Varanasi, known to the devout as Kashi, is said to have been founded by Shiva, Lord of the Universe. One of the oldest living cities in the world, as also one of the most important pilgrimage sites in India, Varanasi is a major tourist attraction. Situated on the banks of the sacred Ganges, the city has been a centre of learning and civilisation for over 2000 years. It was at Sarnath, only 10 km away from Varanasi, that the Buddha, first preached his message of enlightenment, 25 centuries ago. Varanasi derives its present name from the two tributaries of the Ganga - Varuna and Asi - between which it is situated. According to historians, the city was founded around ten centuries before the birth of Christ. The city finds mention in holy scriptures like 'Vamana Purana', Buddhist texts and the 'Mahabharata'. The unique relationship between the mighty Ganga and the city forms the essence of Varanasi - 'the land of sacred light'.
Tonsured heads, chillum-smoking sadhus, the chanting of mantras and cremation grounds where the fire never dies down. This is Varanasi - the holiest of Indian cities. Also known as Kashi or the city of light, the abode of Lord Shiva where, according to Hindu religious legends, the first rays of light fell after creation. It is here, in Varanasi, that the Hindu world converges to partake in an endless cycle of birth and death, life and salvation. One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Varanasi is paralleled only by Damascus in terms of antiquity. Many people refer to Varanasi as Benares, an anglicised corruption of its ancient name. Attracting over a million pilgrims every year, the city lives and breathes traditional Hindu religion and culture. Yet it has evolved through the amalgamation of the sacred and profane, the spiritual and the commercial. This is a city that buzzes with activity; a city that is not just a dead mound of history.
What Varanasi offers is life itself, in myriad hues like the changing face of its ghats (river landings) with shifting rays of light. The numerous ghats along the Ganga, the narrow alleys and streets with a mixture of rickshaws, cycles, autorickshaws, pedestrians and even cattle and the religious shrines all form a bizarre circus. The devout come to die here, but it is also an amazingly lively place. Famed for its religious fervour as much as its thugs (tricksters). Varanasi is also the place that has evoked some of the most creative processes in philosophy, religion, the arts and craftsmanship.