History of Varanasi

According to legend, Varanasi was founded by the God Shiva. The Pandavas, the heroes of the Hindu epic Mahabharata are also stated to have visited the city in search of Shiva to atone for their sins of fratricide and Brāhmanahatya that they had committed during the climactic Kurukshetra war. It is regarded as one of seven holy cities which can provide Moksha: 1 Ayodhya, 2 Mathura, 3 Gaya, 4 Kasi, 5 Kanchi, 6 Avantika, 7 Dwaravati, --these seven cities are known as the givers of liberation.

The earliest known archaeological evidence suggests that settlement around Varanasi in the middle Ages in the Ganga valley (the seat of Aryan religion and philosophy), began in the 11th or 12th century BCE, placing it among the worlds oldest continually inhabited cities. These remains suggest that the Varanasi area was populated by Vedic people. However, the Atharvaveda (the oldest known text referencing the city), which dates to approximately the same period, suggests that the area was populated by indigenous tribes. It is possible that archaeological evidence of these previous inhabitants has yet to be discovered. Varanasi was also home to Parshva, the 23rd Jain Tirthankara and the earliest Tirthankara that is accepted as a historical figure, in the 8th century.

Varanasi grew as an important industry centre, famous for its muslin and silk fabrics, perfumes, ivory works, and sculpture. During the time of Gautama Buddha (born circa 567 BCE), Varanasi was the capital of the Kingdom of Kashi. Buddha is believed to have founded Buddhism here around 528 BCE when he gave his first sermon, "Turning the Wheel of Law", at nearby Sarnath. The celebrated Chinese traveller Xuanzang, who visited the city around 635 CE, attested that the city was a centre of religious and artistic activities, and that it extended for about 5 kilometres along the western bank of the Ganges. Hiuen Tsiang also visited Varanasi in the 7th century; he named it "Polonisse" and wrote that the city had some 30 Temples with about 30 monks. The city's religious importance continued to grow in the 8th century, when Adi Shankara established the worship of Shiva as an official sect of Varanasi.

In ancient times, Varanasi was connected by a road starting from Taxila and ending at Pataliputra during the Mauryan Empire. In 1194, the city succumbed to Muslim rule under Qutb-ud-din Aibak, who ordered the destruction of some one thousand Temples in the city. The city went into decline over some three centuries of Muslim occupation, and although new Temples were erected in the 13th century, after the Afghan invasion. Feroz Shah ordered further destruction of Hindu Temples in the Varanasi area in 1376. The Muslim ruler Sikander Lodi continued the suppression of Hinduism in the city and destroyed most of the remaining older Temples in 1496.Despite the Muslim rule, Varanasi remained the centre of activity for intellectuals and theologians during the middle Ages, which further contributed to its reputation as a cultural centre of religion and education. Several major figures of the Bhakti movement were born in Varanasi, such as Kabir who was born here in 1389, hailed as "the most outstanding of the saint-poets of Bhakti cult (devotion) and mysticism of 15th Century India", and Ravidas, a 15th century socio-religious reformer, mystic, poet, traveler, and spiritual figure, who was born and lived in the city, employed in the tannery industry.Similarly, numerous eminent scholars and preachers visited the city from across India and south Asia. Guru Nanak Dev visited Varanasi for Shivratri in 1507, a trip that played a large role in the founding of Sikhism.

In the 16th century, Varanasi experienced a cultural revival under the Mughal emperor Akbar who invested in the city, and built two large Temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu. The Raja of Poona established the Annapurna Temple and the 200 metres Akbari Bridge was also completed during this period. The earliest tourists began arriving in the city during the 16th century. In 1665, the French traveller Jean Baptiste Tavernier described the architectural beauty of Vindu Madhava Temple at the side of the Ganges. The road infrastructure was also improved during this period and extended from Kolkata to Peshawar by Emperor Sher Shah Suri; later during the British Raj it came to be known as the famous Grand Trunk Road. In 1656, Emperor Aurangzeb ordered the destruction of many Temples and the building of mosques in the city and the city temporarily experienced a setback. However, after Aurangazeb's death, most of India was ruled by a confederacy of pro-Hindu kings. Much of modern Varanasi was built during this time by the Rajput and Maratha kings, especially during the 18th century, and most of the important buildings in the city today date to this period. The kings continued to be important through much of the British rule (1775–1947 AD), including the maharaja of Benares, or Kashi Naresh. The kingdom of Benares was given official status by the Mughals in 1737, and continued as a dynasty governed area up until Indian independence in 1947, during the reign of Dr. Vibhuti Narayan Singh. In the 18th century, Muhammad Shah ordered the construction of an observatory on the Ganges, attached to Man Mandir Ghat, to discover imperfections in the calendar and to revise existing astronomical tables. Tourism in the city began to flourish in the 18th century. In 1791, under the rule of British Governor-General Warren Hastings, Jonathan Duncan founded a Sanskrit College in Varanasi. In 1867, the establishment of the Varanasi Municipal Board led to significant improvements in the city.

In 1897, Mark Twain, the renowned Indophile, said of Varanasi, "Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together." In 1910, the British made Varanasi a new Indian state, with Ramanagar as its headquarters but with no jurisdiction over the city of Varanasi itself. Kashi Naresh still resides in the fort of Ramanagar. The Ramnagar Fort of the Kashi Naresh is situated to the east of Varanasi, across the Ganges. Ramnagar Fort and its museum are the repository of the history of the kings of Benares and since the 18th century has been the home of Kashi Naresh, deeply revered by the people of Vanarasi. He is the religious head and some religious people of Varanasi consider him the incarnation of Shiva. He is also the chief cultural patron and an essential part of all religious celebrations.

A massacre by British troops, of the Indian troops stationed here and of the population of the city, took place during the early stages of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Annie Besant worked in Varanasi to promote theosophy and founded the Central Hindu College which later became a foundation for the creation of Benaras Hindu University as a secular university in 1916. Her purpose in founding the Central Hindu College in Varanasi was that she "wanted to bring men of all religions together under the ideal of brotherhood in order to promote Indian cultural values and to remove ill-will among different section of the Indian population." Varanasi was ceded to the Union of India on 15 October 1948. After the death of Dr. Vibhuti Narayan Singh in 2000, his son Anant Narayan Singh became the figurehead king, responsible for upholding the traditional duties of a Kashi Naresh.