Varanasi also commonly known as Benares or Banaras and Kashi is a city situated on the left (west) bank of the River Ganga (Ganges) in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, regarded as holy by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Senthoo. It is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. Varanasi is located between two rivers Varana and Asi, and hence the name Varanasi.
Benares has been a pilgrimage center since time immemorial. It is believed that the fifth head of Bhrama which clung to Shiva's palms came unstuck only after he reached Varanasi. Varanasi is the most popular pilgrimage point for the Hindus. One of the seven holiest cities, Varanasi city is also one the Shakti Peethas and one of the twelve Jyotir Linga sites in India. In Hinduism it is believed that those who die and are cremated here get an instant gateway to liberation from the cycle of births and re-births.
Varanasi is the oldest city of the world. Varanasi is more than 3000 years old and is famous as the city of temples. In Varanasi, there are temples at every few paces. Looking at the number of temples in Varanasi, it is hard to believe that a large number of them were demolished during the medieval times. Jyotirlinga Visvanatha Temple or Golden Temple, rebuilt in 1776, is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The Jnana Vapi well (meaning 'Well of Wisdom) is believed to have been dug by Lord Shiva himself.
Varanasi is home to these four universities: Banaras Hindu University, Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth, Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies and Sampurnanand Sanskrit University. People often refer to Varanasi as "the city of temples", "the holy city of India", "the religious capital of India", "the city of lights", and "the city of learning."
The holy city has been a symbol of spiritualism, philosophy and mysticism for thousands of years and has produced great saints and personalities like Guatama Buddha, Mahavira, Kabir, Tulsi Das, Shankaracharaya, Ramanuja and Patanjali. Tulsidas wrote his Ramacharitamanas there, and Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon at Sarnath near Kashi. Varanasi is a pilgrimage site for Jains along with Hindus and Buddhists. It is believed to be the birthplace of Parshvanatha, the twenty-third Tirthankar.
Varanasi has nearly 100 ghats. Many of the ghats were built when the city was under Maratha control. Marathas, Shindes (Scindias), Holkars, Bhonsles, and Peshwes (Peshwas) stand out as patrons of present-day Varanasi. It is known for its fine-quality silks and 'paan'. More than 1,000,000 pilgrims visit the city each year.
American writer Mark Twain wrote: "Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together."