Famously known as Banaras or Kashi, the holy city of Varanasi is located on the banks of river Ganga and is considered the holiest city in India owing to its location and history and the numerous temples in it.
The city of temples or Banaras, as it is popularly known, is a holy city on the banks of the River Ganga. Said to have been discovered by Lord Shiva, this town has immense historical as well as religious importance. Not just a place where pilgrims throng to visit the temples, Varanasi is also the destination where most people come to spend their last days as it is believed that an individual who dies in this sacred place can attain salvation. Varanasi is one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world and oldest in India.
Its narrow lanes are filled with temples, fabulous food outlets, cows and bulls standing midway and numerous people flocking here and there. Varanasi is also called the "Galiyon ka sheher", meaning the city of lanes, "the city of temples", "the religious capital of India". It is also called the "city of learning" as it has always been a big learning centre since the ancient past. The Banaras Hindu University, one of the oldest and largest Indian universities is also situated here. Varanasi is also famous for its Kashi Vishwanath Temple, which houses one of the 12 revered Jyotirlingas. Sarnath, which is one of the biggest pilgrimage sites for Buddhists, is located nearby and Varanasi is typically the base to visit Sarnath. However, the most major attraction here is the River Ganga itself. The evening ritual, called the Ganga Aarti is a must see for everyone, without which, perhaps, a visit to Varanasi is incomplete.
Guest houses, as well as all ranges of hotels are available to the tourists in Varanasi. You can opt to stay in five-star hotels like Taj Gateway, Radisson and Ramada, or in decent hotels situated throughout the city. However, if you want to get the true feel of the city, stay at the numerous hotels situated on the banks of the Ganges and spend your day absorbing the tranquil atmosphere.
Very easy to reach. Has a wide selection of hotels for every budget. A thriving religious, cultural and historical community. Great food.
Can get very crowded during tourist season. Poor public hygiene.
Varanasi is the ideal destination for religious tourism, for people who want to experience the intermixed Indian society at its best, for connoisseurs of food and photographers. It is also a good spot for a family vacation.
Varanasi has a distinct tint to its cuisine with a certain influence of dishes and styles of Bihar added to its platter. The popular delicacies of the area are Dum Aloo, Bati Chokha, Aloo-Tikki, Pani Puri, Kachori, Tamatar chaat as well as sweets such as Jalebis, Rabri and Banarasi Kalakand. Another essential relish of the town is its Paan, a delicacy of betel leaf. Other than these, do try out the Butter Toast with hot milk, typically almond flavoured. Also, try out the local drinks like Lassi and Badam Sharbat. Varanasi is also famous for its Thandai, which is a milk based drink with Bhang added in it, which is a form of cannabis legal in India. Apart from the traditional and local flavors here, one will find numerous options for Continental and typical Indian food. When in Varanasi, you can explore the variety of food from the delicious street food to the numerous cafes at Assi. The city really has it all!
Cycle rickshaws as well as auto rickshaws are available in Varanasi for travel in local areas. Mini buses are also available within the city. Boats are used for tours of the River Ganga.
Arrive in Varanasi by road, rail or air and proceed to the hotel. Since Varanasi is a large city, the places to be visited primarily depends on the area of stay. However, some popular tourists sites are not to be missed. Among this is a walk along the Ghats of the Ganga early in the morning or late in the evening. At this time, you may be lucky and catch a Ganga Aarti in progress. The Dasashwamedh Ghat, Assi Ghat, Kedar Ghat and Manikarnika Ghat are some of the famous Ghats.
Most street food stalls are also located along the Ghats. The rabri malai, Banarasi paan, aloo puri and aloo chaat are a must have for all foodies. There are also some great museums in Varanasi which have collections of medieval and ancient artefacts that prominently feature in all tourists' lists. Sarnath, the famous site where Buddha met his first disciples and is a very holy place for Buddhists located just 10 kilometres from the main city. A dip in the Ganga and a boat ride along the river too are unique experiences you can get in Varanasi.
Varanasi has been a part of Indian civilisation since the beginning of time. Successive empires have made this city their trading and cultural hub, and this has brought the city into contact with a broad range of cultures. From the early dynasties like Mauryas and Guptas to the Medieval period of Mughals and later on the British Empire, Varanasi has been subjected to the influence of Greek, Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist, Christian and Jain ways of life. A large number of monuments currently standing in and near the city are a testament to this diverse past. Varanasi was also a very wealthy city for a long time, and the grandeur of the Ghats, public spaces and places of worship reflect this.
Like all cities of early India, Varanasi evolved into a major hub because it was located on the side of a river. Trade, commerce, worship, living quarters and daily routines in this city have been heavily influenced by the ways of the Ganga. Even today, it is the main source of water for the city and some amount of navigation takes places across this river. It is also the focus of cultural life and large daily congregations at the Ghats, parks and mosques at the banks of the river form the basis of social life. Since it attracts a large number of tourists, the Ganga is also responsible for a large part of the city's revenue in the form of tourism. However, due to the industries located near the Ganga, it is getting increasingly polluted and the quality of water is rapidly declining making the water dangerous for human use.
- Kashi is a land of many charms. Its not your usual holiday. Dusty, narrow and full of alleys and cowdung, you may wonder why you decided to come. But don't form an opinion until you reach the Ganga Ghats, or Benaras' assortment of temples. The city will leave a mark on your pysche. And don't miss Dev Deepavali here!
- Being a religious city, it is necessary for outsiders to understand and adhere to the customs and traditions of each area.
- If there is one city that truly defines India, it is Varanasi.
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By Rohit Shroff
What are the local dishes I should try in Varanasi?