundamental truth that has sustained the glory, the greatness of this city. People came to Kashi to acquire such higher form of learning.

It is remarkable that Buddhism and Jainism too found Kashi a wholesome ground for the exposition of the tenets of their religious thinking. The Buddhist thought found its expression for the first time in Varanasi as Gautam Buddha decided to deliver his ‘dharma-chakra-pravartan’, his first sermon there. As if a logical sequence, a Buddhist township of Sarnath developed in close proximity, through the remains of an earlier township on the same grounds were discovered by the archaeologists.

Excavations which were started for the first time in 1815 were followed by Cunningham and taken over by others later. The findings in the later excavations included large number of foundations and broken walls which were found at a place called Isipattan city, the earlier site. Sarnath was founded here. The findings of the excavation are kept in Kolkata museum as well as in museum at Sarnath itself. An important find of that excavation was the Lion Capital, the State Emblem of India now. A large number of statues and sculptures dating from 3rd century BC to the 12th century AD were also found. The workmanship of all those is exquisite.

Fah Hien and Hsuen Tsang’s account corroborated the erection of stupa or tower at the place where Buddha had preached his first sermon to five disciples. Buddhism once reigned paramount in India and Banaras was one of its principle seats. That is why, excavations at Sarnath have always been viewed with great interest.

Varanasi can easily be called a city of temples and it being an abode of Shiva, naturally the Shiva temples are the largest in number. Some of these temples have great antiquity associated with them. Popular belief is that some of the deities have been assigned the temporal duty of maintaining law and order of the city as well, the reason being their great concern for the people or rather subjects of the Lord Shiva!

The temple of Bhairav Nath (Kal Bhairav) is one such shrine. Kal Bhairav Temple in Varanasi has immense religious significance among the Hindu faithful. The god of this shrine, in public estimation is deified Kotwal or police magistrate of Benares and the suburbs as far as the ‘panch kosi’ ends, comes under the Divine Decree of his Master Vishveshwar Vishwanath. Bhairav Nath is believed to be keeping evil spirits and evil persons out of the boundaries of the city. He wields his authority with a huge club which is not a wooden staff but a stone—four feet in height and of considerable thickness. This club is called Dandapani. Surprisingly enough, instead of being located with the deity, it is located in another temple close by. This club is said to be empowered with divine intelligence and acts virtually as a magistrate, to whom having entrusted the responsibilities, Bhairav Nath relaxes with ease. It is worshipped every Tuesday and Sunday by a large number of people. The priest, who sits on one side, holds a stick of peacock feather with which he taps the devotees in a symbolic gesture of the blessings of Dandapani. Dandapani, however, is the name of one of the attendants of Shiva. Literal meaning of the word is ‘The person with stick in hand’. On the outer walls of the temple, there are paintings of Bhairav Nath and the dog - believed to be his vahana (carrier). Unlike other temples, dogs are allowed to enter in this temple. Navagrah Temple is situated between the temples of Bhairav Nath and Dandpani. There are a couple of famous Ganesha temples in the city. Lord Ganesha is credited with all pervasive wisdom and the faculty of intelligence is worshipped first on all auspicious occasions. The temples of Dhundiraj, Sankat Mochan, Durga, Bhawani, Kashi Devi, Ganga etc and many others are spread in different parts of the city, revered by the devotees from all parts of the country and even abroad. Dhundiraj Temple is considered one of the oldest in the city.

Kashi Vishwanath temple is the one through which rests the fame of this city. This temple situated amidst the narrow lanes is highly venerated. Pilgrims from every comer of India, as well as from abroad come to pay a visit to the temple. It is said that the original temple was destroyed by Aurangzeb but the priests were quick to retrieve the original lingam and threw it in the nearby well to save its sanctity. Later on when the temple was re-constructed the lingam was restored. A legend connected with this well says that once Varanasi suffered from a heavy draught with no rain for 12 years. Then one sage grasped a trident and thrust it into earth. Water gushed out at that spot and kept bubbling. The misery was relieved. Shiva took his perpetual abode in the well.

