Varanasi was a commercial and industrial centre famous for its muslin and silk fabrics, perfumes, ivory works, and sculpture. During the time of Gautama Buddha (born circa 567 BCE), Varanasi was the capital of the kingdom of Kashi. Buddha gave his first sermon at the nearby town of Sarnath. The city remained a centre of religious, educational, and artistic activities as attested by the celebrated Chinese traveller Xuanzang, who also said that the city extended for about 5 km along the western bank of the Ganges.
Successive invasions starting from 1193 CE by Mohammed Ghori and ending with plunder of Benares by Warren Hastings nearly 600 years later saw many temples being built and rebuilt. During the Muslim occupation, Varanasi subsequently declined during the following centuries.
A symbol of Hinduism, the city was pillaged and destroyed several times by the Muslims, first by the hordes of Mahmud of Ghazni in 1033 CE, all Hindu temples being destroyed. The material was used to build mosques. Although some relief was brought by Mughal emperor Akbar at the start of the seventeenth century, another destruction was led by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb at the end of the century, who renamed the city Mohammadābād. In these years of Muslim rule, learned scholars fled to other parts of the country.
Varanasi became an independent kingdom in the eighteenth century, and under subsequent British rule it remained a commercial and religious centre. In 1910, the British made Varanasi a new Indian state, with Ramnagar as headquarters but with no jurisdiction over the city of Varanasi. Kashi Naresh (Maharaja of Kashi) still resides in the fort of Ramnagar.
It is also said that Ayurveda originated at Varanasi. References to Varanasi can be found in age-old Indian scriptures and hymns.
One such reference is found in one of the hymns written by Sri Veda Vyasa:
Varanasi-pura-patim bhaja Vishwanatham.
The famous American writer Mark Twain once wrote, "Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together."
On 7 March, 2006, four bombs went off in an act of terrorism at Varanasi. Around 20 people were reported killed, and many were injured. One of the bombs was planted in the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple, a shrine dedicated to Lord Hanuman, while another was planted on a platform of the Varanasi Cantonment Railway Station, the main railway station in the city.
An unknown Islamic group called Lashkar-e-Kahab claimed responsibility for the terror attacks.