Historical places,  Travel

Varanasi, through eyes of a Benarasi : A complete Guide

Writing about my own city makes my heart swell with pride and eyes gleam with memories. I was born and raised in Varanasi, lived in the city for good 20 years until I moved to Delhi for higher education. I am now living in Mumbai since last four years and I really like it here but something is missing. I miss being Benarasi in Benaras!

This blog is not just about what to do, where to visit, what to try while in Varanasi. I am trying to capture the essence, and when I say soul of Varanasi its not just about ghats, gullies, benarasi paan, spicey food , but its the people, the feeling you encounter amidst the chaos. So before I take you on a stroll in narrow lanes, let me introduce you to my city.

Benaras is older than history,

`Older than tradition,

Older even than legend, and

Look twice as old as all of them put together.

-Mark Twain

Varanasi (official name) also called as  and Kashi (cultural name) and Benaras (popular name) is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities.  It is located on the bank of Ganges at the confluence of two rivers: river Varuna and river Assi and hence the name Varanasi (Varuna+Assi). It is cultural and educational hub of India and is famous for its ghaats, temples, silk saaris, benarasi paan etc.  People from various corners of world come here to learn about Indian culture and spirituality. Hindus from all over India visit to pray, take a dip in holy river Ganges and honour their dead on the banks of the Ganges. Dying in Varanasi is believed to be auspicious, as it ends the cycle of rebirth (Moksha).

So much has been already documented and said about Varanasi and its culture. I am not going to brag more about it, So lets get straight to the point, whats so special??? I would say people, the faces you see on roads, on ghats, in gullies on tapri (paan-shop), they are special in their own unique way. They are full of life, hope and positivity. That’s why I prefer to call the city by name Benaras, which means ‘bana rahe ras‘. This word reflects the real culture of the city. The people in Benaras enjoy everything, from music, culture, politics, economy to  spirituality. They go out of their way to help others, there’s a joke that if you’ll ask address in any other part of India, people may ignore you or if best tell you directions, if you ask any Benarasi for directions he will drop you at the address.

Life is slow here, we have lots of time, you will find us chilling on food stalls, paan shops, ghaats. We call each other by names like Maharaj or Guru because we believe everyone is king here. We Benarasi talk too much and can talk on any or every topic, do not get surprised if you overhear someone discussing world economy while chewing paan on a small shop. As Benarasi we are very accommodating and adjusting, being the oldest city one may expect it to be developed, but the scenario is contrary. The city is crowded, dirty, with pot-holes everywhere. Traffic is crazy, I think one should get medal if he/she can drive here, traffic rules?? NADAA, never heard of it. But people are patient, even in severe traffic jam you get to hear some light jokes.

The other most important integrant is religion and culture. We begin our day with taking dip in river Ganga followed by offering prayer at Kashi Vishwanath temple, and having kachori-sabji and rabdi–jalebi as breakfast. Bholenath is our God and we believe he will take care of our problems. We never shy away from chanting Har Har Mahadev and Har Har Gange. We know death is certain and we believe in karma. But by no means assume that we are not secular, the Vishwanath temple has Gyanwapi mosque adjacent to it, where daily namaaz is offered. You will find even bhaijaan chanting mahadev in unison.

Now that I have established that I know the city well 😛 How about some tips? let me help you with few where to go/what to do list, so that you get first hand full on Benarasi experience. Here we go!

How to reach:

The city is well connected to other parts of India by train as well as by air. There are direct flights and trains from major cities like Delhi and Mumbai. From the airport or railway station, one can hire a taxi or a cab to explore the city.

When to visit:

The best time to visit Varanasi is in winter especially in month of November and March. Summer is not advised as temperature can sour to 40 degrees, and days can be really hot and humid.

What to cover:

Temples:

Varanasi boasts thousands of temples in almost every gullies of the city, each having either some historical background or some unique features. Thus, listing few temples is a tedious job, however I’ll list few must visit temples while in Varanasi. 🙂

  •  Kashi Vishwanath temple is one of the twelve Jyotirlingas, the holiest of Lord Shiva temples. The Shiva is known by the name Vishvanatha (Ruler of The World). The temple has been  a central part of worship in the Shaiva philosophy as per Hindu scriptures. It has been destroyed and re-constructed a number of times in history. The last structure was demolished by the mughal emperor, Aurangzeb,  who constructed the Gyanvapi Mosque on its site.  The current structure was built on an adjacent site by the maharani Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore in 1780.The two domes of the temple are covered in gold, was donated by the Punjab Kesari, the Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who ruled the Punjab. Vishwanath Gully (leading to the temple)  is famous for ladies corner, shops for the pooja goods and sweets. Devotees can make an affordable shopping in the Vishwanath Gali after completing the Darshan. One can also relish on lip-smacking chaat and lassi-thandai in  nearby Godolia market.
  • New Vishwanath temple, also known as Birla temple, situated in premises of Benaras Hindu University . In 1930s, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya (founder of Benaras Hindu University)wished to replicate Shri Kashi Vishwanath Mandir in the campus. The Birla family (famous industrialist group) undertook the construction and foundation was laid in March 1931 and it took 35 years to complete the construction. The temple is one of the tallest in India (total height 253 feet) and its tower  is the tallest in the world. As temple is situated in university campus, its surroundings are quite pleasant and away from hustle bustle of the city, which makes it a tourist hot-spot. Do not forget to try cold coffee with ice-cream at Tripti caffe.

