Brief History of Varanasi (Banaras)

Why Varanasi Could be the World's Oldest City

Evening At Varanasi
Dilwar Photography / Getty Images

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

Varanasi presents a microcosm of Hinduism, a city of steeped in the traditional culture of India. Glorified in Hindu mythology and sanctified in religious scriptures, it has attracted devotees, pilgrims and worshipers from time immemorial.

The City of Shiva

The original name of Varanasi was 'Kashi,' derived from the word 'Kasha,' meaning brightness.

It is also known variously as Avimuktaka, Anandakanana, Mahasmasana, Surandhana, Brahma Vardha, Sudarsana and Ramya. Steeped in tradition and mythological legacy, Kashi is believed to be the ‘original ground' created by Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati.

How Varanasi Got Its Name

According to the ‘Vamana Purana’, the Varuna and the Assi rivers originated from the body of the primordial being at the beginning of time. The present name Varanasi has its origin in these two tributaries of the Ganges, Varuna and Asi, which flank its northern and southern borders. The tract of land lying between them was named ‘Varanasi,' the holiest of all pilgrimages. Banaras or Benaras, as it is popularly known, is only a corruption of the name Varanasi.

Early History of Varanasi

Historians have now ascertained that the Aryans first settled in the Ganges valley and by the second millennium BC, Varanasi became the nucleus of Aryan religion and philosophy.

The city also flourished as a commercial and industrial center famous for its muslin and silk fabrics, ivory works, perfumery and sculptures.

In the 6th century BC, Varanasi became the capital of the kingdom of Kashi. During this time Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon at Sarnath, just 10 km away from Varanasi.

Being a center of religious, educational, cultural and artistic activities, Kashi drew many learned men from around the world; the celebrated Chinese traveler Hsüan Tsang is one of them, who visited India around AD 635.

Varanasi Under the Muslims

From 1194, Varanasi went into a destructive phase for three centuries under the Muslim rule. The temples were destroyed and the scholars had to leave. In the 16th century, with the tolerant emperor Akbar's accession to the Mughal throne, some religious respite was restored to the city. All that disappeared again in the late 17th century when the tyrannical Mughal ruler Aurangzeb came to power.

Recent History

The 18th century again brought back the lost glory to Varanasi. It became an independent kingdom, with Ramnagar as its capital, when the British declared it a new Indian state in 1910. After India's independence in 1947, Varanasi became part of the state of Uttar Pradesh.

Vital Statistics

  • Location: Longitude - 83.0; Latitude - 25.20
  • Area: 73.89 sq km
  • Population of the district: 3,682,194 (2011 Census)
  • Altitude: 80.71 m above sea level
  • Season To Visit: September-March
  • Language: Hindi, English
  • STD Code: +91 542