Mark Twain once very famously remarked that Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old with all of them put together. This is so very true for this quaintly charming land is indeed very old and takes pride in a History that dates back to 2500 years. The History of Varanasi begins with the settling of some Aryan tribes out here. They came from the north and made this land their home.
According to popular religious legend Lord Shiva made Varanasi his home after marrying Parvati. He did not leave the land ever since and consequently Varanasi emerged as an important pilgrim center for the Hindus, particularly the Shaivite Hindus.
Varanasi has been referred to time and again in the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata as well as in the Buddhist Jataka tales. They are great pointers to its antiquity. History has it that Varanasi or Kashi, another name by which it is referred to was visited by Lord Buddha way back in 500 B.C. In fact it was on the outskirts of this city the Lord Buddha preached his first sermon after becoming “The Enlightened One”.
While reading the History of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh one is sure to feel that it is a melting point of several cultures. Apart from its intimate association with Hinduism and Buddhism, it boasts of links with yet another religion – Jainism. The Jains revere this city very highly because three of their Tirthankaras were born here.
By virtue of lying on a very important trade route, Varanasi was also a very important center of trade and commerce in the 7th century. And if we are go to by the History of Varanasi from then on to the 15th century, we will know that is continued to flourish all along. In the 1400’s however the city was completely routed by the Afghans and it had to be totally rebuilt.
Actually on account of its enviable location and prosperity Varanasi was the target of many rulers. The list of Muslim rulers to have invaded Varanasi includes Mahmud of Ghazni, Mahmud of Ghori, Sultan Allaudin Khilji and Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. As a result of these raids many temples and other ancient structures were destroyed. This is indeed very unfortunate but there is no denying that the History of this land flanked by the stretch of the sacred River Ganges continues to live. The History of Varanasi is narrated by the rare old manuscripts, the folk traditions and the people of Varanasi.
We come to know that Varanasi was the prime center of the Bhakti movement. Spear headed by the likes of Ramananda and Kabir, this devotional movement took place in the 15th century. The latter was highly respected by Hindus and Muslims alike. Tulsidas credited with the translation of the Ramayana from Sanskrit to Hindi belonged to Varanasi.
Varanasi is also home to the Benaras Hindu University and the Theosophical society. With so many stalwarts in the field of art, literature, craft and philosophy related to Varanasi coupled with it being the focal point of cultural activities it is but obvious that it will be labeled as the cultural capital of the country. History of Varanasi does show that it very much deserves this epithet.