Charm of the Oldest City, Varanasi

Mark Twain had written, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Varanasi, also known as Kashi, Benares or Banaras, is one of the oldest cities in the world. The lively and colourful city of Varanasi, set on the banks of the holy Ganga, is known as the city of moksha or salvation. Kashi is believed to be Lord Shiva’s favorite city. It is not only important from religious perspective but also is a seat of art, culture and business. Words don’t do justice enough to capture the real spirit of the ancient city. Artifacts dating back to 1800 BCE have been unearthed in excavations around Varanasi. Before we get to things to do in Varanasi, let’s see spiritual and cultural significance of the city.

Varanasi, the Spiritual Hub:

Varanasi is important to the Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs. The Vishwanath Temple is one of the most sacred sites of the Hindus. Adi Shankaracharya, one of the greatest Hindu sages, identified Varanasi as one of India’s most sacred cities in 8th century. Sarnath, 10 kilometers from Varanasi, is one of the most important Buddhist pilgrim sites in the world. Varanasi is also popular among Sikhs as Guru Nanak visited Kashi on Maha Shivratri in 1507. The city and the Vishwanath Temple have seen their revival in the 16th century under the patronage of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. The city is one which is not confined to stringent religious practices in spite of being a religious hub. Foreign tourists flock around Varanasi for the city’s amazing vibes.

Varanasi, the Cultural Hub:

Varanasi is rich in culture and art. Tulsidas’ epic poem Ramcharit Manas to modern day shehnai maestro Bismilla Khan and Girija Devi, the iconic thumri singer, originated from Varanasi. The remarkable figures like Kabir, Surdas, Meera and Ravidas from the Bhakti Movement were from Varanasi. The city is etched in the hearts and works of people from the creative and art world. From the renowned sitar maestro, Pandit Ravi Shankar, to the world famous film director, Satyajit Ray, all had Varanasi on top of their minds. Hindustani Classical music has a genre called the ‘Benaras Gharana’. It is also one of UNESCO’s Cities of Music. Now let’s get to things to do in Varanasi.

Roam around the Ghats (embankments):

The picture of Varanasi etched in our minds is those of the crowded ghats (embankments) with innumerable saffron clad sadhus (hermits), people bathing in the river, boats and umbrellas. These ghats have regal havelis (ancient palatial building) and temples rising tall and elegant steps going down to the wide Ganga. The Observatory (Jantar Mantar) is also present near the Dashashwamedh Ghat. A boat ride on the Ganga River is one of the most romantic things to do in Varanasi. Some of the most important ghats are – Dashashwamedh Ghat, Munshi Ghat and Manikarnika Ghat. Manikarnika Ghat is a crematorium and is believed that the last rituals performed here enables attainment of salvation. The best time to take the boat ride is at dawn when you can see how the city starts revolving around its numerous ghats.

Do not Miss the Ganga Aarti:

Ganga Aarti (worshipping of the holy River Ganga) at the Dashashwamedh Ghat in the evening is spectacular. The sound of the conch shells, the temple bells and the rhythmic chants take one to a transcendental stage. Priests perform the aarti with multi-tiered brass lamps lit up with camphor, synchronizing elegantly with the chants or mantras. This ritual touches the spiritual chord. Visitors can watch this from the steps of the banks/ ghats or from boats on the Ganges. Attending this event tops the list of the numerous things to do in Varanasi.

Experience Vishwanath Temple:

The Vishwanath Temple, a vintage temple that has been rebuilt numerous times, is the centre of attraction and visiting it tops the chart of things to do in Varanasi for Hindus. The Shivling or the shrine is one of the 12 Jyotirlingas in India. The sanctum houses the Shivling on a silver altar. The temple’s magnificent 15.5 meter high edifice is gold plated. Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab had donated the gold plates in 1835. To the north of the temple complex is the holy well of wisdom, Gyanvapi. The Gyanvapi lies in between the Vishwanath Temple and the Gyanvapi Mosque which is just adjacent to the temple. The 7-foot high stone statue of Nandi, Shiva’s bull, stationed at the eastern side of the temple is another attraction. It was a gift from the maharaja (King) of Nepal. The new temple corridor is extremely beautiful. Previously it used to be narrow lively lanes full of shops selling sweets and bangles, leading to the temple.

