Varanasi is located in North India, about 780 kilometers (485 miles) east of the Indian capital of Delhi, predominantly on the left bank of the Ganges, India’s largest river. The city is located in the eastern part of the state of Uttar Prades.
The name of Benares or Banaras (बनारस Banāras) is a popular variant of the Sanskrit name Varanasi. During the periods of Muslim and British reign Benares was the only name of the city. After India’s Independence, the form “Varanasi” was adopted as the only official form of the city’s name, in recognition of the classic Hindu tradition. But the name of “Benares” is still widespread in colloquial usage.
Varanasi is considered the city of the God Shiva Vishwanat (“Superior Lord of the World”), and thus it is one of the holiest sites of Hinduism. For more than 2500 years believers have come to the city as pilgrims. It is also a centre of traditional Hindu culture and science.
For devout Hindu believers it is particularly desirable to bathe in the river Ganges, and to die and be cremated there. For many miles the river’s embankment consists of series of stone steps, the so-called ghats, on which the corpses of the dead are cremated while nearby believers bathe in the waters of the river which they consider holy. The ashes of the dead are then thrown into the river. Bathing in the Ganges river is supposed to purify people from sins, and dying and being cremated in Varanasi is assumed to spare the deceased another reincarnation.
At 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 unique Old Town, with its ghats, the steps descending to the Ganges waters and leading to the bathing and cremation spots, attracts a large number of tourists. Every night a fire ceremony takes place, fire being regarded as the expression of divine light. Traditionally, the city has also been called Kashi, City of Light.
The Census of 2001 counted a population of 1.100.748 in Varanasi. As in most Indian cities, the population of Varanasi has been growing consistently: compared to the previous Census of 1991 the population had risen by as much as 16 per cent. Based on the 2011 Census, the population of the urban agglomeration of Varanasi now stands at more than 1.4 million.
(primary source: Wikipedia)