“Benares is a religious Vesuvius. In its bowels the theological forces have been heaving and tossing, rumbling, thundering and quaking, boiling, and weltering and flaming and smoking for ages.” This is an excerpt from Mark Twain’s “Following the Equator” (1897), a travelogue of sorts, complemented by the American author’s piercing observation about life, colonisation, people and society at large. Twain visited the holy city, pivotal to the practice of Hinduism, in the late nineteenth century and tried to examine a “religious hive, whose every cell is a temple, a shrine or a mosque”, as he put it later in the book.
Needless to say, present-day Varanasi (also known as Kashi or Benares) continues to be a mesmerising enigma that draws devotees and tourists from all corners of the world. Winds of modernisation are sweeping Varanasi, from where India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been elected twice to Parliament – efforts are on to transform Varanasi into a Kyoto-style smart city. While the infrastructure and amenities are being revamped, the soul of Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest living cities, remains untouched.
The Old City with its ghats, bordering the Ganges river, is where the heart of Varanasi lies. This part of the city never sleeps. Day or night, morning or evening, you can find yourself in the midst of a swarm of tourists either walking to temples or to the ghats to wash away their sins and escape the cycle of life and death. Hence, if you are visiting Varanasi, the Old City is where you should drop your anchor and start exploring the temple town in all its glory. There are modern neighbourhoods too with top-class hotels, but if you want to truly feel the pulse of Varanasi, choose any of the quaint hotels and homestay, preferably overlooking the river, in the Old City.
The city cannot possibly be neatly divided into specific tourist zones. There’s so much to explore that one can indeed feel overwhelmed at times. So, here’s a basic itinerary that can come in handy.
You can start your day in Varanasi with an early morning boat ride along the Ganges. Watching the sunrise on a boat in the middle of the river can be sheer bliss. While the city slowly gets drenched in a golden glow, you can enjoy the view from a boat – a rich tapestry of modern and ancient structures atop stone platforms, flights of stairs rising from the ghats, old temples and scores of people taking dips in the river.
There are boatmen galore, found along the ghats or provided by hotels dotting the city. Most of them can be useful tour guides, rattling off the history of the famous Varanasi ghats. The city has more than 80 ghats, the primary one being Dashashwamedh, a stone’s throw from the town square called Godowlia.
You can again take a boat trip down the river in the evening, culminating in an exhilarating experience of watching Ganga aarti (evening veneration). It is a highly synchronised ritual with fire lamps, performed by Hindu priests, alongside chanting and religious music. During the aarti, boats carrying devotees and tourists get parked near Dashashwamedh and its adjoining ghats. This leads to a bright and colourful congregation, both onshore and offshore. It is indeed an awe-inspiring sight in the City of Ghats, which is more than 3000 years old.
Must-visit religious places
When in Varanasi, you need to visit the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, God of Destruction and one of the holy Hindu trinity (others being Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu). The temple, which has a golden top, is one of the most significant places of worship in India, attracting hundreds of pilgrims every day. An early morning visit can help you explore the sprawling temple complex more comfortably. It houses other deities as well.
The temple’s structure, as it stands today, was built by Maratha ruler Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore in the 18th century. On the orders of Mughal emperor Aurangazeb, often remembered as a ruthless autocrat, the old temple was partially destroyed in the mid-seventeenth century and the Gyanvapi mosque was raised instead, according to historians. The temple and the mosque now co-exist on the premises. The mosque is currently at the centre of a multi-layered legal dispute.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream project, Kashi Vishwanath Corridor, is set to connect the ghats to the main temple, thereby improving connectivity for pilgrims. Under the project, the area surrounding the temple has been expanded to cover a whopping 500,000 square feet – earlier, it was confined to 3,000 square feet.
There are other prominent temples in Varanasi that you must visit as well – take Kaal Bhairav temple, Sankat Mochan temple and Durga temple, to name a few.
All for leisure
Varanasi also boasts of a supremely talented community of weavers. In fact, the city is known the world over for its hand-crafted Benarasi silk. So, a benarasi sari with its intricate designs is a must for your shopping cart. The arterial road leading to the Dashashwamedh ghat has numerous benarasi shops lining the street. You can also find such shops off the main road, stocking authentic products.
While you are in the Old City, you need to forego cars and simply walk – the city actually lives in its labyrinth of lanes and by lanes connected by stone steps. In these lanes, you will find old houses – some of them have crossed a century or more – and shops selling almost everything, from food to trinkets.
You can find lassi (a traditional yogurt-based drink) and thandai (another traditional drink, prepared with almonds, fennel seeds, cardamom, saffron, milk, sugar, etc) shops in every nook and corner. Quench your thirst as you walk on. Insofar as food is concerned, you can binge on the street food of Benares – samosas, kachoris, chaat (try the famous Kashi Chaat Bhandar, near Girja Ghar in Godowlia) and sweets, among other lip-smacking items.
Art aficionados can visit the Bharat Kala Bhavan, located on the Banaras Hindu University campus, and learn all about Indian art and culture.
If you feel like escaping the city, visit Sarnath, about 10 km northeast of Varanasi, where Gautama Buddha delivered his first sermon – it is an oasis of calm. Chunar Fort, dating back to 56 BC, is about two hours from Varanasi. Perched atop a hillock, the fort, steeped in history, offers a panoramic view of the Ganges.
All in all, Varanasi can be a soulful experience. Plan for a visit well in advance as getting preferred accommodation can be a tricky affair, thanks to the heavy influx of tourists. Also, try to avoid the blistering summers and merciless monsoons in Varanasi.