Swami Vivekananda spent his last winter at Varanasi. A vast multitude congregated to receive him as he alighted at the station. It was during this final visit to the city that the legendary NC Kelkar, follower of the Lokmanya and editor of the nationalist daily Maratha, met the Swami and witnessed his constant preoccupation with the thought of India. Years later Kelkar recalled how the Swami spoke animatedly on the topic of India and her distress. “What is the good of India living in this degeneration and extreme poverty”, thundered the Swami. India's ‘dishonour and distress’ greatly pained him and the way forward which could ‘lift India’, the Swami told Kelkar, was only through a ‘spontaneous development from inside, following the ancient traditions’.

It was Varanasi which threw up the first record of a mass satyagraha against the imposition of an oppressive tax regime. In 1810 and 1811 Varanasi witnessed such a ‘civil disobedience’ movement. Records show that the entire city, cutting across religious and caste divides united in this protest which, at its peak, was estimated to have consisted of around 2,00,000 protesters sitting on dharna declaring that they will “not separate till the tax will not be abolished”. The intrepid revolutionary Rash Bihari Bose chose Varanasi as his centre of activity in 1914. Joined by a number of young revolutionaries from all over India, Bose planned an all India insurrection, from Varanasi, by creating disaffection within the ranks of the British Indian Army.