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Archaeological evidence of earliest known settlements around Varanasi in the Ganga valley (the seat of Vedic religion and philosophy) suggest that they began in the 11th or 12th century BC, placing it among the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities. These archaeological 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. Recent excavations at Aktha and Ramnagar, two sites very near to Varanasi, show them to be from 1800 BC, suggesting Varanasi started to be inhabited by that time too. Varanasi was also home to Parshva, the 23rd Jain Tirthankara and the earliest Tirthankara accepted as a historical figure in the 8th century BC.

Varanasi grew as an important industrial centre, famous for its muslin and silk fabrics, perfumes, ivory works, and sculpture. During the time of Gautama Buddha (born circa 500 BCE), Varanasi was the capital of the Kingdom of Kashi. The Buddha is believed to have founded Buddhism here around 528 BC when he gave his first sermon, “The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma”, at nearby Sarnath. The celebrated Chinese traveller Xuanzang, who visited the city around 635 AD, attested that the city was a centre of religious and artistic activities, and that it extended for about 5 km (3.1 mi) along the western bank of the Ganges. When Xuanzang, also known as Hiuen Tsiang, 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 Turkish 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, 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 Afghan 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, including Kabir who was born here in 1389 and 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, traveller, and spiritual figure, who was born and lived in the city and 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 Muslim 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 (660 ft) 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 the Vindu Madhava temple on 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, causing the city to experience a temporary 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 especially during the 18th century, by the Maratha and Bhumihar kings (who were rulers of Varanasi since centuries), 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 until Indian independence in 1947, during the reign of Dr. Vibhuti Narayan Singh. In the 18th century, Muhammad Shahordered the construction of an observatory on the Ganges, attached to Man Mandir Ghat, designed to discover imperfections in the calendar in order to revise existing astronomical tables. Tourism in the city began to flourish in the 18th century. In 1791, under the rule of the 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 renownedIndophile, 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 Ramnagar Fort which 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 Varanasi. Since the 18th century, the fort has been the home of Kashi Naresh, deeply revered by the local people. He is the religious head and some devout inhabitants consider him to be 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 Banaras 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 sections 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.

According to legend, Varanasi was founded by the God Shiva. The Pandavas, the heroes of the Hindu epic Mahabharataare 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.

Ghats in Varanasi are riverfront steps leading to the banks of the River Ganges. The city has 87 ghats. Most of the ghats are bathing and puja ceremony ghats, while a few are used exclusively as cremation sites. Most Varanasi ghats were built after 1700 AD, when the city was part of Maratha Empire. The patrons of current ghats are Marathas, Shindes (Scindias), Holkars, Bhonsles, and Peshwes (Peshwas). Many ghats are associated with legends or mythologies while many ghats are privately owned. Morning boat ride on the Ganges across the ghats is a popular visitors attraction.

Popular Ghats of Varanasi

Dashashwamedh Ghat

Dashashwamedh Ghat is located close to Vishwanath Temple, and is probably the most spectacular ghat. Two Hindu mythologies are associated with it: According to one, Lord Brahma created it to welcome Lord Shiva. According to another, Lord Brahmasacrificed ten horses in a yajna here. A group of priests daily perform in the evening at this ghat “Agni Pooja” (Worship to Fire) wherein a dedication is made to Lord Shiva, River Ganges, Surya (Sun), Agni (Fire), and the whole universe.

Manikarnika Ghat

Two legends are associated with Manikarnika Ghat. According to one, it is believed to be the place where Lord Vishnu dug a pit with his Chakra and filled it with his perspiration while performing various penances. While Lord Shiva was watching Lord Vishnu at that time, the latter’s earring (“manikarnika”) fell into the pit. According to the second legend, in order to keep Lord Shiva from moving around with his devotees, his consort Goddess Parvati hid her earrings, and asked him to find them, saying that they had been lost on the banks of the Ganges. Goddess Parvati’s idea behind the fib was that Lord Shiva would then stay around, searching forever for the lost earrings. In this legend, whenever a body gets cremated at the Manikarnika Ghat, Lord Shiva asks the soul whether it has seen the earrings. According to ancient texts, the owner of Manikarnika Ghat bought King Harishchandra as a slave and made him work on the Manikarnika at Harishchandra Ghat. Hindu cremations customarily take place here, though a majority of dead bodies are taken for cremation to the Manikarnik Ghat. According to other sources that Manikarnik Ghat is named after Jhansi ki Rani Laxmibhai.