  • Tulsi Manas Temple,  is a magnificent white-marble temple with its walls covered with the text (Chaupais) from Tulsi Das written Ramcharitramanas. Temple holds much importance as it is believed to  be located at same place where Tulsi Das wrote this famous Indian hindu epic. You can also watch a kathputli(puppet) gallery , dedicated to Lord Krishna/Rama stories on a minimal visiting charges.
  • Bharat Mata Temple, is unique in its own way as this temple is dedicated to mother India. And instead of any God/Goddess statue, it has a huge map of undivided India carved on marble. It is located in the Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapith campus.
  • Sankat Mochan Temple, is dedicated to the God Hanuman,  named “Sankat Mochan” meaning the “reliever from troubles”The temple was established by famous  poet Tulsidas in the early 1500s and is situated on the banks of the Assi river.  In the temple, one can relish on the special  “besan ke ladoo” as prasad.
  • Durga Kund Temple, also known as monkey temple, is dedicated to goddess Durga. Durga Mandir was constructed in 18th century by Bengali Maharani.  The temple was built in North Indian Nagara style of architecture. The temple is painted red to match the colours of the central icon of Durga. There is a kund (pond) adjacent to the temple, which was earlier connected to the river Ganges. It is believed that the existing icon of the goddess was not made by a man but is Swayanbhu (appeared on its own).

 Ghats:

There are around more than 80 ghats in Varanasi, used mainly for bathing and  pooja, while few are dedicated exclusively for cremation ceremonies.

Dashashwamedh Ghat  is located close to Vishwanath Temple and is probably the oldest ghat. As per hindu legends  Lord Brahma sacrificed ten horses during Dasa-Ashwamedha yajna and hence the name. It is famous for evening aarti (fire prayer), the most spectacular thing one can witness while in Varanasi. You can also opt for Ganga vihar(boating) while aarti to get a panoramic view.

Assi ghat, is the 80th ghat, located at confluence of river Ganga and Asi. The ghat is popular among youngsters, as is near to university campus. It is situated in south of the city , and hence it is less crowded , more peaceful and clean.

Manikarnika ghat, is the main cremation ghat where the dead bodies are burnt. According to Hindu mythology, it is the place where earring worn by Sati fell down when Lord Shiva was carrying her to Himalayas, and hence the name, Manikarnika (jewel of ear). People believe one who get cremated here, attains moksha(salvation).

Darbhangaa ghat, situated in close proximity to Dashashwamedh ghat, this ghat has a beautiful architecture. The grand building mainly comprises of tall pillars and balconies over it. The ghats is used for performing rites and rituals of the demised.

Other Tourist attractions:

  • Sarnath

Back in childhood, it was our favorite picnic spot, and growing up didn’t change our views. It is around 10 k.m away from the city, near the confluence of river Ganga and Varuna. The Deer park is major attraction, and it is the place where Gautam Buddha delivered his first ever speech after  gaining enlightenment. The complex boasts several monasteries and temples. Dhamekha stupa,  is an impressive 128 feet high and 93 feet in diameter, erected at the very spot where Buddha delivered the sermon to five disciples.

  • Ramnagar Fort

Built in 17th century by Kashi naresh, this sandstone structure was once home of royals for nearly 400 years. The durbaar of fort is converted into museum where one can witness the swords, the ornaments, antiques, palenquins kept on display.

  • Bharat Kala Bhavan

Situated in university campus, Bharat Kala Bhavan is an art and archaeological museum. It has beautiful collections of artifacts, manuscipts , miniatures, ivory goods, and rare collection of Gujarati, Rajasthani & Pahari miniature paintings. The Mughal miniatures, the sculpture of marriage of Shiva and Parvati and the 11th century statue of Vishnu and the Gandhara sculpture are the major attractions here.

Shopping and street food

Silk weaving is hands-down the most popular art of Varanasi. Banarasi silk sarees with famous gold and silver zari work form an integral part of an Indian bride’s trousseau and  are known to have passed on from generations to generations much like family jewels. Fine silks, brocade, jewelry, wall hangings, lamp shades and souvenirs of Hindu and Buddhist deities, etc. can be bought here. The main shopping areas are Vishwanath Gali, Godolia, Lahurabir, Dashaswamedh Gali and Golghar. Be careful, however there are high chances of you getting looted by shopkeeper in the name of authentic things, cross check the prices at several store and always bargain at half price while street shopping(You’re welcome!).

Apart from from being a cultural and educational hub, Benaras is also famous for its lip smacking food. Every other shop in Benaras is of food joint.  🙂 Othe than the famous Benarasi paan which happens to open your brain lock, the gullies of Benaras offer sweets and spicy food which will surely make place in your heart. You can try kachori, jalebi, thandai, lassi, golgappe, aloo-chaat, baati chokha etc , not to forget the famous Benarasi paan. For details, go through my previous blog on  street foods

Some extra tips:

  • Don’t get nervous while walking on busy streets of Benaras, soak in the vibrant chaos the city offers. And trust me you will get to see many wonderful things.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask questions, people will tell you amazing stories about life experiences, history, and culture.
  • Bargain as much as you can while shopping/taking private cabs and confirm the rates with locals.

So, the next time you visit Varanasi don’t be a tourist and spectator, just blend in, be a participant. Buy two kulhad chai at ghaats, share with a local and strike a conversation.

So when are you visiting Varanasi next? Tell us in comments.

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Har Har Mahadev!

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