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History of Varanasi

According to mythology, after marriage Lord Shiva came to reside in Varanasi along with his wife Parvati and other gods and goddesses. It is believed that he never left the city, thus making it an important Shaivite pilgrimage. Shiva, popularly known as the destroyer amongst the Hindu trinity, is the most venerated lord here. Death, an integral part of tantric tradition, is an integral part of the city’s life. That is why the last rites of the dead are performed openly and cremation grounds are in the heart of the city.

The antiquity of Varanasi claims to go back 2,500 years. The city has references in the great epics Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Buddhist Jataka tales. Buddha visited the city in 500 BC and delivered his first sermon after attaining enlightenment at Sarnath, on the outskirts of Varanasi. The Jains also revere the city as three of their Tirthankaras (disciples of Mahavira, the founder of Jainism) were born here. Situated on an important trade route, it was already a thriving city in the 7th century BC.

Varanasi was the focal point of the 15th century revivalist Hindu Bhakti (devotional) movement under saints like Ramananda and Kabir. Kabir, the son of a Muslim weaver, was venerated both by Muslims and Hindus. There is a story about the tussle between the two communities on his last rites. According to popular legend, his body turned into a heap of flowers, and was divided into two for burial by the Muslims and cremation by the Hindus. The poet-saint Tulsidas also lived here, and translated the epic Ramayana from Sanskrit to Hindi.

Due to its location and prosperity, Varanasi was raided over and over again by Muslim rulers. From Mahmud of Ghazni to Ghauri to the Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khilji and most of all, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. As a result, most of the ancient temples and other structures were destroyed. What now remains is mostly about 200 years old, and not many which are earlier than the 17th century. The history of Varanasi lives however, in the repository of old manuscripts, the folk traditions and most importantly, through its people.

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