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Located on the western bank of the Ganga, Varanasi (or Benares, Kashi), is among the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities and one of the seven sacred cities of the Hindus. Early Vedic religion took root here. It was the capital of the kingdom of Kashi in the Buddha's time (6th century BCE), who gave his first post-enlightenment sermon at nearby Sarnath (he apparently avoided Varanasi, already a stronghold of Brahmanism). Varanasi has seen many reversals of fortune over the millennia, even as it retained some fame for its muslin and silk fabrics, sculpture, perfumes, and ivory art.
Xuanzang, the famous Chinese traveler, visited here in c. 635 CE. The city, he wrote, "is densely populated. The families are very rich, and in the dwellings are objects of rare value. The disposition of the people is soft and humane, and they are earnestly given to study ... The climate is soft, the crops abundant, the [fruit] trees flourishing, and the underwood thick in every place." He estimated that the city had about 100 temples with 3,000 priests, who mostly honored Shiva—one of whose statues he saw as "full of grandeur and majesty". Some followers of this sect, he wrote, "cut off their hair, others tie their hair in a knot, and go naked, without clothes; they cover their bodies with ashes, and by the practice of all sorts of austerities they seek to escape from birth and death." In the early 11th century, the great Persian scholar, Al-Beruni, visited India and called Varanasi a leading center of the "Hindu sciences". (Read more)
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