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Benares (Varanasi)

1905, December. Sri Aurobindo at a session of National Congress at Benares. Swadeshi - boycott of foreign goods. Sri Aurobindo included in the scope of his revolutionary work one kind of activity which afterwards became an important item in the public programme of the Nationalist party. He encouraged the young men in the centres of work to propagate the Swadeshi idea which at that time was only in its infancy and hardly more than a fad of the few.



Benares (Varanasi, Banaras, Kashi), city, southeastern Uttar Pradesh state, northern India. It is located on the left bank of the Ganges River and is one of the seven sacred cities of the Hindus. In Pali language Varanasi was called Banarasi hence it got the name "Banaras". Varanasi is also called "Kashi" or the city of spiritual light. Kashi is the place where Shiva and Parvati stood when the "time started ticking". It attractes thousands of pilgrims. One theory also goes that Varanasi is located on the land between the river Varuna and Assi hence the name Varanasi. For every visitor Varanasi has different experiences to offer. The shimmering red and golden water of the Ganges when rays of dawn falls on them, the high banks, the temples, the Ashrams, the pavilions all are an experience in themselves. Chanting of Mantras, the hymns along with the fragrance of incense in fills the air with mysticism which entrails every person. The refreshing dip in the Ganges with the splashing of water along the ghats - in Varanasi discovery and experience takes to the ultimate bliss. Not only for its temples, Ghats and Ganges Banaras has produced many exponents of art, music, literature and crafts. The Banarasi silk sarees and brocades are cherished as collector's items across the world.

Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Its early history is that of the first Aryan settlement in the middle Ganges valley. By the 2nd millennium BC, Varanasi was a seat of Aryan religion and philosophy and was also a commercial and industrial centre famous for its muslin and silk fabrics, perfumes, ivory works, and sculpture. This city has found place in the Buddhist scriptures as well the epic of Mahabharata. Varanasi was the capital of the kingdom of Kashi during the time of Buddha (6th century BC), who gave his first sermon at nearby Sarnath. The city remained a centre of religious, educational, and artistic activities as attested by the celebrated Chinese traveler Hs?an-tsang, who visited it in c. AD 635 and said that the city extended for about 3 miles (5 km) along the western bank of the Ganges. Varanasi subsequently declined during the three centuries of Muslim occupation, beginning in 1194. Many of the city's Hindu temples were destroyed during the period of Muslim rule, and learned scholars fled to other parts of the country. The Mughal emperor Akbar in the 16th century brought some relief to the city's religious and cultural activities. There was another setback during the reign of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in the late 17th century, but later the Marathas sponsored a new revival. Varanasi became an independent kingdom in the 18th century, and under subsequent British rule it remained a commercial and religious centre. In 1910 the British made Varanasi a new Indian state, with Ramnagar (on the opposite bank) as headquarters but with no jurisdiction over the city of Varanasi. In 1949, after Indian independence, the Varanasi state became part of the state of Uttar Pradesh.

Varanasi has the finest river frontage in India, with miles of ghats, or steps, for religious bathing; an array of shrines, temples, and palaces rises tier on tier from the water's edge. The inner streets of the city are narrow, winding, and impassable for motor traffic; the newer, outer suburbs are more spacious and are laid out more systematically. The sacred city is bounded by a road known as Panchakosi; every devout Hindu hopes to walk this road and to visit the city once in a lifetime and, if possible, to die there in old age. More than 1,000,000 pilgrims visit the city each year.

Among the city's numerous temples, the most venerated are those of Vishvanatha, dedicated to Shiva; that of Sankatmochana, dedicated to the monkey-god Hanuman; and that of Durga. The Durga Temple is famous for the swarms of monkeys that inhabit the large trees near it. The Great Mosque of Aurangzeb is another prominent religious building. Two of the more important modern temples are those of Tulasi Manas and the Vishvanatha on the campus of the Banaras Hindu University. The city has hundreds of other temples. At Sarnath, a few miles north of Varanasi, there are ruins of ancient Buddhist monasteries and temples as well as temples built by the Maha Bodhi Society and by the Chinese, Burmese, and Tibetan Buddhists.

Varanasi has been a city of Hindu learning through the ages. There are innumerable schools and countless Brahman pandits, or learned men, responsible for the continuation of traditional learning. There are also three universities, including the large and important Banaras Hindu University (1915), and more than a dozen colleges and high schools.

The city is also a centre of arts and crafts and of music and dance. Varanasi is famous for its production of silks and brocades with gold and silver threadwork, as well as for wooden toys, bangles made of glass, ivory work, and brass ware. Pop. (1991 prelim.) 925,962.

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