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Varanasi, the land of spirituality

 
Varanasi, the land of spirituality
Varanasi, the land of spirituality (Thinkstock photos/Getty Images)
 
The land of spirituality and beautiful waterfronts that lure both Indian and foreign tourists.

Also referred to as Banaras or Kashi, Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world. Ganges in Varanasi is believed to have the power to wash away the sins of mortals and thus, the innumerable Ghats of Ganga in the city are accounted for.Also probably due to its unique culture, Varanasi is a major tourist destination.

The great river banks at Varanasi,built high in 18th and 19th century pavilions and palaces, temples and terraces, are lined with an endless chain of stone steps – the ghats-progressing along the whole of the waterfront,altering in appearance. Each of the hundred ghats, big and small, is marked by a lingam, and occupies its own special place in the religious city’s geography.

Skirted with ghats all throughout, the major water fronts in this heritage city are Dasaswamedh Ghat, Asi Ghat, Man Mandir Ghat, Manikarnika Ghat and Lalita Ghat. While the ghat which receives the maximum tourist footfalls is the Asi Ghat which is the southernmost in the sacred city, at the confluence of the Asi and the Ganges, pilgrims bathe prior to worshipping at a huge lingam under a peepal tree. Another lingam is that of Asisangameshvara, the “Lord of the Confluence of the Asi”, in a small marble temple just off the ghat. Traditionally, pilgrims continued to Lolarka Kund, the Trembling Sun”, a rectangular tank 15 mts below ground level, approached by steep steps. Now almost abandoned, except during the Lolarka Mela fair, when thousands come to propitiate the gods and pray for the birth of a son.

 

Varanasi is not a city with distinct tourist destinations; the joy of the experience comes from watching the spectacle of life and death- on the river and in the eyes of the people who come to the Ganga- as well as in meandering through the alleys of the old city, trying to fathom the ways of a very mature culture.

  • Vishwanath Temple – also known as the Golden Temple, security is tight making entrance difficult and sometimes completely off limits to foreigners. No bags, cellphones or pens are allowed. They can be deposited in the shops by the temple entrance. The temple was destroyed multiple times by Mughal invaders and was re-constructed by Hindu kings who followed them.
  • Kaal Bhairav Temple – is the temple for Kaal Bhairav – a dreaded form of the Lord in Shiva avatar symbolizing death. Its a tradition to buy a black thread (cost about Rs. 15 per 50 threads as of Sep 2009), sanctify it in the shrine, then wear it on the arm, wrist or around the neck as protection against evil.
  • Nepali Hindu Temple – A small golden temple, built in Nepali architecture, near Lalita Ghat
  • Alamagir Mosque – overlooking Panchganga Ghat, it’s a great place for a bird’s eye view of the area.
  • Man Mandir Observatory
  • Tulsi Manas Temple
  • Durga Temple
  • Banaras Hindu University – a very green and peaceful campus. Few actually know that this University was built during the Indian freedom struggle and is known as Oxford of the East. This is the largest residential university of Asia, with 124 departments. You can also visit Bharat Kala Bhavan, a museum of Art and Archeology inside the university. There is also a huge white marbled temple called Vishwanath Temple which was bulit by Pt. Madan Mohan Malviya, the founder of the university.
  • Sarnath – It is believed that in Sarnath Buddha gave his first sermon to his disciples after getting enlightenment. There is also a Museum in Sarnath. The location is also known as Deer Park. Sarnath is 13 Km from Varanasi and is very peaceful. Several Asian countries have built Buddhist temples there following their own ancient architectural traditions.
  • Ram Nagar Fort – the fort of the King of Kashi which is situated at the other side of the river.
  • Gauri Matha Temple – The devi at this temple is supposed to be the sister of the lord Kashi Vishwanath. Its a tradition to visit here just before you leave Kashi. You buy sea shells at this place and offer them to God saying that the virtues of donating the shells goes to her while you keep the virtues of having visited the holy shrines in Kashi and bathing in the ganga. The trip to Kashi is expected to yield results only after completing this custom.
  • Sankat Mochan Temple – The famous Hanuman temple, home to thousands of monkeys. Securiy is tight, mobile phones, keys etc. are not allowed inside the temple as a result of moslem terrorist bomb blasts; and as you enter you will be greeted by the sight of hundreds of monkeys on the premises. Beware- they may snatch from

Ghat

 

Dasaswamedh Ghat (main ghat)

A ghat is a series of steps leading down to the river, used by bathers and pilgrims, and riverside Varanasi consists of a long sequence of these. It’s generally possible to walk directly between them, though near Manikarnika Ghat you’ll have to navigate your way up and around through the alleyways. The best option for viewing the ghats is to charter a boat and see them from the river.

