Varanasi, Benaras, Banaras, Kashi - this city on the banks of river Ganga (Ganges) has been known by all these names through its three millennia long history. A history that is all the more remarkable as its great contemporaries - Athens, Jerusalem and Beijing – have long moved away from their ancient way of life.
Any attempt to encapsulate the essence of Varanasi is to touch the very core of Indian Spiritual Thought. Much of India's inclusive ethos stems from here. A place where mosques built on sacred temples are protected by law; a place where Bismillah Khan, a pious Shi'ite Muslim musician, and a devotee of Hindu Goddess Saraswati, played shehnai at the portals of Vishwanath Temple, remains India's pre-eminent place for spiritual quest.
According to legend, the city was founded by the Hindu deity, Lord Shiva, around 5,000 years ago, thus making it one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in the country. It is one of the seven sacred cities of Hindus. Many Hindu scriptures, including the Rigveda, Skanda Purana, Ramayana, and the Mahabharata, mention the city.
Varanasi is generally believed to be about 3,000 years old. 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 (born circa 567 BCE), 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, and that it extended for about 5 km along the western bank of the Ganges.
During successive invasions starting with the hordes of Mahmud of Ghazni in 1033 CE followed by Mohammed Ghori in 1193 CE, Muslims pillaged and destroyed several times Hindu temples (which were being continually rebuilt) in Varanasi, and used the temple material to build mosques. At the start of the seventeenth century, Mughal Emperor Akbar brought some relief in the destruction of Hindu temples, but near the end of that century, Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb led another temple destruction and even renamed the city as Mohammadâbâd. In these years of Muslim rule, learned scholars in Varanasi fled to other parts of India until Marathas came to the rescue of the city. Marathas brought back the old, lost pride of the city when it was under their control and patronage.
Courtsey – Wikipedia
Traveling within city can get difficult given the chaotic traffic. From auto-rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws and hired taxis are some options. But the best way to move around in the Old City is to walk. Boats are ideal if you wish to travel at a leisurely pace and observe life on the banks of Ganga.
Refrain from taking pictures at the cremation ghats. It is considered improper.
Banarasi sari is a must-buy from Varanasi. Weighing over 500 grams, and price ranging upwards of Rs 2000, these saris come in beautiful colors and designs rich in golden zari work. One of the most famous handloom saris in terms of design in India, these handcrafted creations can spiral out reach for most, depending on the level of brocade work on them. Handloom House and Bhagwan Leela at Sigra, Mehta International at Varuna Bridge and Mohan Silk House near Viswanath Temple are some of the leading places to pick up quality Banarasi saris.
Area around Dashaswamedh Ghat is an interesting place for people looking for knickknacks and traditional Banarasi paan.