Varanasi, also known as ‘Banaras’ or ‘Benares’, is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. It is also called the ‘Religious Capital of India’ and is one of the holy cities for the Hindus.Believed to be the abode of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati, Varanasi is situated on the banks of the River Ganga, in Uttar Pradesh.
Varanasi derives its name from the two branches of River Ganga: ‘Varuna’ and ‘Assi’. The place is also called Kashi as the word ‘Kas’ means, to shine or brightness.There are many temples at Benaras dedicated to different Gods and Goddesses. A major Hindu shrine at Banaras is the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, devoted to Lord Shiva.
The Bharat Mata Temple has a special mention as it is dedicated to Mother India. It does not have a statue of any God or Goddess like other traditional temples and was built before the partition of India.
Varanasi is also a major centre of learning and culture. The Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in the city is the largest residential university in Asia. It was founded by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya with the cooperation of De. Annie Besant.
The city is known worldwide for its ghats, riverfront steps leading to the River Ganges. Most of the ghats are used for bathing by piligrims and Hindu puja ceremony, while a few are used exclusively as Hindu cremation sites. Pilgrims also flock the ghats to wash away a lifetime of sins in the sacred waters. In Hindu religion, it is believed that one, who dies and is cremated at Varanasi, will attain moksha or salvation from the cycle of births and rebirths.
Some of the ghats are the Dashashwamedh Ghat, Harishchandra Ghat, Manikarrnika Ghat, Assi Ghat, Kedar Ghat and Tulsi Ghat. Ccording to mythology, Lord Bhrahma sacrificed 10 horses in the Dashahwamedh Ghat and hence the name. Manikarnika Ghat and the Harishchandra Ghat are the ghats where the bodies of Hindus are burnt after death.
River Ganga is considered as the holiest river by the Hindus. Hence, to honour and respect the river Goddness, a festival called the Ganga Mahotsav is held every year for a few days. During this festival, the ghats are beautifully decorated with lamps and pilgrims release lighted lamps or diyas to float in the river. This is known as ‘Dev Deepavali’, as it is believed that Gods descend on Earth to take a dip in the Ganges, during this time. There are also music and dance performances of the Indian classical style.