Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together. Mark Twain

The great Hindu city of VARANASI, also known as Banaras or Benares, stretches along the River Ganges, its waterfront dominated by long flights of stone ghats where thousands of pilgrims and residents come for their daily ritual ablutions. Known to the devout as Kashi, the Luminous – the City of Light, founded by Shiva – Varanasi is one of the oldest living cities in the world. It has maintained its religious life since the sixth century BC in one continuous tradition, in part by remaining outside the mainstream of political activity and historical development of the Subcontinent, and stands at the centre of the Hindu universe, the focus of a religious geography that reaches from the Himalayan cave of Amarnath in Kashmir to India’s southern tip at Kanniyakumari, Puri to the east, and Dwarka to the west. Located next to a ford on an ancient trade route, Varanasi is among the holiest of all tirthas – “crossing places”, that allow the devotee access to the divine and enable gods and goddesses to come down to earth. It has attracted pilgrims, seekers, sannyasins and students of the Vedas throughout its history, including sages such as Buddha, Mahavira (founder of the Jain faith) and the great Hindu reformer Shankara.

Anyone who dies in Varanasi attains instant moksha, or enlightenment. Widows and the elderly come here to live out their final days, finding shelter in temples, assisted by alms from the faithful. Western visitors since the Middle Ages have marvelled at the strangeness of this most alien of Indian cities: the tight mesh of alleys, the religious accoutrements, the host of deities – and the proximity of death.

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

India features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

Indian trains: a traveller's survival guide

Indian trains: a traveller's survival guide

The Himalayan Queen, the Grand Trunk Express, the Deccan Odyssey… the very names of India’s trains are evocative of timeless style and old-school adventure…

09 Feb 2017 • Freya Godfrey insert_drive_file Article
26 awe-inspiring architectural wonders

26 awe-inspiring architectural wonders

From ancient temples to hyper-modern skyscrapers, these are just a few of the world's most incredible architectural wonders. Whether you're looking to wander l…

01 Feb 2017 • Rough Guides Editors camera_alt Gallery
Quiz: can you name these famous places in India?

Quiz: can you name these famous places in India?

India is an addictive destination. Go once and something will draw you back time and again. Perhaps it's the food, maybe it's the people, or it could well be th…

24 Jan 2017 • Rough Guides Editors help Quiz
View more featureschevron_right

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month