Varanasi is India’s spiritual capital, and the birthplace of three of the world’s major religions. It also has the distinction of being one of the oldest continuously occupied cities on earth. Also called Banaras, Benares, Kashi or Kasi, Varanasi is one of the seven holiest-of-holy cities for Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. Situated in eastern Uttar Pradesh, on the banks of the river Ganga, the city has been a centre of learning and spirituality since times immemorial, being the womb from which great religions, numerous well known and innumerable unknown cultural entities and forms, spiritual and artistic personages, great thinkers and philosophers were born. The list of top 10 places to visit in Varanasi is only a fraction of the places you can see in this ancient, tolerant, mortally depressing and spiritually uplifting city: you have to live it to even remotely understand it!
Watch the mortal and spiritual drama on the River Ganga
To Hindus, the river Ganga is “Ma,” the mother and nourisher of all life, and the path to eternal salvation. For into this river are their bodies disposed of, or cremated on its banks: this very pristine river that originates in the icy heights of the Himalayas, meandering its way through the plains to disgorge its sordid cargo of debris and death into the Bay of Bengal. An early morning boat trip will both intensely sadden you, as well as immensely gratify you with its high drama of life and death, the mortal and the spiritual. There’s a project on to clean up this mighty, sacred, and very dirty river. So for now, drink bottled water.
Be overwhelmed at the Benares Ghats
The steep, perpetually crowded, intimidating steps leading down the banks along a 7km stretch of the river within the city are called “ghats.” They form an arc starting at Ganga’s southern tributary Assi, and ending at the northern Varuna – the two tributaries from which Varanasi is said to have derived its name. While most of the nearly 84 ghats are for meant for bathing, each of these has a special significance in the Hindu order of things. A great place to realize the frailty of the human body, and to understand the frantic intensity of the search for eternal salvation.
Visit the Vishwanath Temple
Visweswara, Shiva’s avatar as the Supreme Lord of the Universe, is the ruling deity of this most venerated of Hindu temples, a long line of which were repeatedly looted and razed to the ground over the centuries by invading Muslim hordes. In 1776, it was rebuilt by Ahalya Bai of Indore, only to have Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb demolish it and replace it with a mosque. The latest version of this holy of holy Hindu shrines still houses Aurangzeb’s Gyanvapi Mosque! A great example of Varanasi’s harmonious, all embracing spirit.
Don’t drink from the Gyan Kupor Well
Legend has it the Shiva lingam (phallic Shiva idol) uprooted from the Vishwanath temple by Aurangzeb was thrown into this well to hide it from his cronies, and devout Hindus believe that this has lent the well’s waters the power to raise their spiritual “level.” Don’t be tempted – bottled water is still the best choice, for a variety of reasons!
Breathe in the tranquilty of Sarnath
Located just 10 km outside the city is the site of one of Buddhism’s holiest shrines – Sarnath, where Buddha first preached his message of spirituality and compassion. The carefully preserved Dhamekha stupa and its adjacent buildings, and the neat, verdant lawns surrounding this nearly 2,200 year old site make for a clean and peaceful ambience. This site also contains the ruins of the famous Ashoka pillar, now India’s national emblem, which King Ashoka erected when he visited Sarnath after converting to Buddhism.
Appreciate the Tibetan Temple
Another jewel in the Sarnath crown is this beautiful Tibetan Temple dedicated to Lord Buddha who is believed to have lived here between 566-485 BCE. It houses a silver casket from Punjab, which contains what are believed to be the relics of Sakyamuni Buddha, as Gautam Buddha is also known. The temple is extremely popular among people from all religions, especially Hindus.
Admire the magnificence of the Nepali ”Kathwala Temple”
This magnificent Nepali style Hindu temple, with elaborate and intricate woodwork, was erected by the erstwhile King of Nepal in Lalita Ghat. Often called “Mini Khajuraho,” it draws admirers from all over the globe for its unique and outstanding workmanship.
Discover Alamgir Mosque
The derelict structure near Panchganga Ghat may not look very much, or may even actually seem quite sinister, but people who know its history will tell you otherwise. For, this is the ruin of the once majestic Alamgir Mosque. The mosque, which is still the city’s largest structure on either bank of the Ganga and commands excellent views of the river, has quite an interesting history. It is believed to have been built by Aurangzeb, who demolished a grand old Vishnu temple to accommodate it. This could be why it’s also known by the name Beni Madhav Ka Darera. This superb child of the fusion between ancient Hindu temple building technology and exquisite Mughal architecture is still a sight to behold, even in its fallen days. So ignore the debris, graffiti, and the ubiquitous foul smelling bird droppings, and appreciate the building for what it is: a truly marvelous example of finely blended Indian art!
Pay your respects to the Mahatma at Shri Gandhi Ashram Khadi
In a country where everything has a Gandhi connotation, from airport names to street addresses to currency notes to plain lip service, one of the true adherers to the Mahatma’s principles and philosophy is the very indigenous chain of Khadi Gramodyog stores, which manufactures and retails hand-made goods and clothing made from khadi, the rustic handspun fabric that a self effacing, modest giant of a man adopted as a symbolic gesture against foreign occupation, and non-violently (from his and his followers’ side) succeeded in humbling the might of a recalcitrant empire. To honor this great man, shop for khadi made ethnic kurta pyjamas, saris, and other handmade goods at the Khadi Gramodyog store situated on the first floor of the commercial building opposite the post office, or the one adjacent the university. And get some insights into this humble man’s simple life from the exhibits on the walls!
Silk shop at Mehrotra Silk Factory
And if you want more than khadi, walk into this tiny old shop to pick up reasonably priced silk stuff such as scarves, saris and bedspreads. The shop resides in a small alley adjacent the Varanasi train station. Quality is guaranteed, prices non-negotiable.
Varanasi is where journeys begin for some, and line’s end for others. But then, Varanasi is not about endings, it’s about new beginnings, about understanding some fundamental questions about life itself. If you have any existentialist questions, chances are you’ll find your answers in Kashi. Your search begins here!