May 102014
 
 And now for something completely different.  Take a deep breath, unpack your sense of adventure and commit to immersing yourself into the chaotic, other worldly experience of ancient Varanasi.  It’s a full-on assault on the senses but there’s nothing else quite like it and definitely not to be missed.

  • Sunset on the Ganges

    Sunset on the Ganges

  • Ghats

    Ghats

  • Ahilyabai Ghat

    Ahilyabai Ghat

  • Boat trip along the ghats

    Boat trip along the ghats

  • Evening Aarti Ceremony

    Evening Aarti Ceremony

  • Aarti Ceremony

    Aarti Ceremony

  • Canoe on the Ganges

    Canoe on the Ganges

  • Ghats

    Ghats

  • Sunrise on the Ganges

    Sunrise on the Ganges

  • Indian Toothbrushes

    Indian Toothbrushes

  • Manmandir Ghat

    Manmandir Ghat

  • Dashashwamedh Ghat

    Dashashwamedh Ghat

  • Departure Ghat for Boat Transfers

    Departure Ghat for Boat Transfers

  • Sunrise on the Ganges

    Sunrise on the Ganges

  • Morning Boat Ride Along the Ghats

    Morning Boat Ride Along the Ghats

  • Meditation

    Meditation

  • Morning Abolutions

    Morning Abolutions

  • Holy Men

    Holy Men

  • Marigold Garlands

    Marigold Garlands

  • Sarnath

    Sarnath

  • Buddhist Prayer Flags

    Buddhist Prayer Flags

  • Mulagandhakuti Vihara Buddhist Temple

    Mulagandhakuti Vihara Buddhist Temple

Key Facts

Varanasi, (also known as Benares & Kashi) is one of the oldest living cities in the world. Varanasi is the heart of Hinduism, a city of traditional classical culture, glorified by myth and legend and sanctified by religion. Pilgrims come to the ghats lining the River Ganges here to wash away a lifetime of sins in the sacred waters or to cremate their loved ones. To every visitor, Varanasi offers a breathtaking experience. The rays of the dawn shimmering across the Ganges, the temples and shrines along the banks bathed in a golden hue, soul stirring hymns and mantras along with the fragrance of incense filling the air and devotees taking a dip in the holy waters gently splashing at the Ghats.

Location: Varanasi is located in the state of  Uttar Pradesh which is in northern central India.

Getting there:
Air - The nearest airport is at Babatpur, 22 km from Varanasi town centre and 30 Km from Sarnath. Direct flights for Varanasi are available from Delhi, Agra, Khajuraho, Kolkata, Mumbai, Lucknow and Bhuvaneshwar airports.

Rail - Varanasi and Mughal Sarai (one of the main railway stations of Varanasi) are the important rail junctions, with train connections to all major cities of India.

Road - Varanasi is well connected to the rest of the country by good motorable roads. Some of the major road distances are : Agra – 565 km, Allahabad – 128 km, Bhopal – 791 km, Bodhgaya – 240 km, Kanpur – 330 km, Khajuraho – 405 km, Lucknow – 286 km, Patna – 246 km, Sarnath – 10 Km.

Landscape: Varanasi is dominated in every way by the holy River Ganges or Ganga.  The relationship between the sacred river and the city is the essence of Varanasi – ‘the land of sacred light’.  Life on the banks of the Ganga begins before dawn when thousands of pilgrims – men, women and children – come down to the river to wait for the rising sun when immersion in the sacred river will cleanse them of their sufferings and wash their sins away.  The old city of Varanasi is situated along the western bank of the Ganges and extends back from the riverbank ghats (large steps leading down to the river) in a labyrinth of alleys called galis that are too narrow for traffic. You can walk all the way along the ghats, apart from during and immediately after the monsoon, when the river level is too high.  Most places of interest, and much of the accommodation, are in the old city. Behind the station is the peaceful Cantonment area, home to most of the top-end hotels.

Food: The traditional mix of Uttar Pradesh with a touch of Bihar is something that sets the food in Varanasi apart. The famous snow cone, roasted peanuts, the delicious chat items like Tamatar or Tomato Chat, Pani Puri, Kachoris, Aloo Tikki; Thandai or Lassi, Baati Chokha, variety of Mithais or sweets like Jalebis, Banarasi Kalakand, Rabri, etc. Another famous treat of Banaras is their Paan- almost every local will be seen savouring this speciality of Varanasi made of betel leaf and a mixture of tobacco depending on your taste and preference.

