Varanasi the most apotheosized and aggrandized pilgrim destination of Hindus is thronged by millions of devotees all round the year. Performing a pilgrimage to Varanasi at least once in a life time and bathing in the holy rive Ganga at Varanasi is believed to be extremely auspicious and fortunate. It is believed that Lord Shiva perpetually resides here and those who die at Varanasi attain Moksha i.e. salvation from the circle of life and death. The city brimming with innumerable temples, Shakti Peethas, Mathas and holy Ghats is crowded with pilgrims as well as other domestic and international tourists through out the year. The economy of Varanasi is supported by its multitudinous small, medium and large scale industries manufacturing its famous Muslin and Silk saris, brocades and other garments and fabric, agriculture, tourism and other Government and Private sector industries.
Varanasi is exalted far and wide for its Banarasi Silk, Hand Woven Pure Silk Saris, Gold and Silver Brocades, Dress Materials, Silk Pashminas, Shawls, Bed Covers, Silk Carpets, Oriental Persian Carpets, other Silk Textile, Hand Block Printed Cotton Kurties, Suits, Accessories, Antique Jewellery, Beads and Bangles, Wall Hangings, Lampshades, Copperware, Brassware, Wooden and Clay Toys, Stone Inlay Work, Zari Work, Musical Instruments, and other exclusive articles and cuisine such as Masks of Hindu and Buddhist Deities, Kamandalam, Bottled Ganga Jal, Hot Chocolate, Herbal Tea, Incense, The Khatta-Meetha ‘Langda Aam’, Banarasi Chat, Pani Puri, Paapri Chat, Aloo Tikia Chat, Samosas, Pakoras, Puris, Dum Aloo, Kachori, Lassi with layers of Malai and Rabri, Lavanglata, Rosgullas, Sandesh, Chamcham, Pedas, Jalebis, Barfi, Laddoos, Hot Milk, Thandai, Sherbets, Panna, Murabba, Bhang, Banarasi Paan, etc.
The old Varanasi city nestled along the banks of the Ganges is known for its typically narrow, dirty and crowded lanes. These winding lanes flanked by numberless temples and shops seem to be extremely confusing and perplexing for those who have arrived here for the first time. Varanasi, the foremost axle of literature, art and culture since ages has been the home to great Indian literary masters including Jagannath, Tulsidas, Kabir, Ravidas, Kulluka Bhatt, Bharatendu Harishchandra, Jaishankar Prasad, Munshi Premchand, Acharya Shukla, Jagannath Prasad Ratnakar, Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Devaki Nandan Khatri, Tegh Ali, Kshetresa Chandra Chattopadhyaya, Baldev Upadhyaya, Vagish Shastri, Sudama Pandey (Dhoomil), Vidya Niwas Mishra, and many more. Jagannath composed his well known Sanskrit poem ‘Ganga Lahiri’ at the Manikarnika Ghat of Varanasi and most of the ‘Ram Charit Manas’ of Tulsidas was also written here.
Retaining the throne of ‘the patron of knowledge and learning’, Varanasi is famous for its reputed higher education institutions namely the Banaras Hindu University, the Sampurnanand Sanskrit University, the Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth, the Imania Arabic College, the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies and other colleges such as Institute of Integrated Management and Technology, Udai Pratap Autonomous College, Central Hindu School, Nav Sadhana Kala Kendra, Government Queens Inter College, etc.
Varanasi is also the proud domicile of several art lovers, historians and musicians namely Rai Krishnadasa, Anand Krishna, Gopal Mishra, Omkarnath Thakur, Bismillah Khan, Lalmani Misra, Gopal Shankar Misra, Ravi Shankar, Girija Devi, Siddheshwari Devi, Sitara Devi, Kishan Maharaj, Gopi Krishna, Mahadev Mishra, Rajan and Sajan Mishra, and so on. Sushruta, the peerless surgeon and the author of Sushruta Samhita; the Sanskrit text of surgery and Maharshi Patanjali, the expert of Ayurveda and Yoga were also based in Varanasi. Mrs. Annie Besant also chose Varanasi as the home for her widely acclaimed ‘Theosophical Society’.
The most noteworthy aspect of Varanasi culture is the ‘Ram Lila’ performed here. Ram Lila is the cycle of small plays based on the episodes of the life of Lord Ram. This tradition was pioneered by the Kashi Naresh Maharaja Udit Narayan Singh in mid 19th century. Ram Lila performance which is sponsored by the Maharaja of Kashi is a 31 days long program that begins with staging the birth story of Lord Ram and concludes with Ram’s victory over Ravana and the subsequent incidences of the birth of Luv and Kush. As Varanasi is the central Hindu pilgrim destination, a number of Yatras and Parikramas such as Panchkrosi Parikarma, Jal Tirth Yatra, Shivayatan Yatra and Anta Grihi Yatra originate from here. Major Festivals celebrated at Varanasi include Budddh Purnima, Bharat Milap, Dhrupad Mela, Hanuman Jayanti Janmotsav and Mahashivratri.
Varanasi finds frequent references as ‘Banaras’ in popular culture today. Films either based on Varanasi or set up in Varanasi include, Banaras - A Mystic Love Story, Holiwater, Jaya Ganga, Naan Kadavul, Water, Bunty Aur Babli, Ghatak: Lethal, etc. The noteworthy songs that mention Banaras are: ‘Benares Song’ in the opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, ‘Khaike Paan Banaraswala’ from the 1978 hit film Don, ‘Kashi Vishwanath Gange’ and many more. The novels set in Varanasi include Aparajito, Apu Trilogy, River of Gods, Joi Baba Felunath, Indra, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, Jaya Ganga, Deep River, Revolution 2020: Love, Corruption, Ambition etc.
Lord Macaulay was right when he exclaimed that Varanasi is the “city which, in wealth, population, dignity and sanctity was among the foremost in Asia……… from the looms of Benaras went forth the most delicate silks that adorned the halls of St. James and of Versailles” .