Savor the flavor of the ancient “waterfront” – The Ghats, a series of stone embankments and steps leading to the water – where hermits, millionaires and animals bathe together, to appease the God and wash their sins; where fragrance of incense, ringing of temple bells, aroma of colorful flowers, and reverberating sacred Shiva chants welcome the day; where India is still at its most ancient, stuck-in-time mode! Welcome to Varanasi!
A communication link between the Heaven and the Earth – this sacred complex was once called Kashi. During the Mughals it became Banaras. The British called it Benares. Today, it is known as Varanasi. From the oldest known past to unfathomable present, the city has retained its mystic charm; always remained the magnet for knowledge seekers, freak travelers, and pilgrims from far and wide. Even today, oft returning souls come here, on the revered bank of the Ganges, to end their journey.
Located on the western bank of the Ganges and flanked by the River Varuna in the north and the Assi in the south, Varanasi is a microcosm and one of the seven most sacred places of the Hindu Religion. The abundance of its beauty is reflected in majestic Ghats, hundreds of temples, and a unique, typical Banarasi lifestyle on narrow, serpentine alleyways. On the Ghats, the evening Ganga Arati, the rhythmic sound of damaru (two-headed drum) and bells, and the vigorous musical chanting are purely divine – an experience that you would like to experience again and again. Even in the midst of utter chaos you will find inner peace.
Banaras or Varanasi or Kashi—whatever you may call—has been an inspiration for many; because of its simplicity yet vivid and colorful expressions. There are plenty of things to do in and around the city. However, you can pick one or two or all, depending on your preferences and time. Let’s see what all you can do here.
Witness the Sunrise on the Ganges
Varanasi’s splendor is unparalleled in early morning when the Sun ascends on the horizon across the Ghats on the sandy waterfront. The shining orange Sun turns the river water into pure gold; and sandy waterfront on the other side appears as if someone has spread ashes over narrow silvery stretch. Arrive at the Ghats around 5 am to get the full benefit of the morning sun. You may also opt for a boat ride as it will offer you the chance to watch the life on Ghats early morning.
Spend the day on Ghats
The day along the 7-km long, arched and stepped stretch of the Ganges is equally expressive. The Ghats have been among photographers and poets. Here, life never stops and time does not move. As you stroll along the Ghats, you will spot the life in its varied forms – celebrations of birth and marriages, never-ending ritualistic praying under the palm parasols, young kids flying kites in the mid of the Ganges, boys along with sadhus playing cricket on the broader platforms, departing souls and their grieving families on Manikarnika Ghat, and the preparations for the coming festival. The city proffers different experience for every individual. In Varanasi, you can witness the entire India—people and religious lives from every corner of the country. Take a stroll through the narrow, serpentine lanes that run parallel to Ghats. You can see the real Banaras only in these Galies.
Pay Homage to the Lord of the Universe in Vishwanath Temple
Not far away from the sacred Ganges lies one of the oldest and most sacred temples in Hinduism – Kashi Vishwanath Temple. The Temple is also the beginning point of the sacred Panchkoshi Yatra—a 88.5 km-long barefoot walk encircling Kashi. The Yatra is divided into five parts identified with the five spots where pilgrims stay overnight in the pilgrim inns. A total of 108 sacred sites and shrines are found along this route. Rameshwar on the Varuna representing Rameswharam is one such beautiful place. Adjacent to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple stands the Gyanvapi Mosque built by the Mughal Emperor Aurangazeb. In the temple compound, it looks as if there is some kind of peace even in the utter chaos. Pretty and completely atmospheric!
Don’t Miss Out the Ganga Aarti in the Evening
Take a boat ride to enjoy an evening in Varanasi. Ganga Aarti is performed on every ghat, but the one performed at Dashaswamedh is the most elaborate and attracts maximum devotees. Ensure that you reach on time otherwise you will find it difficult to get a better view of prayers. Do not forget to witness the glory of the Ganges in the morning, noon and at the night. It’s different each time.
Pay Visit to the Center of Buddhism
13 km north east of the Varanasi Cant Railway Station is located the Mrigdav (The deer park) where Lord Buddha gave his first sermon, Dhammacakkappavattna Sutta, to his five disciples. Today, Sarnath attracts Buddhist travelers from all over the world. The place has relic dates back to 500 BC. At the center of the sprawling, well manicured lawn, stands the impressive 128 high and 93 feet wide Dhamek Stupa which is one of the few pre-Ashokan Stupas remaining. A little far away from the Sarnath premises is the Chaukhandi Stupa where the Buddha met his first disciples. In the middle lies Mulagandhakuti Vihara, a monastery built in the 1930s by the Sri Lankan Mahabodhi Society. The Sarnath Museum houses the National Emblem of India – the Lion Capital of Ashoka pillar whose remaining pillar part is still there amidst 2500 years old relics. The Museum also houses a famous and refined Buddha-image of the Buddha in Dharmachakra-posture.
Shop on Narrow Streets
Varanasi has some outstanding shopping areas near Ghats and Vishwanath Temple. Get a Banarasi Saree as a souvenir. The best place to get one is Gol Ghar near Maidagin, Bulanala, Chowk, and Godowlia. Don’t buy it from Vishwanath Gali or the road that connects Godowlia and the Dashashwamedh Ghat. Jalan’s near Gyanwapi and Ushnak Mall Mool Chand are the best places to buy one. But keep a distance from Touts.
Taste Street Food
Varanasi is also known for awesome street food. Try out Khasta Chauri and other authentic Banarasi delicacies at Kachauri Gali near Bulanala. Taste Lassi and Launglatta at Pahalwaan’s Lassi near Ravidas Gate in Lanka. After the day’s walk along the river, you may walk down to Baba Thandai near Godowalia on the way to Bulanala to cool off with a glass full of Thandai – a delicious and energizing mixture of milk, almond, sugar and pistachios. The shop also serves Thandai with Bhang (Cannabis), but this should be restricted to a Banarasi or a seasoned bhang addict. The hangover could be terrible. Taste Banarasi Paan at Keshav Tambool Bhandar in Lanka, near BHU (Banaras Hindu University) main gate, and in Laksa near Godowlia. If possible start your morning stroll along the Ghats with a cup of chai at Raju’s Tea Shop on Assi Ghat. I will come with a detailed article on street food in Varanasi soon.
Take a Trip to Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary
Few people know that there are beautiful falls, rapids and gorges in Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary, which is located only 50 to 80 km south of Varanasi (Banaras). Unfortunately, they are not very touristy. However there is a UP Tourism Guest House near Rajdari and Devdari Waterfalls on the Chandraprabha River. There are more than 150 falls in Vindhyachal and Kaimur Hills that stretches from Reewa in MP and Kaimur in Bihar. Their scenic beauty and remoteness can be a good option for biking aficionados. August to March is the ideal time to visit Chandraprabha Sanctuary when the rivers flow in full force.
Best time to visit Varanasi
October to May is the best time to visit Varanasi. Savan (July-August) is the month when maximum the pilgrims throng to the holy city. During the rainy reason the Ganges swells up to the roads and the Ghats submerge under the muddy water. There are special days when Varanasi comes to its full glory. A four-day Ganga Mahotsav is the best time to visit Varanasi. The festivity begins on the eleventh day from the day of Deepawali. During the four day period, the Ghats come alive with hundreds of thousands of earthen lamps lit with sparkling colors. The celebration reaches its culmination with the performance by noted classical singers and dancers on the Dashwashamedh Ghat.