25 January 2009

For over 2000 years, Varanasi, the ‘eternal city’, has been one of the holiest places in India. Built on the banks of the sacred Ganges, it is said to combine the virtues of all other places of pilgrimage and anyone who ends their days here, regardless of creed and however great their misdeeds, is transported straight to heaven. The easternmost city in Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi is an important seat of learning, and is the home of novelists, philosophers and grammarians. This has been reflected in its role in the development of Hindi – the closest thing to a national language in India.

Varanasi lies alongside the Ganges where the Varuna and Asi rivers are tributaries. The site was originally called Kashi, or city of light, possibly after the aboriginal Kashia tribe who inhabited the riverbanks. From well before 1000BC, the city was already a centre for learning, attracting philosophers, poets and pilgrims. In the 6th century BC
Prince Siddartha gave his first sermon near here at Sarnath, the very origins of Buddhism.

The considerable revenue from pilgrimages has, over the centuries, led to competing interests for control of the area. Invaders, including the Moghuls and the British, also sought influence here. Every day is devoted to some saint in the Hindu pantheon, and there is a never ending round of devotions.