Varanasi, once known as Benares or Banaras and Kashi, is a historical city in northern India. The city is sacred to Hindus and also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. People often refer to Varanasi as “the city of temples”, “the holy city of India”, “the religious capital of India”, “the city of lights”, “the city of learning” and the “culture capital of India”
The scene of pilgrims doing their devotions in the River Ganges at sunrise set against the back drop of the centuries old temples is probably one of the most impressive sights in the world – definitely a must see destination on any trip to northern India.
According to legend, the city was founded by the Hindu deity, Shiva, around 5,000 years ago, thus making it one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in the country. It is one of the seven sacred cities of Hindus. Many Hindu scriptures, including Rigveda, Skanda Purana, Ramayana, and Mahabharata, describe the city.
Varanasi is generally believed to be about 3,000 years old. Varanasi was a commercial and industrial center famous for its muslin and silk fabrics, perfumes, ivory works, and sculpture. During the time of Gautama Buddha (born circa 567 BCE), Varanasi was the capital of the Kingdom of Kashi. The celebrated Chinese traveler, Xuanzang, attested that the city was a center of religious, educational, and artistic activities, and that it extended for about 5 km along the western bank of the Ganges.
The city can be scorchingly hot in the summer months, if possible time your visit to fall between October and March, and bring something warm to wear for chilly days and nights.
Varanasi is not a city with distinct tourist destinations as such: instead, the experience is in watching the spectacle of life and death on the river and meandering through the alleys of the old city.
- Vishwanath Temple – also known as the Golden Temple, security is tight making entrance difficult and sometimes completely off limits to foreigners. No bags, cellphones or pens are allowed. They can be deposited in the shops by the temple entrance.
- Nepali Hindu Temple – A small golden temple, built in Nepali architecture, near Lalita Ghat
- Man Mandir Observatory
- Tulsi Manas Temple
- Durga Temple
- Banaras Hindu University – a very green and peaceful campus. Few actually know that this University was built during Indian freedom struggle and is known as Oxford of the East. This is the largest residential university of Asia, having approx. 124 independent departments. You also visit Bharat Kala Bhavan, a museum of Art and Archeology inside university. There is also a Vishwanath Temple bulit by Pt. Madan Mohan Malviya.
- Ram Nagar Fort – the fort of the King of Kashi
A ghat is a series of steps leading down to the river, used by bathers and pilgrims, and riverside Varanasi consists of a long sequence of these. It’s generally possible to walk directly between them, though near Manikarnika Ghat you’ll have to navigate your way up and around through the alleyways. The best option for viewing the ghats is to charter a boat and see them from the river.
Some of the main ghats, from north to south:
- Narad Ghat – the ghat on which bathing with spouse is not advised because the myth of contention
- Panchganga Ghat – the meeting of the five rivers
- Manikarnika Ghat – the main cremation ghat; a must-see, but remain quiet and never take photographs
- Dasaswamedh Ghat – the main ghat and site of the large evening aarti; only reachable by foot at some times of day, about a 5 minute walk south from Godaulia
- Rana Ghat
- Kedar Ghat – brightly painted in stripes and busy with bathers, very photogenic
- Harishchandra Ghat – the cremation place were Raja Harishchandra did the last rituals of his son.
- Hanuman Ghat
- Shivala Ghat
- Tulsi Ghat – site of the large water purification plant
- Assi Ghat – a popular place to stay with many hotels, restaurants and internet cafes
- Boat rides are very popular, especially at sunrise and sunset. The most popular sunset ride is to start at Dasaswamedh Ghat and head up to Manikarnika Ghat to see the cremations in progress, and then return to Dasaswamedh and watch the evening aarti from the boat. Sunrise is another magical time for a ride, when the ghats are filled with Hindus bathing and starting their day – one of the most famous sights in India. You can bargain the price down to around Rs 30/person per hour (even for just 1 person in the boat).
- Get lost in the alleyways – the sounds, sight and smells are just unbelievable!
Varanasi is famous for its fine silk – it’s on offer everywhere, but shop around and bargain hard!
- Mehrotra Silk Factory, (near Brahma Ghat, follow the multiple yellow signs) has set, reasonable prices and a good selection. A little out of the way, but worth the trip.
- Wow India, Assi Ghat (the big corner shop, follow the tourists). A large collection of handicrafts from all over the country, a good place to pick up your gifts and souvenirs. Music, silks, ayurvedic cosmetics, herbal teas, incense and plenty more. Prices are moderate and fixed
Many of the sights are in the tiny narrow winding alleys of the waterfront. Rickshaws are only useful for longer trips across town or to the train stations. A cycle-rickshaw from the Junction train station to Dasaswamedh Ghat (or Godaulia if the road is closed) should cost Rs 20. From Godaulia to Assi Ghat is Rs 10. Taxis exist but traffic makes them impractical. There is a pre-paid auto-rickshaw stand at the Varanasi Junction (Cantt) train station.
By foot is the only way to see the waterfront and the ghats but be ready to be hot, sweaty, and lost – locals are usually happy to point you in the right direction. The names of ghats and signs pointing to restaurants and hotels are often painted on the walls in Roman letters.