Festivals: Don’t miss Diwali in Varanasi (in October or November, depending on the cycle of the moon).  The city is especially spiritual and magical at this time, when the river banks are lined with the glow of small lamps, people chant, and bathe in the river in the early hours. Around Kartik Purnima (October/November), a five day Ganga Mahotsav festival is also held in Varanasi. The focus is on live classical music and dance. Other important occasions in Varanasi include Mahashivratri (Feb), Buddha Purnima (Buddha’s birthday, typically celebrated in May), and Dussehra (late Sept/early Oct). Varanasi is quite famous for the performances of the Ramalila that take place there around Dussehra.  The Dhrupad Mela music festival is also held in March.

When to go: October to March are the best months to visit Varanasi. This is when the weather is at its coolest. Winters are refreshing and pleasant. The temperature gets uncomfortably hot from April onwards, easily reaching 35 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), followed by monsoon rains from July to September.

Things to see


Ghats

P1020730Spiritually enlightening and fantastically photogenic, Varanasi is at its brilliant best by the ghats, the long stretch of steps leading down to the water on the western bank of the Ganges. Most are used for bathing but there are also several ‘burning ghats’ where bodies are cremated in public. The main one is Manikarnika: you’ll often see funeral processions threading their way through the backstreets to this ghat. The best time to visit the ghats is at dawn when the river is bathed in a mellow light as pilgrims come to perform puja to the rising sun, and at sunset when the main ganga aarti (river worship ceremony) takes place at Dashashwamedh Ghat. About 80 ghats border the river, but the main group extends from Assi Ghat, near the university, northwards to Raj Ghat, near the road and rail bridge.

Vishwanath Temple

KV_temple_newThere are temples at almost every turn in Varanasi, but this is the most famous of the lot. It is dedicated to Vishveswara – Shiva as lord of the universe. The current temple was built in 1776 by Ahalya Bai of Indore; the 800kg of gold plating on the tower and dome was supplied by Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore 50 years later.The area is full of soldiers because of security issues and communal tensions. Bags, cameras, mobile phones, pens or any other electronic device must be deposited in lockers (₹20) before you enter the alleyway it’s in. Non-Hindus are not allowed inside the temple itself.

Ganges Boat Trips

P1020734A dawn rowing boat ride along the Ganges is a quintessential Varanasi experience. The early-morning light is particularly inspiring, and all the colour and clamour of pilgrims bathing and performing puja unfolds before you. An hour-long trip south from Dashashwamedh Ghat to Harishchandra Ghat and back is popular, but be prepared to see a burning corpse at Harishchandra. Early evening is also a good time to be on the river, when you can light a lotus flower candle and set it adrift on the water before watching the nightly ganga aarti ceremony (7pm) at Dashashwamedh Ghat directly from the boat.

Sarnath

Sarnath StupaBuddha came to Sarnath to preach his message of the middle way to nirvana after he achieved enlightenment at Bodhgaya and gave his famous first sermon here. In the 3rd century BC emperor Ashoka had magnificent stupas and monasteries erected here as well as an engraved pillar. When Chinese traveller Xuan Zang dropped by in AD 640, Sarnath boasted a 100m-high stupa and 1500 monks living in large monasteries. However, soon after, Buddhism went into decline and, when Muslim invaders sacked the city in the late 12th century, Sarnath disappeared altogether. It was ‘rediscovered’ by British archaeologists in 1835.Today it’s one of the four important sites on the Buddhist circuit (along with Bodhgaya, Kushinagar and Lumbini in Nepal) and attracts followers from around the world, especially on Purnima (or, informally, Buddha’s birthday), when Buddha’s life, death and enlightenment are celebrated, usually in April or May.

Mulagandhakuti Vihara

P1020790There are a number of twentieth century Buddhist temples in Sarnath. Many of these Buddhist temples at Sarnath are built and maintained by monks from Tibet, China and Japan but the main Buddhist temple is the Mulagandhakuti Vihar. The main shrine (vihara), called the Mulagandakuti, is said to be located at the place where Buddha used to stay during his visits to Sarnath. Inside are beautiful frescoes depicting the life of Buddha.