“Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, And looks twice as old as all of them put together” – Mark Twain
As one of the oldest cities in the world, Varanasi has been a hub of religious, cultural and artistic pursuits for more than 3000 years, and today still echoes ancient Indian civilization. Also known as Kashi and Benaras, the city is found on the west bank of the River Ganges, and is closely associated with the river’s religious significance; the legendary power to wash away sins.
According to myth, the city was founded by the Hindu deity Lord Shiva, which today continues to make it one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in India, and one of the seven sacred cities of Hindus. Evidence of the city’s religious importance can be found at nearly every turn as it is peppered with temples enough to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who visit every year.
Hindus believe the city is a gateway to Moksha, and that those who are cremated here are liberated from the cycle of births and re-births. As well as Hinduism, Varanasi also holds historical significance for Buddhism and Jainism, which can be explored in the Buddhist Stupas and Jain Temples.
The Ganga Ghats are stairs to the Ganges, and the most popular pilgrim sites. Most Ghats are for bathing from, and many are associated with legends and mythologies so are often the focus of music and learning.
Also referred to as ‘the city of learning’, Varanassi boasts four universities, and has been revered as a symbol of spiritualism, philosophy and mysticism for thousands of years. It has been home to many prominent Indian philosophers, writers and musicians including Guatama Buddha, Mahavira, Kabir, Tulsi Das, Shankaracharaya, Ramanuja and Patanjali.
Places to Visit:
KASHI VISHWANATH TEMPLE: Dedicated to Lord Shiva, ‘The Golden Temple’ is so-called after it’s 15.5 metre high golden spire. The fanatical Mughal King Aurangzeb destroyed the original temple and replaced it with a mosque. It was rebuilt in 1776 by Rani Ahilyabai of Indore, using a tonne of gold donated by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Traces of the old temple can be seen behind the Gaynvapi Mosque, which the temple now lies adjacent to.
SARNATH: Sarnath is located eight kilometers (WIKI SAYS 13?!) from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. Made famous as the deer park where Buddha first preached his message after attaining Nirvana, the Sarnath Archaeological Museum now houses various relics that survived the Turk invasions, including the National Emblem of India and the Ashoka Pillar.
ST. MARY’S CHURCH: Situated in the cantonment area of Varanasi, the church is an aesthetic anomaly. Designed in the tradition of Christian architecture it also pays homage to its Indian context. The result is that in place of windows are louvered doors to the sides and hooded ventilation slots beneath the cornices, creating an extraordinary look for Varanasi’s cathedral.
DURGA TEMPLE: Also nicknamed ‘Monkey Temple’ due to the large numbers of monkeys it attracts, Durga Temple was built in the 18th Century in the Nagara style and dedicated to Goddess Durga. It is one of Varanasi’s most important temples with thousands of Hindus visiting during Navratri and, according to legend, the statue of the Goddess currently on display was not made by man, but just appeared of its own accord.
TULSI MANAS TEMPLE: Dedicated to Lord Rama, Tulsi Manas Temple is one of the most famous temples of Varanasi and one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions. Built from white marble in 1964, the temple’s beauty is largely due to its simplicity, and its dramatic backdrop of lush green surrounds. It is said to be built on the site where Goswami Tulsidas wrote the epic ‘Ramacharitramanas’.
NEPALI TEMPLE: Built in the Nepali style by the King of Nepal, this temple attracts visitors from all over the world due to its magnificent woodwork. It is said that Nepalese workers were brought, along with Nepalese wood, from Nepal to build the temple, and that the speciality of the wood is that termites will not eat it.
VARANASI GHATS: The Ganga Ghats are stairs to the river. These are the most popular pilgrim sites for those who wish to bath in the holy Ganges and be absolved of all sins, whilst other Ghats are commonly used as cremation sites. Out of more than 100 ghats, some of the most popular and worth visiting are the Dasaswamedh Ghat, Manikarnika Ghat, Harischandra Ghat, Kabir Ghat and Assi Ghat.
SOME KEY VARANASI SIGHTS: Kashi Vishvanath Temple, Durga temple, Sankat Mochan temple, Tulsi Manas temple and the Bharat Mata temple. Benaras Hindu University (BHU), the Archaeological Museum -Sarnath, Bharat Kala Bhavan and the Buddhist Stupas & Temples at Sarnath.
Shopping and Markets
After sunset the markets are teaming with people. The main markets are Chowk, Gyan Vapi, Vishwanath Gali, Thatheri Bazar, Lahurabir, Godoulia & Golghar.
Silk weaving is one of Varanasi’s most successful cottage industries, and Banarasi Silk is world-renowned for its quality; “from the looms of Benaras went forth the most delicate silks that adorned the halls of St. James and of Versailles.” – Lord Macauley. Although, a word of caution; exercise care when buying silks as cheaper imitations are touted but not very easy to distinguish.
You can also pick up locally produced hand-woven carpets as well as brassware, copperware, musical instruments, wooden and clay toys, jewelry, shawls, wall hangings, masks of Hindu and Buddhist deities and so on.
Almost every month, and certainly every season, some important festival is celebrated in Varanasi, and when those are exhausted there are a succession of ‘Melas’ or fairs to enjoy, so don’t worry about planning your itinerary around them, come at any time and there’ll always be something to celebrate!