Old Varanasi's ancient ruins lie on the Rajghat plateau, in the northeastern part of the city. Here, archaeologists discovered pottery that went back to 1000 B.C., and broken masonry from as late as A.D. 1500, suggesting the area has been continuously inhabited for 2,500 years.
"We have very few settlements that continue like that, so Varanasi is very important from an archaeological perspective," says P.N. Singh, a history professor at Banaras Hindu University. "It is one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities."
Varanasi's legends go back some 10,000 years, to the oldest epics of Hindu literature, including the Puranas, the Vedas and the Mahabharata. They say Varanasi is the city of Lord Shiva, who walked here with his wife Parvati at the beginning of time. It could also be the battlefield where the god Krishna set fire to a duplicate but imposter Krishna, or the place where the Lord Rama came to do penance after slaying the demon Ravana.
"Banares is an encyclopedia itself, it has got 100 dimensions, you can't cover it even in a book," Mehta says.
In a country where most cities have at least two names, Varanasi has over a hundred. The locals still call it Banaras, perhaps after the mythological king Benar. The Jataka Tales, a collection of ancient Buddhist folk stories, refer to the city as Jitwari, the place were business is good, or as Pushwavati, the flower garden city, or as Molini, the lotus garden city.
Under the name Kasi, the city was one of 16 great Indian kingdoms mentioned by ancient Buddhist texts from the first millennium B.C., when the invention of highways and coins first led to a flourishing of commerce. Iron arrowheads and fortified cities discovered by archaeologists suggest violent encounters between the kingdoms, but it was also an age of nonviolence. Gautama, later known as the Buddha, delivered his first sermon during this era. And Mahavir, the founder of the ascetic and nonviolent Jain religion, was born during this period.
Prakash can't be older than 15 years old, but he's been working as a boatman on the Ganges for as long as he can remember. Every morning, starting as early as five AM, he rows tourists down the Ganges in a 10-foot-long blue wooden boat. The most popular time for a boat ride is sunrise, when the surface of the sacred river flames with reflected color and bathers line the waterfront.
Along the way, he tells the stories of Varanasi's famous ghats, the sets of steps that lead from the alleys of Varanasi down to the river. Each ghat was constructed by a different medieval king, and though they are young compared to the ancient ruins on Rajghat, the ghats have inspired their own mythology.
The most famous is the Desaswamedh Ghat, where the father of Lord Rama once sacrificed 10 horses in an appeal to the sun.