Banaras (or Varanasi), does the name ring a bell? It ideal should and if it does not then you should totally know more about the city. It is a widely known city across the globe. Neither it is known as a relaxed and luxurious vacation spot in India nor for the architectures or museums. Whaaaaaaaaa? Confused?
Well, *drumroll* first and then I begin to narrate the story of the divine city. After all, it is a popular destination for the intense culture, spirituality, beliefs, faith, vibrance, colours, stories and last but not the least – chaos.
I have met a lot of tourists here and all of them loved the city, gained a sense of fulfillment and longing to come back. But, again – there was one thing in common. A hell lot of time. Everyone who has ever visited this city will advice you to have some time in hand. You need time to learn more about this place and to feel it. The first impression of the city will most certainly be “oh gosh! its so dirty” or even “aaaaa so rural?” but if you are ready to see beyond it, explore it and discover it, then the city has a lot to offer. A city as popular as the capital city or even the bollywood city In India and previously known as Kashi (the city of lights), Varanasi is indeed the cultural capital of india and is “must visit” on your trip to India.
Named after two rivers (Varuna and Assi) and established on the banks of another river (and the holiest river of the country) – Ganga, the city is decorated everyday with the faith and beliefs of millions of Hindus. And, the feeling attached to experiencing this setting is sublime. Now that we are talking of beliefs and faith, would you like a story? Yes yes, can I hear a loud yes? I would louvv to share this enticing tale of divine India.
While the usual flow of Ganga is from the north to south, it changes its course in Varanasi and flows in the opposite direction. They say, the river changed its course to pay respect to Lord Shiva. Once Lord Brahma ordered Goddess Ganga to flow down to the Earth so that the ancestors could attain salvation. It did not go down well with Goddess Ganga who found it really demeaning and decided to sweep the entire Earth away with her force. The ancestors (being scared!) started to pray Lord Shiva to control the descend of the river. Hence, Lord Shiva trapped Ganga in his hair and let it out in streams. The touch of Shiva further sanctified the river and the place was began to be called “bholenath ki nagri” (the city of Lord Shiva).
This is the reason why river Ganga is considered to wash away the sins of the mortals. After all, it is a river which flows from the heaven. Logically, taking a dip at Ganga is considered a must in Banaras. You might embarrass yourself if you deny to do so. So, you want to (at least!) touch the water, put some on your head and bow a little in front of the river to show respect.
I will not lie to you but when I shifted to this city – I complaint! I complaint a hell lot. It was dirty, the roads were narrow, people had no driving sense and I could go on. But, it changed over time. It is still dirty, noisy and chaotic but I have fallen in love with the place. Thanks to the lamp of hope this city entrusts you with, the helpful and respectful people, the delicious food, strong beliefs, numerous interesting stories, lives and its inner beauty. Yes, the city has inner beauty, the one you have to look for and find. I have been living here for over 5 months now and now I can say – I have loved every second of it.
I have shortlisted 6 things which you should try in Varanasi:
1. Ghats: Doesn’t this go without saying? The city has over 84 ghats on the banks of Ganga and every ghat has its own significance. While some are reserved for washing clothes, others are dedicated to worshipping and a few for cremation. Out of all the ghats, the popular ones are Dashaswamedh, Assi and Manikarnika ghat. While you can definitely visit the first two, I would advice against going onto Manikarnika ghat. It is a place where dead bodies are burnt, a place for cremation and other rituals. Unless you are in to really offbeat travel, you would want to witness this place from the far and by that, I mean sitting in your boat.
Get to one of the ghats, take a lovely stroll, sit alone and enjoy the winds, look around the ghat and experience the local food (especially kachori and samosas). If you want to know more about the food and eat at the right places, you can download the infographic I have created for you and read this post on how to deal with Indian street food safely.
2. Boat ride along Ganga: Good news for all the lazy people out there, like me! The boat ride will be a relaxing experience and will give you an extensive view of the life of locals on the ghats. While you can catch a boat ride anytime during the day, I advice you to take it in the evening (just before the grand aarti).
Many would advice you to take the ride in the morning, as early as 6 AM. The city is up and running and you will be enthralled to see the faith of the people in Ganga. You will see thousands of pilgrims, saints, sadhus, women and children worshipping and taking a dip in Ganges. If you love photography then you should definitely reach Dashaswadeh ghat around sunrise.
If you are taking the boat ride in the evening, you will make a halt for the Ganga Aarti on Dasahwamedh ghat. The grandeur of Ganga aarti: the lamps, chants, lights, fire, flowers and the crowd will astonish you beyond bounds. You can have a sneak peak here. The usual time for the aarti is 6:45 pm so you can arrive as early as 5 PM and take a boat ride to see around. You can also chill on the other side of Ganga which is like any other beach!
Oh! If you do not want to hop on to the boat to witness the aarti, you can stand on the ghats and be a part of this grand celebration. However, I would advice taking the boat as it will give you a panoramic view of the entire event.
3. Temples – A visit to Varanasi is totally incomplete without going to the grand temples in the city. Not only they represent Hindu beliefs, they also depict the architectures in India. The most popular ones are the Kashi Vishwanath temple, Durga temple, Sankat mochan (there is an a huge cultural event for 5 days during Hanuman Jayanti where you can witness indian classical music and dances by experts) and Tulsi Manas Mandir. While Kashivishwanath is on Dashashwamedh ghat, all the other three are on the same road so yay. You can hop from one temple to the other and capture the beauty or chaos (whatever you like!) on the go.
The unfortunate part is that you wont be allowed to take photos anywhere inside of the temple.
4. Ramnagar fort: The fort is one of the best representations of Mughal style architecture and is known for being extremely strong and lavish. You can see river Ganges hitting the walls of the fort and changing its direction from there.
5. Sarnath – While Varanasi is a literally a temple in itself for Hindus, it is just as important a place for Buddhism and Jainism. Sarnath is where Gautama Buddha first taught “Dharma” and this is the place where Buddhist Sangha received enlightenment and this is the birthplace of Shreyansanath, the eleventh Tirthankara in Jainism. Phew, too many of “this is the place”. You can visit Chaukhandi stupa, Dhammek Stupa and Mulagandha Kuti Vihar (which houses beautiful frescoes made by a Japanese painter). You should visit the museum which houses the life in the earlier centuries.
Sarnath is also home to weavers association, so you can buy pretty looking and reasonably priced Banarasi silk sarees from there. Last time, I bought 4 sarees for around $ 60-70 USD each. Mwahahah!
6. Shopping: I think this goes in flow from my previous statement. Varanasi is a known shopping destination in India, especially known for banarasi silk and bhadohi carpets. The main shopping areas are Thateri Bazaar, Vishwanath Lane and Godowlia. No bullshit here, take some time out (a good amount if I may emphasize!) and go shopping.
There was a reason why Mark Twain was in awe of the city and said “Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” So, figure it out. Visit the city.
Chhavi is a resident of Varanasi (India), a freelance writer and travel blogger at mrsdaakustudio.com. You can find more about India on her blog. You can find more about her, here and write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org