For a city that’s supposed to be older than history it’s kind of obvious that through time people know it by various names. As Mark Twain said…Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together. Supposedly the oldest city in the world, with time it got a lot of names, what remained constant is the extreme character of the city, scholars with knowledge of the ancient scriptures at one end of the spectrum and free ( not that evident any more ) use of bhang and charas ( local drugs ) at the other. My guide asked if I would want to have any as I was super enthusiastic to do all that Varanasi had to offer, this I politely declined as having either would mean getting knocked off for at least 8 hours, what a waste, on a short tight trip.
Spiritual capital of India and home of Hinduism from last 3000 years Varanasi has been the center of learning over decades. One of the oldest universities, BHU university was founded here in 1916. The campus is huge with clean lanes lined with trees.
I have an old connect with Benares ( It will always be that in my mind ) it’s where a lot of my holidays have been spent, it is my mama badi( uncle’s house ) My memories of Benares is a laid back town where everyone has a lot of time on hand. The Varanasi I visited now was bustling, ready to burst on it’s seams and however much the current government may be trying to regularize and beautify the city they have a herculean task on hand. Would be great if they could work on the air quality as well. Even though I was coming from a crowded city like Mumbai the air pollution was tough to handle.
Along with a lot of history and religious beliefs, it’s also where most cremations would take place. It’s believed that if one is cremated in Varanasi, and their ashes are immersed into the sacred water of the Ganges, their reincarnation cycle will end and they will attain Nirvana. For any tourist visiting Varanasi this aspect of life and death can’t be overlooked. Earlier and probably even now widows were banished to Varanasi, forsaken by society, they would either beg on the roads or turn to the oldest profession on earth. Experiences is what the city is all about, not just tourism. It’s like watching a movie which is stark and real, away from all pretense and glamour.
Vishwanath Temple : Its in the campus of BHU, has the tallest temple tower in the world at around 250 feet. Worth visiting to roam around BHU, soak in the quiet which defies the chaos just outside.
Durga Kund Temple : Also known as monkey temple ( obviously named as it has loads of monkeys ) The statue here is supposed to have appeared on its own and is not man made . Most of the walls are red signifying Mata Durga. There is a pond to the right side of the temple with steps all around. Mata Durga is known to be the protector of the city of Varanasi.
Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple : Of the 2 most visited temple of Varanasi, Sankat Mochan is one, sankat mochan means to relive problems. Located at Assi ghat the temple dates back to the time of Goswami Tulsidas – a Hindu Vaishnava saint and poet. It’s said to be the place where Tulsidas saw Lord Hanuman and wrote Ramcharitmanas . It’s most crowded on Tuesday and Saturday, the days of Lord Hanuman. Red peda ( sweet ) is offered to the God here and relished by locals. It’s sold in the shops outside. Statutory warning, its over sweet and maybe not suitable to all palates. My mother is an ardent devotee of Lord Hanuman, on my annual visits to Banaras mom would often drag me here for blessings from Lord Hanuman. This is one place which I had faint memories of and looked probably unchanged.
Kashi Vishwanath Temple : The main temple visited by all who travel to Varanasi. The temple stands on the western bank of the holy river Ganga, and is one of the twelve Jyotirlingas, it’s known as the holiest of Shiva temples. The main deity is known by the name Vishvanatha or Vishveshvara meaning Ruler of The Universe. Varanasi city is also called Kashi, and hence the temple is popularly called Kashi Vishvanath Temple.
It has seen major renovation and streamlining of facilities. Everything starting with darshan to abhishek can be booked online. The morning aarti gets sold out a couple of weeks in advance as it has only 150 slots. I had pre booked the Rudra Abhishek and found the process smooth, go to the booking office, show the confirmation, immediately a pandit is assigned who carries with him all what would be required for the Abhishek (offering) Inside there are separate queues for those having a paid ticket and those who opt for free darshan. The priests don’t permit more than a few seconds once you reach the main shivling, to want a really good darshan keep calm and hold firm, after all even with the paid ticket the lines are long, a few seconds to connect with HIm is not too much to ask for. There are three domes each made up of pure gold, donated by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1835. Lower portions and door frames are now being converted to gold, it’s said 23 kgs of gold have already been used and the process is still on. All houses behind the temple have been broken down to ensure a clear path from the Ganga to the temple, plans are on to enable access to the temple by boat as well as road. No phones, electronics, digital watches, big handbags are allowed inside, lockers are provided at the booking office to keep all valuables.
Fun pondering : Since Varanasi has a lot of presence of Lord Shiva what exactly is Shivling ? Some say it’s the private parts of Shiva and Parvati others opine it’s the symbol for the creation of the universe through the combination of the active energy of Lord Shiva and his Shakti. The symbolism of the lingam also represents the base of the spine, meaning the Muladhara chakra, upon which the kundalini is resting, waiting for awakening.
Book tickets for Kaashi Vishwanath : https://shrikashivishwanath.org/
Other temples to visit : Kaal Bhairav, Tulsi Manas, Maa Annapurna…and quite a few more.
Boat ride on the river Ganges, there are total 88 ghats ( banks ) and a ride along the ghats will give you an almost complete picture of Varanasi without having to be part of the chaos Varanasi is. You can carry a snack along to munch as the city unfolds, with every ghat having significance. Taking a guide will make it informative and interesting. At the ghats most common sights are people taking a dip in the holy water to wash away their sins, and cremations. Most cremations are done at Manikarnika ghat. Ganga aarti is conducted every evening at sunset at Dashwamedh Ghat.
