One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Varanasi is also among the most sacred sites for both Hindus and Jains and has played a major role in developing Buddhism. It will now be BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi's electoral battleground.
Also known as Kashi or Benaras, Varanasi is located on the banks of the Ganga in eastern Uttar Pradesh and occupies a significant place in Hindu mythology and history.
Varanasi is overwhelmingly Hindu (around 80 percent) but Muslims constitute an estimated 12 percent of the population.
Steeped in tradition, Varanasi or Kashi is said to be the 'original ground' created by god Shiva and goddess Paravati. Hindus believe that to die in Varanasi brings 'moksha' or salvation.
English author and Indophile Mark Twain described Varanasi thus: "Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together."
Home to at least 84 ghats that dot the banks of the Ganga, Kashi -- as Hindu devout still call it -- is where Tulsidas wrote Ramcharitra Manas, a spiritual classic.
Varanasi is also where spiritual giant Lahiri Mahasaya prached Kriya Yoga. It is also where Trialang Swami lived, reportedly, for hundreds of years, having mastered the yogic secret of walking on water.
Varanasi is home to innumerable temples, the most prominent of which is the Kashi Vishwanath temple.
As invaders plundered many Hindu shrines in the 12th century, most temples that still exist here date to the 18th century.
But Varanasi is not just about religion.
Kashi has always been renowned for its rich tapestry of music, arts, crafts and education. It is home to silk weaving, and produces the elegant Banarsi Silk Saree.
This is also the hub of the Benaras Gharana of the Hindustani classical music. And Varanasi is where the Banaras Hindu University stands.
The name Varanasi originates from the names of the two rivers Varuna, which still flows through Varanasi, and Asi, a small stream near the Assi Ghat.