Varanasi is one of the oldest living cities in the world. Many names have been given to Varanasi, though its recently revived official appellation is mentioned in the Mahabharata and in the Jataka tales of Buddhism.
It probably derives its name from the two rivers that flank the city, the Varuna to the north and the Asi to the south. Many still use the anglicized forms of Banaras or Benares, while pilgrims refer to Kashi, first used three thousand years ago to describe the kingdom and the city outside which the Buddha preached his first sermon; the "City of Light" is also called Kashika, "the shining one", referring to the light of Shiva. Another epithet, Avimukta, meaning "Never Forsaken", refers to the city that Shiva never deserted, or that one should never leave.
Varanasi's associations with Shiva extend to the beginning of time: legends relate how, after his marriage to Parvati, Shiva left his Himalyan abode and came to reside in Kashi with all the gods in attendance.
A city which, since it is both an exalted place of pilgrimage and centre of faith, has been likened to Jerusalem and Mecca.According to the historians, the city was founded some ten centuries before the birth of Christ. The city is mentioned in Holy Scriptures like 'Vamana Purana', Buddhist texts and in the epic 'Mahabharata'.Mark Twain,the English author and litterateur,who was enthralled by the legend and sanctity of Banaras,once wrote:"Banaras is older than history,older than tradition,older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together."
Varanasi's prominence in Hindu mythology is virtually unrivalled. For the devout Hindu the city has always had a special place, besides being a pilgrimage centre,it is considered especially auspicious to die here, ensuring an instant route to heaven.The revered and ancient city Varanasi is the religious centre of the world of Hindus. A city where the past and present, eternity and continuity co-exist.
The city of Banaras is situated on the west bank of the holiest of all Indian rivers, the Ganga or Ganges. The relationship between the sacred river and the city is the essence of Varanasi - 'the land of sacred light'. The Ganga is believed to have flown from heaven to wash away the worldly sins of the human race.Life on the banks of the Ganga begins before dawn when thousands of pilgrims - men, women and children - come down to the river to wait for the rising sun when immersion in the sacred river will cleanse them of their sufferings and wash their sins away.
Along the water's edge, there are the burning ghats. The most sacred one is Manikarnika, associated with Goddess Parvati, Lord Shiva's wife. The major shrine is the Vishwanath Temple the abode of Lord Shiva, the most important of the trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara, the Lords of this universe. Around this temple evolved the spiritual identity of Varanasi .
It is beside the holy waters of the Ganga that the activities for which Banaras is held sacred are performed. Everyday thousands of residents and pilgrims bathe, offer prayers to the elements, to the rising sun, and to their dead ancestors who have been carried away by these waters. What draws people to the river is an ingrained belief that these waters can absolve the sins of many generations.
Everyone has their own way of celebrating the ritual contact with the holy Ganga: some bathe; other dip themselves entirely into the water once, thrice or any number of times; some drink the water; other make water offerings to the sun; while others fill their pots with holy water to take back to their homes to perform rituals and purification.The offerings to the sacred waters vary. Pilgrims give flowers, fruits, lamps and their respectful prayers.
The appearance of the pillar of light is said to have occurred at the site of Vishvanatha Temple. The holy city within Banaras is thus called Kashi "The Luminous One' or the 'City of Light'. Light in Hindu philosophy has great meaning for it exemplifies the wisdom that destroys the darkness of ignorance. Sin and evil are understood to be the acts of ignorance. When wisdom is acquired, evil will disappear. Sin cannot be washed away by water or prayer but only by wisdom. Immorality is also reached through wisdom and understanding. So the City of Light is the City of Eternal Wisdom as well. To die in the city beside the river of life is to die with a promise of redemption, a promise to be liberated from the endless cycle of life and death and reincarnation, and to gain moksha or eternal absolution. So for centuries thousands of people have come to Banaras to die and thousands have brought the ashes of the dead here to immerse them in the holy waters.
Banaras has always been associated with philosophy and wisdom. A place of learning for many years, the Banaras Hindu University carries on this tradition. The University campus, to the south of the city, was built at the beginning of this century. Pundit Madan Mohan Malviya was instrumental in founding it.