VARANASI A city in the state of Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi (called Benares by the British) had a population of 1.1 million in 2001. The name Varanasi is derived from the two rivers, Varuna and Asi, that flow into the Ganga (Ganges) there. The city is located on the western bank of the Ganga, which flows from north to south in this area, and the city thus faces the morning sun. Many ghats (steps) lead from the high bank down to the river, where pilgrims bathe; the Manikarnika Ghat and the Dasasvamedha Ghat are the most famous of these. Being the most sacred place of the Hindus, the city has many temples, including the Hanuman Temple, dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman, and the Durga Temple of the Mother Goddess Durgā. The most important of all is the Vishwanath Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, the patron of the city. The original Vishwanath Temple was destroyed by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, who had a mosque built at this site, which still occupies one of the most prominent locations of the city.
Many pious Hindus come to Varanasi when they believe they are near death, in order to be cremated on one of the "burning ghats" in the northern part of the city. The ashes of the dead are swept into the river, which is believed to have a self-purifying quality. In recent years the river has been polluted by many industrial effluents.
This sacred city was earlier known as Kashi. Its origins can probably be traced back to the eighth century b.c. The Buddha preached his first sermon in neighboring Sarnath, which is marked by its ancient Dharam Eka stupa. In addition to its ancient religious traditions, Varanasi is also known for its silk saris, which are coveted by Indian women everywhere. The saris are usually decorated with borders containing gilded threads, some with beautifully embroidered patterns.
The city is also home to one of India's most famous universities, Banaras Hindu University. When the Muslim University at Aligarh was started, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, a leading Hindu politician, advocated the establishment of a Hindu university in Varanasi and received a great deal of support for it. The university was inaugurated in February 1916. The humanities have played an important role in its curriculum, but it has also gained a reputation as a center of science and technology. It is one of India's national universities, which are under the direct supervision of the president of India.
Singh, Bhagwati Sharan. Varanasi. New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1988.
Singh, Rana P. B. Cosmic Order, Sacred City, Hindu Traditions. Varanasi: Tara Book, 1993.
Verma, T. P. Varanasi through the Ages. Varanasi: Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Samiti, 1986.