VARANASI has many names – Varanasi, Benaras, its religious name Kashi, as well as ancient names like Mahasmasana, Avimuktaka, and Anandvan. It has the distinction of being one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, one of the holiest centres for Hinduism, but also significant to Buddhism and to Jainism – as the birthplace of four tirthankaras.
Although Varanasi gets its name from the two rivers Varuna and Assi, it is the River Ganga that gives it life. But, even beyond the river, its bustling gallis and streets, its people and its handicrafts make it the self-proclaimed cultural capital of the country. It has given great musical genius to the world, including the likes of Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustaad Bismillah Khan, Pandit Birju Maharaj, Pandit Chhannulal Mishra, and, since 2015, it joins nine others – Glasgow in the UK, Hanover and Mannheim in Germany, Ghent in Belgium, Hamamatsu in Japan, Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo, Bogota in Columbia, Seville in Spain, and Bologna in Italy – as part of the UNESCO Creative Cities of Music list. It is also a great centre of learning, hosting the world famous Benares Hindu University (see box in this feature), the largest residential institution in Asia, and four other universities that