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.
The Gateway Hotel Ganges
Staring from INR 6999
Tree Baba Hostel
Staring from INR 600
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. Travel scams are very common.
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 is a city of religious importance and is bustling with tourists at all times of the year. Popular for the Benarasi paan, aloo puri, chaat and all kinds of street food; Varanasi also has a whole lot of beautiful places for sightseeing.
You can start your visit by visiting the religious edifices of Banaras. Begin by going to New Vishwanath Temple located in the premises of Benaras Hindu University. You can also have a glimpse of the world-renowned university.
Renowned for its rich collection of Indian paintings, Bharat Kala Bhawan Museum is located inside the premises as well. Spend the rest of the day visiting other temples- Kathwala Temple is famous for architecture and woodwork. The oldest and most famous one is Kashi Vishwanath Temple, it is one of the 12 Jyotirlingas in Hindu religion. You can end the day by witnessing the most important event of Varanasi- the Ganga Aarti, preferably on the Dashashwamedh ghats.
A trip to Varanasi is incomplete without a ride on the boats, in the flamboyant ghats. You can begin day 2 a little early and go boating to witness the mesmerising sunrise. Boating at dawn is one of the most exciting and enthralling experiences of the city. You can dedicate the latter half of the day to Ramnagar Fort. It is the most popular monument of historic importance in Varanasi. Although a little in ruins and out of maintenance, you can still awe at the beautiful paintings and decorations in the Darbar Hall inside the fort.
Devote the third day to visit the very famous Sarnath, located 10 km away from Varanasi. It is the place where Buddha gave his first sermon. The place has a number of Buddhist temples, deer park complex, a museum, dhamek stupa and ruins of Buddhist monasteries. You can reach there early to avoid the crowd and appreciate the tranquillity of the place and the beauty of the Buddha relics.
The majesty of the river Ganges can be best appreciated in a boat ride which is a must-have experience if in Varanasi. River Ganges runs through the city and the several ghats connect river to the land. There are numerous big and small boats waiting at the ghats to be hired from morning till sunset. The rides can be customised as per the request, but are generally costlier during the morning popularly known as the Subah-e-Banaras and at the sunset, during the time of Ganga Aarti.
Types of Boat Rides
A traditional rowing boat is the most common type of boat and a 90-120 minutes ride can cost around 250 INR per person.
Rides during sunset, at the time of Ganga aarti and at dawn, are the most famous of all.
Kashi Darshan- Ride to Kashi is a popular attraction which takes four hours to complete.
Ram Nagar Fort- Another popular ride is the palace of Banaras. It involves a walk on foot and sightseeing of the market.
There are also Motorboats to ride around. The cost usually 1500 INR per person.
The rowing boat usually carries 6 people at once. If there already are 6 people in a boat, do not try to fit in as the boats are rowed by manual labour and you do not want to strain the labourers. Also, an extra person might overweigh the boat and risk the chances of losing balance.
Make sure to carry mosquito repellents as the river is polluted and full of disease-causing flies and mosquitoes.
Popularly known as Kashi or Banaras, the quaintly charming land of Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world. It is a centre of Hindu culture and mythology, literature and art. The origin dates back to 2500 years ago when Lord Shiva married Goddess Parvati and chose to make the city their abode. Later the Aryans came and inhabited the city and thus began the trade of silk, muslin, ivory and perfumes. During the Afghan invasion and Muslim rule, Varanasi suffered a destructive phase which involved the demolition and destruction of temples. But it's glory was restored during the rule of Mughal emperor, Akbar.
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.
At sundown, every evening, Ganga Aarti is performed on the ghats of Varanasi. Although all of them can give you an extraordinary experience, the most magnificent and the spectacular one happens at the Dashashwamedh Ghat. The aarti commences as dawn descends, around 6 PM in winters and 7 PM in summers, to be precise. Devotees usually gather 90 minutes in advance to find themselves a suitable spot. The spectacle is viewed from the ghat steps, from the rooftops of the nearby houses and shops and also from the boats loaded at the riverbanks, all of which offer the best views. It can also be viewed from the rooftop of the organizing committee's office- Ganga Seva Nidhi. The Aarti takes place on seven wooden planks, each of which is decorated with saffron clothes and Pooja items including incense sticks, conch shells, brass lamps, etc. The pooja is performed by seven pandits which involve rhythmic chanting of mantras, hymns and prayers in the praises of river Ganges. Millions of spectators gather to witness the most mesmerising and glorious event of Varanasi. The assembly is a confluence of faith, cultures and traditions coming from all parts of India and even abroad. The aarti ends with the blowing of conch shells and lighting of camphor lamps. The whole spectacle takes around 45 minutes, by the end of which you can see the pandits, the pilgrims and the tourists dispersing and the solidarity and the silence of the river restored.
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!
- 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.
By Rohit Shroff
What are the local dishes I should try in Varanasi?