Morning Ganga Aarti is at Assi ghat, time for Aarti varies as it’s performed at sunrise. Advisable to reach a little early to get a place to sit closer to where the Aarti is performed. Total of 9 priests are assigned for it, 8 dressed identical, one in the center is the head priest and dressed differently. The priests chosen to do this important ritual is by virtue of their knowledge, not lineage ( and probably arm strength as the aartis looked too heavy to lift, leave alone perform with it as they did effortlessly ) By virtue of having lived his entire life in Varanasi and having a lot of contacts my cousin managed to get me first row seats and the honor of lighting up one of the Aarti. The experience was surreal, even now just watching the video gives me goosebumps. After the aarti there are women selling small bowls of flowers and a candle to float in the water and make a wish, it’s an old tradition. Toss aside skepticism, float one, close your eyes and wish, who knows when the Gods will say Amen. Time permitting stay back for Subah e Benaras which happens after the Aarti at Assi Ghat, flow of program is, chanting of shlokas by the students of a local school, a havan which all can watch and participate, yoga class free for all.
Note : Look out for the most delicious tea possible, its served in small paper cups, made of local spices topped with lemon juice and herbal tea.
Sundowner at either Brij Rama or Guleria Kothi, they are both on the banks of Ganga, old palaces converted into hotels. Prior reservation is recommended. Guleria Kothi@Ganges(A Boutique Heritage Hotel) Landline : +91-0542-2406666/7 Mobile : +91-7991919101/2. BrijRama Palace Varanasi +919129414141.
Note: No alcohol is served near the Ganga, sundowner would not mean a glass of beer or wine.
Heritage walks : Can be booked at banarasculturalfoundation
Food : Due to the religious vibes of the city non vegetarian food and alcohol is served only in places slightly away form the holy river. Though most places have food suitable to the Indian palate with the influx of tourists across the globe there are enough places for them to enjoy a meal as well.
Kashi chat Bhandar and Deena chat bhandar for chat. Ram Bhandar for the best kachoris, their alu chana kachori gets sold out by 10:30. Blue Lassi near Kashi Vishwanath temple, Lakshmi Chai for signature chai, served in earthen cups. Smell and flavor of the baked earthen cups is part of the allure, team it with Banarasi malai toast ( Vegans would cringe to see the malai ( cream ) topping which is thicker than the toast ) or with butter loaded toast. Pizzeria Cafe for a view of the river and thin crisp pizzas and apple pies. Aum Cafe for healthy juices, herbal teas, super tired ? A massage is also available here. Craving for breads not paratha ? Brown Bread Bakery, they have vegan food as well. Malai ki roti is the to die for local sweet for, 2 layers of very thin malai and stuffing of pista….. devine. Ram Bhandar is a good place to buy this from. Memories of this delicacy will last forever on the taste buds. When in Varanasi end your meal like the locals, with paan from Keshav.
Shopping : Known for it’s beautiful silks and intricate weaving a saree bought here was passed down though generations. As treasured as a piece of jewelry. Back then real gold and silver were used as threads and woven intricately, those sarees if anyone is fortunate enough to have inherited apart from antique value it has same value as silver and gold. After decades It will still shines as if made just yesterday. All found on the streets now are machine made. Select shops have the authentic weaves but those also are obviously not gold or silver weaves any more. Thatheri bazar is full of shops selling all kinds of bright clothes and artifact, its a kaleidoscope of colors, rioting through the visual senses. Cars are not permitted here, only e-rickshaws.
Around Varanasi :
Sarnath : Just 10 kms and half an hour away, one of the holiest Buddhist sites, It’s known as the place where Gautam Buddha gave his first sermon, beautifully maintained it reflects the peace which just seeing a deity of Buddha evokes. For 1,700 years it was a center of pilgrimage and learning, and a place where monks stayed.. Beware of guides who may charge you less but will try to make you shop from locals to earn a commission.
Ramnagar Fort : The 17th century home of the Maharaja of Varanasi, it’s now a museum, housing vintage cars costumes and weapons. Personally was disappointed as we took almost an hour to reach here due to crazy traffic (to travel 1 km in city center Varanasi may take you 20 minutes ) and all the exhibits were in shambles, coated with dust. They charge Rs 75 as entry fee, the least they can do is keep the place dust free. Redeeming factor, it houses a temple dedicated to Daxina Murty bhagwan and also Ved Vyas, the author of the Mahabharata. The only temple dedicated to him in India. Overlooking this temple is the peaceful Ganga. Sunset from here would be spectacular.
Stay : Topmost would be Brij Rama and Guleria Kothi, they are on the banks of Ganga and charge a premium for the location. Palaces converted to hotels they have a charm which regular hotels won’t have. Taj, Radisson, Clark are the other regular ones. There are smaller accommodations by the river but I can’t vouch for any. After the hectic trip I opted to stay the last night at Tree of Life which is 10 minutes away from airport, and half an hour away from city center of Varanasi. It has only 18 suites, a lovely garden and pool. Was the perfect way to unwind and end the hectic trip over a glass of wine. Morning was bliss with birds chirping and beautiful exotic trees surrounding the 650 square feet esthetically done up room.
My observation of Varanasi would be is that it’s the chaotic version of Venice, connected beautifully by boats but they don’t ply when the river rises and that cripples the city silently.
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