Varanasi, known to the devout as Kashi and purportedly the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, is situated near Allahabad. As legend goes, the city was founded by Shiva, Lord of the Universe, making it is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in India. Situated on the banks of the sacred Ganges River, the city has been a centre of learning and civilization for over 2000 years. Varanasi derives its present name from the two tributaries of the Ganga - Varuna and Asi - between which it is situated.
Varanasi's principal attraction is the long string of bathing ghats, which line the west banks of the Ganges. An early morning river cruise is a must. Ghats are the steps, which lead down to the river. There are around 80 ghats in Varanasi, each with its own significance. Most Indians believe that anyone dying on the banks of the river, in Varanasi, attains instant 'moksha' or enlightenment. The Dasaswamedh Ghat is the most significant ghat here, and conveniently placed at the centre. The Manikarnika ghat is associated with Goddess Parvati, Lord Shiva's wife. The five ghats where pilgrims are supposed to bathe in order, and on the same day are Asi ghat, followed by Dasaswamedh, Barna Sangam, Panchganga, and finally, Manikarnika, in that order. Manikarnika and Harishchandra ghats are the ghats used primarily for the cremation of the dead. Other main ghats include Kedar ghat, a shrine popular with Bengalis; Mansarovar ghat built by Man Singh of Amber; and Panch Ganga Ghat where the five rivers are supposed to meet.
It was here that the Buddha first preached his message of enlightenment, 25 centuries ago. Saranath is only 10 km away from Varanasi.
The main temple of Varanasi, the Golden Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva or Vishweswara. The original temple was located across the road, but it was destroyed by Aurangazeb, who then built a mosque over it. The present temple was built by Ahilya Bai of Indore in 1776. The new Mosque has been built using columns from the original temple razed by Aurangazeb. This mosque has minarets towering 71 meters above the Ganges.
The Durga Temple, commonly known as the Monkey Temple, was built in the 18th century by a Bengali Maharani and is stained red with ochre. This small temple, dedicated to Goddess Durga, consort of Shiva, is built in the north Indian Nagara style, with a multicoloured shikhara or umbrella.
The Bharat Mata temple
Carved out of marble this temple was inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi. The Tulsi Manas temple has been crafted from white marble, and has the entire Ramayana inscribed on its walls.
Banaras Hindu University
Banaras Hindu University, founded by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, is considered to be the largest residential university in Asia. Within the University campus, Vishwanath Temple and Bharat Kala Kendra, the Museum and Ramnagar Fort are interesting. The residence of Kashi Naresh (former Maharaja of Varanasi) is situated across the Ganga at Ramnagar, 16 km from Varanasi. The University houses a museum comprising exhibits like palanquins, costumes, swords, sabres etc. The vibrant celebration of Dussehra at Ramnagar is an event not to be missed.