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M. A. Claringbull

[anc. Kāsī: ‘City of Light’; Kashi; Vārāṇasī; Banāras; Benares]

Sacred city and pilgrimage centre on the banks of the Ganga River between the Barna, or Varuna, and Asi rivers in Uttar Pradesh, India. It is the most holy of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism (the others being Ayodhya, Mathura, Hardwar, Kanchipuram, Ujjain and Dwarka) and has been the focus of Brahmanical learning and religious pilgrimage from ancient times.

The existence of the city from earliest times is attested by myriad references in the sacred texts. The kingdom of Kashi is mentioned in the Vedas, and the kings of Kashi are referred to in the Mahābhārata, although not until the Puranas is Varanasi mentioned as the capital city of Kashi. Around the time of the Buddha (600 bc) 16 great city states flourished in north India, the three most prominent being Maghada, Koshala and Varanasi. Owing to its strategic position at the confluence of the Ganga and Varuna rivers, Varanasi was a significant trading and commercial centre. In many tales of the previous lives of Buddha (Skt ...