BENARES (also Banâras, Varanasi) is an ancient city in the state of Uttar Pradesh, in northern INDIA. Its population is just over 1 million (1991). Although the name Benares appears on many maps, it is actually a corruption of the official Indian name of the city, Varanasi. In addition to many religious institutions and festivals, the city is home to Banâras Hindu University, a major center of Sanskrit studies.
Hindus also call Benares the City of Light (Kâshî), as in “enlightenment,” because of its close association with the development of Indian spiritual life, a role it continues to play. There are approximately 1,500 Hindu temples and other religious buildings within the city limits. Its very location, on the western bank of a curve in the GANGES RIVER (Gangâ), is sacred in the minds of many Indians.
The basic geography of the city, with hundreds of temples and buildings crowding the western bank of the Ganges, facing an uninhabited floodplain on the eastern bank across the river, represents transcendence of this life to the “far shore” (the next life) to many believers. About a million believers a year make pilgrimages to the city of Benares, especially during annual festivals. Most descend long stone steps (ghats) to immerse themselves in the holy waters of the Ganges.
The city is also a final destination for Hindus who hope to obtain salvation from the cycle of birth and death by dying in this sacred city. Although close association with death is usually regarded as inauspicious or even polluting in Indian society, because of the holy status of Benares, the regions of the city where bodies of the dead are cremated are especially revered. Many Indians also bring the ashes of their dead relatives to Benares, where they are dispatched to the next world in the river’s waters. City officials have recently supplemented the traditional wood-burning funeral pyres of the cremation grounds at Manikarnikâ downriver of the city with an electric crematorium at the Harishchandra Ghât, in an effort to reduce air pollution.
Though it has never been a seat of political authority, Benares is one of the oldest Indian cities, dating back at least 2,500 years, and has long been a site of Hindu worship. Other religions are also represented in the history of the city. It was at Deer Park just outside Benares where the Buddha made his first sermon (circa 528 B.C.E.). There have been many Muslims who lived and worshiped in Benares as well, and the mosque of the 17th-century Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb is found at the highest spot of the city.
Western visitors to India have been alternately fascinated and repelled by Benares for centuries. The city seemed to many Western visitors to encapsulate the exotic and sublime appeal of the East, with its mystical mood and myriad spiritual practices. On the other hand, the masses of humanity bathing in the polluted (if spiritually purifying) waters of the Ganges, as well as the worship of all manner of icons, shocked and offended other Western visitors.