Benares/Varanasi/Kashi (India)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Benares, also known as Varanasi and Kashi, is thought by many to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, and certainly all agree that the area has been inhabited for more than 2,000 years. The city is located southeast of Lucknow, on the banks of the sacred Ganges River. Its name Varanasi derives from Varuna and Asi, the two tributaries of the Ganges between which it is located. Legendary tradition attributed the city’s founding to Shiva, and it is believed that living there for a period of time and bathing in the Ganges, and/or dying there, in what is considered Shiva’s hometown, releases one from the circle of rebirths (reincarnation). Death has come to be an integral part of the city’s life. The last rites for the dead are a major religious activity repeated almost daily, and the cremation grounds lie in the heart of the city.

Buddhist beginnings are also connected to Benares. The city is quite close to Sarnath, where Gautama Buddha found enlightenment, after which he visited Benares (around 500 BCE) to deliver his first sermon.

Benares was deeply affected by the era of Muslim rule in the later Middle Ages. In the middle of the seventeenth century, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (r. 1658–1707) attained the throne. His lengthy reign was marked by the wholesale destruction of Hindu temples and the general suppression of Hindu worship. Few of the present Hindu structures in Benares predate the eighteenth century, when Hindu control was reasserted in the region.

Since the return of Hindu rule, some 1,500 temples, palaces, and shrines have been constructed. Among the oldest is the Vishwanath Temple, rebuilt in 1777 by Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore, on the same site of what had been the principal Shiva temple during the millennium prior to Aurangzeb. The temple roof and altar area are heavily decorated with gold. Among the modern structures is the Bharat Mandir, dedicated to “Mother India,” a twentieth-century temple opened by Mahatma Gandhi. It contains a large, decorative marble map of India.

The real religious life of the city, however, is to be found along the ghats, the stairways that lead down to the river’s edge. Here the holy men gather, the faithful come to take their symbolic baths, and the bodies of the deceased are cremated.


Bhattacharya, B. Varanasi Rediscovered. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1999.
Eck, Diana. Benares: City of Light. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.
Medhasananda, Swami. Varanasi at the Crossroads: A Panoramic View of Early Modern Varanasi and the Story of Its Transition. Calcutta: Ramakrishan Mission Institute of Culture, 2002.
Singh, Birendra Pratap. Life in Ancient Varanasi: An Account Based on Archaeological Evidence. New Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan, 1985. Sinha, Kunal. A Benarasi on Varanasi. New Delhi: Bluejay Books, 2004.
The Encyclopedia of Religious Phenomena © 2008 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.