“Twenty-five centuries ago, at the least, it was famous. When Babylon was struggling with Nineveh for supremacy, when Tyre was planting her colonies, when Athens was growing in strength, before Rome had become known, or Greece had contended with Persia, or Cyrus had added luster to the Persian monarchy, or Nebuchadnezzar had captured Jerusalem, and the inhabitants of Judaea had been carried into captivity, she had already risen to greatness, if not to glory”[i]


The history of Varanasi spans a considerable amount of time, with some believing as far back as

By: Ravi Varma

From the left: Ganesh (son of Shiva and Parvati), Shiva, and Parvati By: Ravi Varma

thirty centuries such as the scholar P.V. Kane who stated that “There is hardly any city in the world that can claim greater antiquity, greater continuity and greater popular veneration that Banaras. Banaras has been a holy city for at least thirty centuries”.[ii] In Hindu mythology, Varanasi in Hinduism is the place where Shiva settled his home when he married Parvati. It is mentioned in the Puranas as the most sacred of space, established when the gods let the two bodies of water the Varuna (the averter) River and Asi (the sword) River flow to protect against the gate of evil; they obstruct and destroy all sins respectively. These rivers originate from Purusha, who was divided up in ritual sacrifice at the creation of the world. The Varuna river is the right foot and Asi is the left foot of Purusha.[iii] The area that the city occupies is sacred, and the city is said to have sprung up from the sacred space naturally by being in such a holy land, possibly the holiest of holy lands in India.

By: Steve Evans

By: Steve Evans

Historical texts that have been discovered place the city of Banaras as far back as eighth century B.C. What’s more though, is that the city seems to have already been established when consulting material referring to the city in eighth century B.C. Varanasi has witnessed the entirety of known Indian history. Who the original founders are of the city are unknown, but the city has changed hands as Indian dynasties have changed. The very stones on which the city is built are considered svyambhu lingas, or lingas that rose up of their own accord in veneration of Shiva.[iv] To speak of the history of Varanasi one can only speak of its religious history.

Hans Bakker states that India’s sanctity really only began when we start to see emblems of Shiva in third century C.E., but other scholars place the history as far back as sources record the city due to the way in which they speak of the city; as a grand center where the heavens, earth, and the afterlife intersect.[v] The histories of Varanasi are given by Hindus and lived out by them in the city, but prior to the eight century B.C., evidence of another religion that existed has been discovered, called the religion of the yakshas, or the life-cult. It seems to resemble Hinduism in some respects, and may have contributed to the inception of Hinduism, as Hinduism is a largely inclusive religion.[vi]

Manikarnika Cremation Ghat, Varanasi By: Dennis Jarvis

Manikarnika Cremation Ghat, Varanasi
By: Dennis Jarvis

Material/ Physical Features:

Most religious activity occurs along the Ganges River, and is performed on hundreds of ghats located along the river, which appear as stone piers that extend into the river or sit along its banks. Looking down the river, one can see thousands of people along these ghats, on their boats, bathing in the river, performing devotions, or performing funerary rites. Crematoriums are often located on ghats, so that the deceased who have attained moksha in the city can be cremated immediately and have their ashes scattered in the river.[vii] The main city is compact, but spreads out over a large area; to the foreign observer, it appears unorganized and sprawled, but to a Hindu and a pilgrim, the city progresses in a natural, fluid way that extends outward from the city center. It is a colorful city, and full of art representing a variety of cultures. Wall paintings of Hindu divinities are everywhere like graffiti, lingas of Shiva, and colorful paste and materials left by devotees at shrines to the divine are everywhere in the city as well. Buildings are built upon rolling hills, with three primary hills representing the three parts of Shiva’s trident; eight shrines dedicated to Lord Ganesh marking the eight compass points mark pilgrimage routes around the city.[viii] Varanasi is a microcosm, intending to represent India at large, and the world. As a tirtha for Hindus, the entirety of Varanasi seeks to evoke feelings of passing into contact with the divine, as it did with a New York Times writer by the name of Roy Hoffman:

The Ganges in the morning light, with smoke rising from the Manikarnika Ghat in the distance. By: Poras Chaudhary

The Ganges in the morning light, with smoke rising from the Manikarnika Ghat in the distance.
Hoffman, Roy. “Captivated by the Ganges, a River of Souls”. The New York Times. April 13, 2016. By: Poras Chaudhary

The Ganges was dark, as if it had swallowed the light…We were borne on a river of souls. They carried us, passing mortals, like water bugs skittering along the surface of time. There was no scrim between me and the burning fires…On this river I had no name…we filed off, followed A.K. up this new ghat, where fresh cords of wood awaited us, past a man squatting next to another shaving his whiskers, a cow before a restaurant nosing into the door, narrow streets with private altars of Shiva behind iron gates.[ix]


