The name Varanasi was derived from tract of land lying in between confluence of river Varuna and Asi. Hence Varun-asi or Varanasi. Varuna and Asi join the Ganges on the north and south borders of the city.
The Varuna river is a minor tributary of the Ganga, which is named after the god Varuna, the god of water. The Varuna river rises from Melhum at Phulpur in Allahabad district at 25°27′N, 82°18′E. It flows east-to-southeast for 106 kilometers via Bhadohi, Mirzapur, Jaunpur, and enters Varanasi in order to finally merge in Ganga at Sarai Mohana.
The rivulet that borders the city of Varanasi at its south and joins Ganga at Asi Ghat is known as Assi or Asi river.
There are numerous references to the Asi Ghat in the ancient literatures. It was at the Asi Ghat where the famous Indian poet saint, Tulsi Das had written the much-celebrated Ramacharitmanas.
Varanasi is said to be located between two confluences: one of Ganga and Varuna, and other of Ganga and Asi that always remained a rivulet rather than a river. The distance between these two confluences is around 2.5 miles. The pilgrims regard a round trip between these two places as a religious ritual, which ends with a visit to a Sakshi Vinayak Temple, and is called Pancha-kroshi Yatra (a five mile journey).
According to the Padma Puran, the Varuna and the Asi are two holy rivers, and between them is a holy land and there is no other place more excellent on earth, according to ancient texts.
Varanasi is situated between the Varuna, which flows into the Ganga on the north and the Asi, which joins the Ganga on the south. In the Rig Veda, the city was referred to as Kasi or Kashi, which means ‘the luminous one’.
There are references of Asi Ghat in Matsya Purana, Agni Purana, Kurma Purana and Padma Purana. According to puranas, Goddess Durga had thrown her sword after slaying the demon Shumbha–Nishumbha. The place where the sword had fallen resulted in a big stream known as the Asi river. Asi Ghat is located at the confluence of the river Ganga and Asi.
Long ago, Varuna was recognised as the lifeline of Varanasi. The pure and medicinal properties of the water nourished various types of herbs on its banks and the river maintained the water level of the city. The farmers of this area were dependent on its water for drinking, irrigation and cattle purposes. In the present scenario, the situation has changed drastically—the Varuna is one of the most polluted rivers of India, which is regularly ailing and becoming a garbage tank day-by-day.
The word ‘ Kashi ’ originated from the word ‘ Kas ’ which means to shine. Steeped in tradition and mythological legacy, Kashi is the ‘original ground ‘ created by Shiva and Parvati, upon which they stood at the beginning of time. Varanasi is the microcosm of India, a city of traditional classical culture, glorified and sanctified by religion, it has always attracted a large number of pilgrims and worshippers from time immemorial. To be in Varanasi is an experience in itself; an experience in self discover and an eternal harmony of the body and soul.
In the Rig-Veda, an ancient Indian sacred collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns, the city is referred to as Kāśī (Kashi) from the Sanskrit verbal root kaś- “to shine”, making Varanasi known as “City of Light”, the “luminous city as an eminent seat of learning”. The name was also used by pilgrims dating from Buddha’s days.
It is said that the first Siva Jyotirlinga, the fiery pillar of light, came through the earth here and flared into the sky. Therefore Varanasi is also called Kasi, “City of Light.” Kashi is mentioned in the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Srimad Bhagavatam, and the Puranas, which date back 5,000 years, as the foremost city of Siva. The Muslims later gave it the name Benares. At Independence, the old name, Varanasi, was given to the city again.
Religious texts use many epithets to refer to Varanasi, such as Kāśikā (Sanskrit: “the shining one”), Avimukta (Sanskrit: “never forsaken” by Shiva), Ānandavana (Sanskrit: the forest of bliss), and Rudravāsa (Sanskrit: the place where Rudra/Śiva resides)
Varanasi, the holy city of India, is also known by the name of Kashi and Banaras.
One of the seven holiest cities, Varanasi city is also one the Shakti Peethas and one of the twelve Jyotir Linga sites in India. It is recorded in scriptures that those who die and are cremated here get an instant gateway to liberation from the cycle of births and re-births.
The Ganges, which normally flows southeast, reverses its course and flows north for a while at Varanasi, which is considered very auspicious. There is a five-mile parikrama path that goes around this sacred city. There are 81 bathing ghats and other holy kunds, or sacred tanks.
Many saints and sages have come to Varanasi including Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the Buddha, Sankaracarya, and Sri Ramanuja. Sri Caitanya met Sanatana Gosvami here and converted Prakasananda Sarasvati and his followers here.
In upper part of town, Maharaja of Varanasi’s palace used to reside. But he has later built his residence, Ramnagar fort, on the opposite side of the river.