"Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together. – Mark Twain
Banaras (or Kashi or Varanasi) is one of the oldest cities in the world, which have been constantly inhabited. If we look at the archaeological evidences, remains from the year 1200 BC have been found here. While there are also indications that this city could be living since 3000 BC, or even older.
This ancient city has seen many-many generations of human life. Varanasi has seen the progress of human civilisation since very ancient time. This fact helps this city to obtain the status of being the cultural capital of India.
Let’s discuss few selected eras of the history of Varanasi–
Varanasi in Vedic Era
According to the Hindu mythology, city was founded by God Shiva. Varanasi is still called ‘The City of Shiva’; and devotion to Shiva can be seen in the city abundantly.
Varanasi has seen the Vedic religion flourishing from its own eyes. References to Kashi is frequently found in ancient Hind scriptures such as Vedas, Upnishadas, and Puranas.
Varanasi holds a divine and important status since the beginning of the history of Hinduism. In Upanishadas, it was referred as the holiest city of all.
Varanasi in Buddhist Era
Varanasi continued to keep its status of importance in the Buddhist Era as well. The city was referred in Buddhist texts in abundance. The ship of Buddhism first sailed circa 528 BC, when Gautam Buddha gave his first sermon near Varanasi, at the places known as Sarnath. It is believed by some scholars that Buddha started the life of Buddhism here because Varanasi held significant power and importance in India that time. Significant enough to affect the religious belief of entire India.
Kashi was among the sixteen Mahajanpadas (refers to the sixteen kingdoms and oligarchic republics) of sixth to fourth centuries BC, and Varanasi was its Capital. Before the era of Buddha, Kashi was the most powerful among the sixteen mahajanpadas of India.
According to the famous Chinese traveler Hiouen Thsang (Xuanzang), who traveled to Banaras circa 635 AD, described Banaras as rich and prosperous place.
Varanasi was important for Hinduism and Buddhism both; and both religions coexisted rather peacefully, while peaceful coexistence of religions was rare in the world.
Varanasi in Muslim Invasion Era
Muslim kings and emperors loved Varanasi. Loved for attacking, looting, and demolishing purposes, unfortunately; especially the Hindu buildings. Qutb-ud-din Aibak in the year 1194, Feroz Shah Tuglaq in 1376, and Sikander Lodi in 1496 destroyed every old temples in Varanasi. For centuries Varanasi lived in the era of declination and suppression, and lost thousands of its temples.
This suppression of native culture continued under the Mughal dynasty till the second half of 16th century. In the year 1556, Akbar of Mughal Dynasty became the emperor. Despite belonging to a Muslim dynasty, Emperor Akbar was secular. He built Hindu temples in city, and in his reign, Hinduism began to flourish again. However, the descendants of Akbar did not continue his secular traditions; and they went back to the routine of suppression of Hinduism. Mughal emperor Aurangzeb was particularly fierce against Hinduism; and during his reign, Varanasi again experienced major blows.
Varanasi in the British Invasion Era
After the death of Aurangzeb, Mughal dynasty weakened considerably. Keeping hold on the regions began to become more difficult since many Hindu landlords began standing against the Muslim rule. To address this problem, establishment of a Hindu king who would pay allegiance to the emperor, was decided. It resulted the dynasty of rulers of ‘the Benares State’ that lasted till the independence from the British rule.
Mansa Ram was the first king of the dynasty. After him, Balwant Singh became the king of the Benares State. There was a rustle between Balwant Singh and Delhi. Raja Balwant Singh with the aid of British, disconnected state of Banaras from the Delhi rule. Raja Balwant Singh also managed to keep sovereignty of the state while keeping peace with the British. However, British grasp on the State of Benares continued to get stronger. After Balwant Singh, Chait Singh continued the struggle on. However soon the Benares state was forced to remain only a princely state in the British Raj. Afterwards, Benares State remained a princely state and paid allegiance to the British Raj.
Post Independence Era
India achieved the Independence on 15 August, 1947. Hopes were high after the independence, when the nation began a new journey on its own. However, a demon of corruption culture raised its head, and continued to grow stronger.
Post independence era has not been very fruitful to the ancient city which has a glorious distant past. Due to the negligence from the governments and various other reasons, development of the city is slower than other major Indian cities. As a result, Banaras region saw its citizens leaving the city to larger cities for opportunities, while also attracting immigrants in large count from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states.
Currently, Varanasi is a major city. It serves as a major commercial centre in the eastern Uttar Pradesh state and western Bihar state. Holding 4 universities (including Banaras Hindu University – BHU, one of the most prominent universities in India), Banaras is a notable centre of education.
Religious and cultural importance is maintained, and Banaras is respected by Hindus and Buddhists in particular from entire world.
In the 2014 parliamentary elections of India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected as the ‘Member of Parliament’ from Varanasi. Prime Minister has vowed to return the city its glory.