Scindia Ghat

Scindia Ghat also known as Shinde Ghat borders Manikarnika to the north, with its Shiva temple lying partially submerged in the river as a result of excessive weight of the ghat’s construction about 150 years ago. Above the ghat, several of Kashi’s most influential shrines are located within the tight maze of alleys of Siddha Kshetra (Field of Fulfillment). According to tradition, Agni, the Hindu God of Fire was born here. Hindu devotees propitiate at this place Vireshwara, the Lord of all heroes, for a son.

Maan-Mandir Ghat

Mana-Mandir Ghat: Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur built this Ghat in 1770, as well as theJantar Mantar equipped with ornate window casings along with those at Delhi, Jaipur, Ujjain, and Mathura. There is a fine stone balcony in the northern part of the ghat. Devotees pay homage here to the lingam of Someswar, the Lord of the Moon.

Lalita Ghat

Lalita Ghat: The late King of Nepal built this Ghat in the northern region of Varanasi. It is the site of the Ganges Keshav Temple, a wooden temple built in typical Kathmandu style,The temple has an image of Pashupateshwar, a manifestation of Lord Shiva. Local festivals including musical parties and games regularly take place at the beautiful Assi Ghat which is at the end of the continuous line of ghats. It is a favorite site of painters and photographers. It is here at the Assi Ghat that Swami Pranabananda, the founder of Bharat Sevasharam Sangh,attained ‘Siddhi’ (fulfilment/success) in his ‘Tapasya’ (endeavor) for Lord Shiva, under the auspices of Guru Gambhirananda of Gorakhpur.

List of Ghats in Varanasi

1.  Mata Anandamai Ghat
2.  Assi Ghat
3.  Ahilya Ghat
4.  Adi Keshava Ghat
5.  Ahilyabai Ghat
6.  Badri Nayarana Ghat
7.  Bajirao Ghat
8.  Bauli /Umaraogiri / Amroha Ghat
9.  Bhadaini Ghat
10.  Bhonsale Ghat
11.  Brahma Ghat
12.  Bundi Parakota Ghat
13.  Chaowki Ghat
14.  Chausatthi Ghat
15.  Cheta Singh Ghat
16.  Dandi Ghat
17.  Darabhanga Ghat
18.  Dashashwamedh Ghat
19.  Digpatia Ghat
20.  Durga Ghat
21.  Ganga Mahal Ghat (I)
22.  Ganga Mahal Ghat (II)
23.  Gaay Ghat
24.  Gauri Shankar Ghat
25.  Genesha Ghat
26.  Gola Ghat
27.  Gularia Ghat
28.  Hanuman Ghat
29.  Hanumanagardhi Ghat
30.  Harish Chandra Ghat
31.  Jain Ghat
32.  Jalasayi Ghat
33.  Janaki Ghat
34.  Jatara Ghat
35.  Karnataka State Ghat
36.  Kedar Ghat
37.  Khirkia Ghat
38.  Shri Guru Ravidass Ghat
39.  Khori Ghat
40.  Lala Ghat
41.  Lali Ghat
42.  Lalita Ghat
43.  Mahanirvani Ghat
44.  Mana Mandira Ghat
45.  Manasarovara Ghat
46.  Mangala Gauri Ghat
47.  Manikarnika Ghat
48.  Mehta Ghat
49.  Meer Ghat
50.  Munshi Ghat
51.  Nandesavara Ghat
52.  Narada Ghat
53.  Naya Ghat
54.  Nepali Ghat
55.  Niranjani Ghat
56.  Nishad Ghat
57.  Old Hanumanana Ghat
58.  Pancaganga Ghat
59.  Panchkota
60.  Pandey Ghat
61.  Phuta Ghat
62.  Prabhu Ghat
63.  Prahalada Ghat
64.  Prayaga Ghat
65.  Raj Ghat built by Peshwa Amrutrao
66.  Raja Ghat / Lord Duffrin bridge / Malaviya Bridge
67.  Raja Gwalior Ghat
68.  Rajendra Prasad Ghat
69.  Ram Ghat
70.  Rana Mahala Ghat
71.  Rewan Ghat
72.  Sakka Ghat
73.  Sankatha Ghat
74.  Sarvesvara Ghat
75.  Scindia Ghat
76.  Shivala Ghat
77.  Shitala Ghat
78.  Sitala Ghat
79.  Somesvara Ghat
80. Telianala Ghat
81.  Trilochana Ghat
82. Tripura Bhairavi Ghat
83. Tulsi Ghat
84. Vaccharaja Ghat
85. Venimadhava Ghat
86. Vijayanagaram Ghat
87.  Samne Ghat