By Niranjan Shah
My dear Nikita and Sanjna:
Varanasi or Kashi, also known as Benares is described by Varanasi Tourism as the oldest city in the world and the cultural capital of India. Mark Twain, popular American author of Following the Equator, who visited Benaras, writes: “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” The city is so old that it is referred in the Rigveda as Kasi or Kashi, “the luminous one” as an allusion to the city’s historical status as a center of learning, literature, and the culture. Kashikhanda described the glory of the city in 15,000 verses in the Skanda Purana. In one verse, Lord Shiva says, the three worlds form one city of of mine, and Kashi is my royal palace therein. Another reference to Varanasi is found in a hymn by Sri Veda Vyasa: Ganga-taranga-ramaneeya-jataakalaapam, Gauri-nirantara-vibhushita-vaamabhaagam. Narayanapriyam-Ananga-madaapahaaram, Varanasi-pura-patim bhaja Vishwanatham.
Situated on the west bank of the Ganga, Varanasi is an important holy city for both Hindus and Buddhists. The city has been a cultural and religious centre in North India for several thousand years. The Benares Gharana form of Indian classical music was developed in Varanasi. Many prominent Indian philosophers, poets, writers, and musicians resided or reside in Varanasi. These include Kabir, Ravidas, their Guru Swami Ramanand, Trailanga Swami, Munshi Premchand, Jaishankar Prasad, Acharya Shukla, Ravi Shankar, Girija Devi, Hariprasad Chaurasia, and Bismillah Khan. Tulsidas wrote Ramacharitamanas here, and Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon at Sarnath located near Varanasi.
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 Kashika Bhoj-puri, 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,” “and the city of lights,” and “the city of learning.”
The name Varanasi has its origin possibly from the names of the two rivers names of the two rivers Varuna and Assi for it lies with the confluence of Varuna with the Ganga being to its north and that of Assi and the Ganga to its south. Another speculation about the origin of the name is that the river Varuna itself was called Varanasi in olden times, from where 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.
According to legend, the city was founded by the Deity, Lord Shiva, making it one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in the country. It is one of the seven sacred cities of India, others being Haradwar, Ayodhya, Mathura, Dwarika, Kanchi-puram, and Ujjain. Not only Rigaveda and Skanda Purana, it is also mentioned in Ramayana, and the Maha-bharata also. Varanasi was a commercial and industrial center famous for its muslin and silk fabrics, perfumes, ivory works, and sculpture. During the time of Gautama Buddha, Varanasi was the capital of the Kingdom of Kashi. The celebrated Chinese traveler, Xuanzang, attested that the city was a center of religious, educational, and artistic activities. Varanasi became an independent Kingdom of Kashi in the 18th century, and under subsequent British rule, it remained a commercial and religious center. In 1910, the British made Varanasi a new Indian state, with Ramanagar as its headquarters. Kashi Naresh still resides in the fort of Ramanagar. Even today the Kashi Naresh is deeply revered by the people of Varanasi. He is the religious head, and the people of Varanasi consider him the incarnation of Lord Shiva. He is also the chief cultural patron and an essential part of all religious celebrations.
— Grandpa’s blessing