This Vishwanath or the Vishveshwar Vishwanath Temple is also known as the Golden Temple because of its spires of gold. The expense of gilding the spires was borne by Maharaja Ranjeet Singh of Panjab. The temple of Vishveshwar, including the tower is 51 feet in height and one of the bells of the temple was presented by the king of Nepal. Extensive remains of the ancient temple are still visible. Scrutinizing the remains of the older temple one can easily visualize the grandeur and vastness of the gigantic temple.

The ghats of Varanasi assume an equally important place in the narration of the city. Raj Ghat, the plateau, being the original place where the city is said to have originated naturally acquires significance. A configuration of 3 hillocks on the banks of the river Ganga acquired significance as that was the spot chosen for the earliest township. The ruins and the remains found in the excavation at this place have proved its great antiquity. The ancient town of Varanasi was discovered in the excavation. An old fort still stands at this place. Dashashwamedh Ghat is another ghat of consequence and is a well-known landmark. All main roads of the city converge here. It is an important point in the river traffic where boats bring stones from lime quarries. Manikarnika Ghat is generally known as the significant cremation ghat. But the well at Manikarnika Ghat is of greater attraction. The legend in Kashi Khand has it that once Vishnu dug a well with his Chakra (Discus-shaped weapon) and filled it with the sweat from his own body. After that he went to the north side of the city and begun to practice austerities. Mahadeva, in the meanwhile visited the place and peeped into the well, where he saw the radiance of millions of suns reflected in the well. Shiva was so enchanted that he asked Lord Vishnu to seek any boon, he desired. Vishnu said he only wanted Shiva to reside there permanently. Shiva was so pleased with the compliment that he literally shook with delight. With that, his ear ornament made of Mani (precious stone - ruby) fell in the well and hence the name Manikarnika.

Varanasi, popularly known as Banaras, is replete with temples, ghats and wells, each one with some legend or significance attached. The city represents India’s tradition, culture and intellect in the same way as Paris represents the political and cultural ethos of France. A city of such a nature is bound to occupy a place of prominence in the annals of human race most naturally create curiosity and interest. The city of Shiva cannot but embody the truth, the bliss, the beauty—Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram.

Even now people from every part of the country as well as from the world who strongly believe in Kashi’s capacity to lead the humanity towards a glorious dawn. Kashi is a city which continues to maintain its characteristics to lead intellectually, academically and spiritually. A city vigorously vibrating with the true and correct form of Sanatan Dharma is bound to remain a city eternal.

Banaras has been described as “A city rich in wealth, population, dignity and sanctity was amongst the foremost in Asia”. Vishveshwar Temple is the one through which wafts the glory of the Lord who promised to make Kashi his eternal abode. The promise was duly made to a placidly flowing Ganga. Shiva had nobly accepted to cup in his matted locks to hold the rushing torrent of a rhythmically flowing Ganga which became an integral part of Shiva’s eternal abode.

Varanasi Tour Packages

Golden Triangle with Mathura Varanasi Haridwar Rishikesh Tour

Golden Triangle with Mathura Varanasi Haridwar Rishikesh Tour

10 Nights / 11 Days
Destination : Delhi- Jaipur-Abhaneri- Fatehpur Sikri- Agra- Varanasi-Haridwar-Rishikesh

Incredible India with Diwali Tour

Incredible India with Diwali Tour

15 Nights / 16 Days
Destination : Delhi-Udaipur-Jaipur-Abhaneri-Fatehpur-Sikri-Agra-Orchha-Khajuraho-Varanasi-Mumbai-Goa

North India Heritage Tour

North India Heritage Tour

9 Nights / 10 Days
Destination : Delhi – Jaipur – Abhaneri – Fatehpur Sikri- Agra- Gwalior- Orchha-Khajuraho - Varanasi

Golden Triangle with Varanasi Tour

Golden Triangle with Varanasi Tour

7 Nights / 8 Days
Destination : Delhi - Jaipur - Abhaneri - Fatehpur Sikri - Agra - Varanasi - Sarnath - Delhi

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