Continuously inhabited for nearly five thousand years, Varanasi is one of the saptapuris or seven holy cities believed to grant moksha or salvation. Located between the rivers Varuna and Asi that drain into the Ganga, Varanasi is sacred to Lord Shiva and Parvati. It is also called Kashi or the City of Light after the Kashi Vishwanath temple, one of the twelve jyotirlingas in India. Its sacred bathing and burning ghats, its gallis, its mystics and mendicants, cultural and culinary traditions make the city a fascinating microcosm of India. The Banaras airport makes it accessible for tourists from across the world to explore this holy city.
There are countless places to visit in Varanasi. The entire stretch from Ramnagar to Rajghat is shaped like Shiva’s bow strung by the sand bank of the Ganga. While there are nearly a hundred ghats, there are only four points in Varanasi where roads reach the riverbank – Dasashwamedh, Harishchandra, Assi and Raj Ghat. Most Varanasi ghats bear the names of royal patrons who built temples, mansions and dharamsalas for pilgrims – Scindia, Bhonsle, Peshwa, Holkar to Maharajas of Darbhanga, Vijianagaram and Nepal. Rana Mahal Ghat is associated with Maharana Pratap of Chittorgarh while Manmandir ghat was built by Raja Man Singh of Amber. Lali Ghat was established by the Queen of Amethi while Chauki Ghat was built for chaukidaars (guards) by a queen from Calcutta. Meer Ghat is associated with Krishna’s consort Meerabai. Sri Math was where Kabir Das lived while Tulsi Das wrote the Ramcharitmanas at Tulsi Ghat. The sacred Panchaganga Ghat is the confluence of five rivers – the Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Karuna and Dhootpara. Dashashwamedh Ghat was where King Dasarath performed the putra-kameshthi yagna to beget children. Take a sunrise or sunset tour of the ghats with Varanasi’s storytelling boatmen and don’t miss the daily Ganga Arti at 7pm – go early to grab a vantage point and witness the ceremonial offering of incense and lamps to the river.
Ghats form an important of Varanasi points of interest. Several ghats are named after prominent temples or deities – Annapurna, Brahma, Hanuman, Rama, Kshameshwar, Kali, Chousatti (after the Chousath Yogini temple) and Bhimeshwar, locally called Kashi Karwat as it’s lopsided. When goddess Parvati lost her mani karnika (jewelled earrings) an incensed Lord Shiva cursed Manikarnika Ghat to be the haunt of the dead. Ironically, this is where people burn bodies of the deceased before consigning their ashes to the Ganga for salvation. Man Mandir Ghat was where Raja Man Singh erected one of his famous astronomical observatories. Besides the ghats, Varanasi temples are a must visit for tourists. The most important shrines are Kashi Vishwanath, Sankat Mochan, Kaalbhairav and Vishalakshi Temple where Goddess Sati's earrings fell.
Spread over 1,350 acres with over 128 departments Banaras Hindu University or BHU is one of the three largest residential universities in the world! It is also among the top tourist places in Varanasi. Stately buildings line the wide roads as the statue of founder Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya greets visitors in front of the New Vishwanath Temple built by him. Nearby, Bharat Kala Bhavan is a rich repository of art and heritage. Take the pontoon bridge to Ramnagar fort built in 1742 by Maharaja Balwant Singh to see its collection of royal carriages, unique weapons and exquisite artefacts besides the legendary Ramnagar Clock made in 1872. At the rear of the fort, a small cavernous passage leads to the ancient Vyas Temple. Outside Ramnagar Fort, a narrow lane from Lal Bahadur Shastri’s statue takes you to the paternal home of India’s second Prime Minister. Just 13km from town at Sarnath, Lord Buddha preached his first sermon after attaining enlightenment, marked by the Dhamekh stupa. Besides, there are plenty of things to do in Varanasi. It is also a renowned centre for yoga, Ayurveda and meditation where you can take up courses offered by various institutes.
Varanasi's street food goes beyond aloo puri, chaat, chhole samosa, kachoris and thalis to iconic eateries, sweetshops and rooftop or riverside cafes serving exotic global fare. There are also a number of restaurants in Varanasi where you can indulge in mouth-watering dishes.
The closest Varanasi comes to a party is the annual Ram Leela in October when theatre performers and musicians stage a theatrical reenactment of Lord Rama’s life. Held across a month with marathon music sessions on blaring loudspeakers, it’s usually an all-night affair. For a more conventional party, head to Club Agni at Hotel Siddharth. Most bars and lounges are located in upmarket hotels – Patiala Peg in Hotel Meraden Grand (it also has The Heaven Lounge Bar), Princep Bar at Getaway Hotel Ganges Varanasi and Mangi Ferra at Hotel Surya are all options. The last on that list does great hookahs and pizza.
The hotels in Varanasi are located at different ghats: Jukaso Ganges, Guleria Ghat – A 200-year-old riverfront Yadava haveli painstakingly restored by WelcomHeritage into a boutique luxury hotel. Built out of Chunar sandstone, most of the 15 rooms open to a view of the Ganga with a riverside café and an open-to-sky terrace restaurant. The 800-year-old Vishnu idol in the meditation room is stunning.
Locally called Nepali Kothi, it was built by the Nepal kings in early 20th century as a retreat for the aged. Serves food prepared by a maharaj, so you know its wholesome. An added bonus? Yoga classes are organized on the terrace.
One of the oldest and most well known hotels in Varanasi, Clarks offers 104 well-furnished rooms with an outdoor pool in a serene garden.
A budget riverside hotel, that is adjacent to Man Singh’s Observatory. It offers 16 air-conditioned rooms (some with river view) and the rooftop Dolphin Restaurant.
Varanasi’s strategic location on the Gangetic plain and historical trade routes made it an important market since Mauryan times. Historically, shawls from the north, diamonds and gold from the Deccan, muslin and silk from the east, armaments from Lucknow, food grains from across India and perfumes, horses and elephants were traded here. Even today, the city is a great place to buy brass and copper ware, gold jewellery, shawls, saris, stone inlay work and musical instruments. Chowk, Gyan Vapi, Vishwanath gali, Thatheri Bazar, Lahurabir, Godoulia, Dashswamedh gali and Golghar being the main shopping precincts. No visit to the city is complete without picking up a Banarasi sari or local specialties like Banaras ka lal peda, Banarasi pan (betel leaf), Banarasi aloo papad and the excellent hand-knotted carpets of Mirzapur and Bhadohi. Numerous shops on Chowkhamba lane sell papads, pickles and gajak (a dry sweet made of sesame seeds). The floating markets with intrepid boatmen cum salesmen offering you holy water, religious accoutrements or knickknacks are another charming feature.
Varanasi is a photographer’s delight. Stroll around the ghats at dawn to watch pilgrims and pundits performing rituals, barbers and washermen at work, wrestlers and pehelwans working out. Boatmen often offer guided tours and rattle off stories behind the ghats and monuments, besides listing the movies shot here – Arjun Pandit, Yamla Pagla Deewana, Laga Chunari Mein Daag (all filmed at Man Mandir Ghat) and the boat used in Ram Teri Ganga Maili! At the Saraswati Bhavan Museum in Ramnagar fort, don’t miss the coins mutilated by Maharaja Prabhu Narain Singh who tossed coins high in the air and shot them with a rifle as practice! It earned him a citation from King Leopold II! But besides a mystical experience, Varanasi also offers some interesting cuisine – be it German bakeries, Middle East and Israeli cuisine at Yafah or Siwon Lassi in Kachori Galli.
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