' Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together' , said the famous American author after visiting Varanasi in the late 19th century. Located 320 km from Lucknow, along the left crescent-shaped bank of the Ganga, in south-eastern Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi is among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Also known as Benares, Banaras, or Kashi, it is the holiest of all Indian pilgrim cities. Hindus believe Varanasi was founded by Lord Shiva, and archeological excavations have revealed that Vedic people lived here in the 11th or 12th century BCE. Parshva, the 23rd Jain Tirthankara is also believed to have lived here around 8th century BCE. Gautama Buddha founded Buddhism here in 528 BCE, when he gave his first sermon at Sarnath, just 10 km away. In 8th century CE, Adi Shankara decreed Lord Shiva as the official deity of the city.
After the decline of the Mauryan Empire, the city went into a spate of destruction and decline after the Muslim invaders took over power in Delhi in 12th century. In the 300 years that followed hundreds of temples in and around the city was destroyed. The only consolation was that despite all the suppression of Hinduism, the city continued to be a great cultural centre for religion and education. The Bhakti movement was born in Varanasi, so was Tulsidas, who composed the Ramcharitramanas here, Kabir and Ravidas. Varanasi, experienced a revival of sorts in the 16th century under Emperor Akbar who had some of the temples rebuilt, but it was only in the late 18th century when the city came under the influence of the of the Bhumihars and the Marathas that modern Varanasi was built. Its first Sanskrit college was founded by the British in 1791 and Annie Besant founded the Central Hindu College here in 1898, which later became part of the famed Benaras Hindu University, set up in 1916.
Varanasi is among the most visited tourist cities in the country these days. It continues to be an important centre of learning, philosophy, yoga, ayurveda, astrology, music and literature. Among the more popular tourist places include the various temples and 100 or so ghats of various sizes that dot the banks of the Ganga. Visitors also make a quick trip to Sarnath, which is just 30 minutes away by road, where Guatama Buddha first taught Dharma.