The most important people are those involved in the religious rites that happen daily within the city. Religious activity takes precedence everywhere in the city. Priests are often working along the Ganges river performing funerary rites that occupy much of their time. They cremate the bodies of the deceased that have achieved moksha by their death in the city, and scatter the ashes in the river, or perform processions down the river that engage everyone’s attention, and command the cessation of all other activities in observance of them. Roy Hoffman was asked to put everything he had away, even a notepad, so that the rite could be observed and paid respect to in its entirety.[x] Priests are therefore the most important people at this site because they facilitate all of the religious practices. Political figures recognize this fact, and are steeped in the religious tradition themselves.

Sadhu and a picture of Siva By: travelwayoflife

Sadhu and a picture of Siva
By: travelwayoflife



Hindus who have reached the last stage of their lives as sannyasins (hermits) – after being a student, head of a household, and a forest dweller – seek refuge in the city in a practice of asceticism so that they may meditate along the Ganges River in solitude (in spirit, not quite physically) and achieve moksha with their deaths; this is the power that the city has in drawing people to its center and the Ganges River: it is still considered an ascetic practice to reside in the city because of its strong ties to Shiva, the ultimate ascetic.[xi] People therefore visit the city year-round, as they reach old age or seek to experience the sanctity and mysticism that envelops the landscape, although Hindu festivals such as Holi do attract more people during the year. Buddhists and Jains will make their way to Varanasi as well; Buddhists make the pilgrimage to witness Sarnath park, site of the first lecture of Guatama Buddha, and Jains to experience the city in which the twenty third tirthankara was born.[xii]


Hindus make their way to the Ganges River (those who are able) every morning as their daily devotion, and some achieve darshan by witnessing the sun rise as they rinse themselves in the river. What truly characterizes daily rites of Varanasi is the presence of death that pervades the entirety of the city. Funerals are held unceasingly, where people who have passed away are cremated, which releases their soul in a final act of ending samsara performed by priests. Not all those who die are immediately cremated though, which means that they cannot fully achieve moksha quite yet.

Manikarnika Cremation Ghat, Varanasi By: Dennis Jarvis

Manikarnika Cremation Ghat, Varanasi
By: Dennis Jarvis

Those who have died a “bad death”, meaning an untimely one such as being a victim of murder, suicide, or illness, must go through other rites before being cremated and thus achieving moksha. An effigy is typically made of the deceased’s body and burnt as a stand in for the actual body, and the deceased can still achieve moksha. Burning the body of someone who has experience a bad death prevents the release of any illness they may have had at the time of death, and prevent the passing on of what happened to the deceased on to a family member.[xiii]




Varanasi is considered to be a gateway to the afterlife, and an intersection of the heavens, earth, and the afterlife. It is bordered on three sides by three rivers: the Ganges, Varuna, and Asi rivers. The Ganges is considered to be the flowing of shakti, the lifeblood of the land, flowing through as veins in the human body[xiv] and then the right and left foot of Purusha. Varanasi is situated in the middle of all of these rivers given by sacred stories, making the land inherently sacred. With such a vast amount of sacred energy surrounding and enveloping the landscape, sages and ascetics are said to be able to exist partially in this world, but with their soul already moving into the afterlife. They are as ghosts, slowly slipping away into death so that they may achieve moksha, release from samsara and this world.[xv] One could live their entire lives outside of the city, and then make a pilgrimage in old age to pass away and still achieve moksha. It is the city of light and liberation, Kashi, and maintains such power as to cleanse away negative emotions, bad karma, and release the spirit from samsara by its existence.

[i] Eck, Diana L. Banaras, City of Light. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999., 4-5

[ii] Bakker, Hans. “Construction and Reconstruction of Sacred Space in Varanasi” Numen (Brill) 43, no. 1 (January 1996): 32-55, 32

[iii] Eck, Banaras, City of Light, 26-27

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Bakker, “Construction and Reconstruction of Sacred Space in Varanasi”

[vi] Eck, Banaras, City of Light, 51-54

[vii] Hoffman, Roy. “Captivated by the Ganges, a River of Souls”. The New York Times. April 13, 2016.

[viii] Gesler, Wilbert, and Margaret Pierce. “Hindu Varanasi.” Geographical Review (American Geographical Society) 90, no. 2 (April 2000): 222-237.

[ix] Hoffman, “Captivated by the Ganges, a River of Souls”

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Varishthananda, Varanasi

[xii] New World Encyclopedia, “Varanasi”

[xiii] Parry, Jonathan P. Death in Banaras. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994., 185-186

[xiv] New World Encyclopedia, “Varanasi”

[xv] Parry, 184-190