Hindus consider it auspicious to die in Varanasi, so some ghats are known as burning ghats, where bodies are cremated before their ashes are eased into the Ganga.

Some of the main ghats, from north to south:

  • Panchganga Ghat – the meeting of the five rivers
  • Manikarnika Ghat – the main cremation ghat; a must-see, but remain quiet and never take photographs (note: scams are plentiful here; see the “Staying Safe” section)
  • Dasaswamedh Ghat – the main ghat and site of the large evening aarti; only reachable by foot at some times of day, about a 5 minute walk south from Godulia
  • Rana Ghat
  • Kedar Ghat – brightly painted in stripes and busy with bathers, very photogenic
  • Narad Ghat – the ghat on which bathing with spouse is not advised because the legend of contention
  • Harishchandra Ghat – the cremation place were Raja Harishchandra did the last rituals of his son.
  • Hanuman Ghat
  • Shivala Ghat
  • Tulsi Ghat – site of the large water purification plant
  • Assi Ghat – a popular place to stay with many hotels, restaurants and internet cafes

Deepavali, or Diwali, is a great time to be in Varanasi, with special ceremonies in many temples. The once-a-year decorations and aarti at the ghats are spectacular.

  • Shivaratri is another great time to be in Varanasi. The day of Shivaratri is also the last day of the Dhrupad Mela, a festival of “Hindustani” (a form of Indian classical music) that goes on night and day for about 72 hours. Since the date of the festival is decided by Hindu lunar calendar, it changes (per the western, or Gregorian, calendar) every year.

 

Sunrise boat rides

Boat rides are very popular, especially at sunrise and sunset. The most popular sunset ride is to start at Dasaswamedh Ghat and head up to Manikarnika Ghat to see the cremations in progress, and then return to Dasaswamedh and watch the evening aarti from the boat. Sunrise is another magical time for a ride, when the ghats are filled with Hindus bathing and starting their day – one of the most famous sights in India. You can bargain the price down to around Rs 30/person per hour (even for just 1 person in the boat), but expect to be quoted much higher — the current bargained down ‘foreign tourist’ rate for a boat ride is Rs 300! In fact there is a price limit set by the city in 1998 but still in force today that sets a price range from Rs 50 for boats up to four seats to a maximum of 125 for very large boats. (That’s per hour and boat not per person.) At Dasaswamedh there is even a huge sign (in Hindi only) alerting tourists to that fact. If you go Nishadraj ghat, a few minutes walk from Assi, you can find a boat driver named Bhomi, a local singer renowned for his incredible voice and charming, beautiful songs; during the boat ride he sings anything from local folk songs to modern film songs and old devotional ones, and often improvises lyrics over his own songs to communicate with you and the various people gathered on the ghats. Otherwise, many hotels in Varanasi organise ‘free’ boat rides for you, the catch being that the ‘free’ portion of the ride is usually only half an hour, and after seeing 30mins of the river enough people agree to pay for more to make it worth their while.

 

Typical alley in Varanasi

Walk Get lost in the alleyways – the sounds, sight and smells are just unbelievable! Walk along the ghats. Best way to explore Varanasi is by walk.

 Varanasi is famous for its fine silk – it’s on offer everywhere, but shop around and bargain hard!

Get out

Ramnagar Fort
  • Gaya – One of the most sacred places to do Pind Dan (funeral offerings for the benefit of the soul of the deceased)
  • Sarnath – One of the most sacred places for Buddhists, known as the place where Lord Buddha gave his first speech after his enlightenment.
  • Ramnagar Fort – historical royal residence and museum across the Ganges
  • Chunar Fort – ruins of battlements and ancient settlement 15 miles from Varanasi.
  • Agra – the next point on the tourist “Golden Triangle”. Buses and trains, including overnight trains, leave several times a day.
  • Nepal – buses travel to the Nepali border where you can transfer to Kathmandu and Chitwan buses. Most buses go via Gorakhpur and can take 8-12 hours, or there are daily flights. There are a number of travel agents in Varanasi which will sell you tourist/AC buses to Kathmandu or Pokhara. Avoid these services (especially the operator Paul Travels) because they are not actually tourist buses. Instead, they are actually the local, public buses and once you get across the Nepal border, they will try to get more money from you.
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