Varanasi also known as Benares is a city on the banks of the Ganges in the Uttar Pradesh state of North India. A major religious hub in India, it is the holiest of the seven sacred cities (Sapta Puri) in Hinduism and Jainism, and played an important role in the development of Buddhism. These few lines by Mark Twain say it all: "Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together" Hindus believe that one who is graced to die on the land of Varanasi would attain salvation and freedom from the cycle of birth and re-birth. Ganges in Varanasi is believed to have the power to wash away the sins of mortals.
The city draws Hindu pilgrims who bathe in the Ganges River’s sacred waters and perform funeral rites. Along the city's winding streets are some 2,000 temples, including Kashi Vishwanath, the “Golden Temple,” dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.
According to legend, Varanasi was founded by the god Shiva. There happened a fight between the two supreme gods, Brahma and Shiva, and the succeeding combat resulted in one of the four heads of Brahma being torn off by Shiva. It was a custom of the time that the victor carried the slain adversary’s head in his hand and let it hang down from his hand as an act of ignominy and a sign of his own bravery. A bridle was also put into the mouth. Shiva thus dishonored Brahma's head, and kept it with him at all times. When he came to the city of Varanasi in this state, the hanging head of Brahma dropped from Shiva's hand and disappeared in the ground. The land of Varanasi is therefore considered an extremely holy religious site.
Banaras is still called ‘The City of Shiva’ and devotion to Shiva can be seen in the city abundantly.
Banaras has seen the Vedic religion flourishing from its own eyes. A reference to Kashi is frequently found in ancient Hind scriptures such as Vedas, Upnishadas, and Puranas.Banaras holds a divine and important status since the beginning of the history of Hinduism. In Upanishadas, it was referred as the holiest city of all.
Ganges is said to have its origins in the tresses of Lord Shiva and in Varanasi, it expands to the mighty river that we know of. The city is a center of learning and civilization for over 3000 years. With Sarnath, the place where Buddha preached his first sermon after enlightenment, just 10 km away, Varanasi has been a symbol of Hindu renaissance. Knowledge, philosophy, culture, devotion to Gods, Indian arts and crafts has all flourished here for centuries. Also a pilgrimage place for Jains, Varanasi is believed to be the birthplace of Parsvanath, the twenty-third Tirthankar. Varanasi has also been a great center of learning for ages. Varanasi is associated with promotion of spiritualism, mysticism, Sanskrit, yoga and Hindi language and honored authors such as the ever-famous novelist Prem Chand and Tulsi Das, the famous saint-poet who wrote Ram Charit Manas. Banaras is called as the cultural capital of India.
The city was referred in Buddhist texts in abundance. The ship of Buddhism first sailed circa 528 BC, when Gautam Buddha gave his first sermon near Banaras, at the places known as Sarnath. It is believed by some scholars that Buddha started the life of Buddhism here because Banaras held significant power and importance in India that time. Kashi was among the sixteen Mahajanpadas (refers to the sixteen kingdoms and oligarchic republics) of sixth to fourth centuries BC, and Varanasi was its Capital. Before the era of Buddha, Kashi was the most powerful among the sixteen mahajanpadas of India.Varanasi has provided the right platform for all cultural activities to flourish. Many exponents of dance and music have come from Varanasi. Ravi Shankar, the internationally renowned Sitar maestro and Ustad Bismillah Khan, (the famous Shehnai player) are all sons of the blessed city or have lived here for major part of their lives Currently, Varanasi is a major city. It serves as a major commercial centre in the eastern Uttar Pradesh state and western Bihar state. Holding 4 universities (including Banaras Hindu University – BHU, one of the most prominent universities in India), Banaras is a notable center of education.
Religious and cultural importance is maintained, and Banaras is respected by Hindus and Buddhists in particular from entire world.In the 2014 parliamentary elections of India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected as the ‘Member of Parliament’ from Varanasi. Prime Minister has vowed to return the city its glory.