Visit Other Temples Too:

It is said that one can find as many gods and temples in Kashi as people in Varanasi. It is said that there are around 23000 temples in Varanasi. The most popular one is definitely the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, dedicated to lord Shiva. Two other extremely popular temples are the Durga/Annapurna Temple, the temple dedicated to Shiva’s consort and the Sankatmochan Temple, dedicated to Hanuman Ji, the greatest devotee of Lord Rama.

Spend some time at the Ramnagar Fort:

Ramnagar Fort is fascinating with its Mughal style of architecture, the large arched balconies and delicate stone carvings, its elaborate temples and the amazing museum with intriguing collections and exhibits. Royal portraits, American vintage cars, elaborate palanquins or palkis, silver elephant saddles, weapons, hookahs and other items from the daily regal life attract tourist attention. Bejeweled thrones and other furniture of wood and ivory work, and ornate silk costumes are popular exhibits are some more unique exhibits. The most interesting piece is an astronomical clock showing not only time but also detailed calendar and planetary positions of the earth with respect to the sun and the moon. Don’t miss the lassi being sold outside the fort.

Visit the Banaras Hindu University (BHU):

BHU, a public university, is the seat of modern day education in Varanasi. Strolling around in the wide streets inside the university campus is one of those things to do in Varanasi, you can’t miss. Sprawling around 1300 acres of land, with beautiful gardens, libraries and elaborate sculptures, the campus is an oasis of calm amidst the chaotic city. With over 30000 students residing in the campus, it is Asia’s largest residential University. BHU was established in 1916 by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya with assistance from Annie Besant.

Explore Food Trail in Varanasi:

Since food can also be a path to moksha, you can’t miss out on the street foods at Varanasi. The busy streets and the lanes and the by lanes of the city bombard one with gastronomic euphoria. Milk products – lassi, rabdi, kesar doodh (saffron milk), milk soufflé (eggless) are ravishing. People with sweet tooth, don’t miss the sweets and Indian desserts like halwas (sone halwas, gajar or carrot halwas), labang-latika and jalebi. A plate of plethora of colours and a riot of tastes is what is an awesome chaat is. Edible cannabis, Bhang, a tasty drink, is something that one should try (from government registered shops). Some of the popular joints for street food are Kashi Chaat Bhandar for chaats and Blue Lassi shop for lassis and thandais. Seet pan (betel leaf) with rose petals is another delicacy from the streets of Banaras. Exploring the food trail is definitely one of the major things to do in Varanasi.

Visit Sarnath:

Lord Buddha attained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya and gave His first sermon to his first five disciples at Sarnath, 10 kilometers from Varanasi. It is one of the most sacred places for Buddhists all around the world. The iconic Dhamek Stupa, built by Emperor Ashoka is the chief attraction. It is massive with 28 meters diameter and 43.5 meter height. The intriguing ruins and relics, deer park and the new Thai Buddha temple with sprawling gardens and the 80 feet high statue of Buddha are amazing. It is the tallest Buddha statue in India.

Indulge in Shopping:

Indulging in shopping from Varanasi is one of the best things to do in Varanasi. Varanasi is known for its silks, muslins and brocades since time immemorial. It is an industrial hub of silk fabrics. Lucknow Chikans (hand embroidery of Lucknow) are available too. Silver and stone trinkets, aatar (Indian perfumes) and sculptures are what tourists buy as souvenirs. Shopping options of all kinds- with nominal means to sheer splurging, are available.

Drive to Chunar:

Half an hour’s drive from Varanasi to Chunar, teleports you to a different world all together. Set on the banks of River Ganga, stands this massive 11th century red sandstone fort. Far from the madding crowd, this is a romantic and historical spot. Definitely some time spent here, looking at the wide river from the terrace of the fort is wonderful. Add this drive to your things to do in Varanasi.

An Overview of Varanasi:

Varanasi has its own airport, the Lal Bahadur Shashtri International Airport. Varanasi has been hosting eminent guests from all over the world and from all spheres of profession. Varanasi has been pivotal in numerous world famous documentaries. The city has been key destinations for Hollywood stars like Will Smith and Morgan Freeman too. Varanasi is 320 kilometers from Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh. Varanasi, with its chaotic charm woos you, whether or not you are looking for a spiritual or religious experience. From food to silks, from music to literature, from the Ganga and the ghats to the massive forts, Varanasi has it all, for a cool compact holiday.

Dipannita Bhattacherya
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