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The great Hindu city of Varanasi, also known as Banaras or Benares, stretches along the River Ganges, its waterfront dominated by long flights of stone ghats where thousands of pilgrims and residents come for their daily ritual ablutions. Known to the devout as Kashi, the Luminous – the City of Light, founded by Shiva – Varanasi is one of the oldest living cities in the world. It has maintained its religious life since the sixth century BC in one continuous tradition, in part by remaining outside the mainstream of political activity and historical development of the Subcontinent, and stands at the centre of the Hindu universe, the focus of a religious geography that reaches from the Himalayan cave of Amarnath in Kashmir to India’s southern tip at Kanyakumari, Puri to the east, and Dwarka to the west. Located next to a ford on an ancient trade route, Varanasi is among the holiest of all tirthas – “crossing places”, that allow the devotee access to the divine and enable gods and goddesses to come down to earth. It has attracted pilgrims, seekers, sannyasins and students of the Vedas throughout its history, including sages such as Buddha, Mahavira (founder of the Jain faith) and the great Hindu reformer Shankara.
Most of Varanasi’s better and more expensive hotels lie on its peripheries, though to experience the full ambience of the city, stay close to the ghats and the lanes of the Old City, where top-floor rooms, with views and more light, are generally the best. If you want to stay with a local family, ask at UP Tourism’s station office about their paying guesthouse scheme.
Most Old City restaurants are vegetarian and alcohol-free, but the Cantonment is less constrained, and some hotels have bars. Stomach disorders are common in Varanasi, so stick to bottled or treated water and be careful when choosing where you eat. After an early morning boat trip, try the traditional snack of kachori, savoury deep-fried pastry bread sold in the Old City next to the ghats – but avoid the chai stalls here, as the cups are often washed in river water.
Hustlers and rickshaw drivers are always keen to drag tourists into commission-paying stores, but avoiding those, shopping in Varanasi can be great, and it’s worth seeking out the city’s rich silk-weaving and brasswork. The best areas to browse are the Thatheri Bazaar (for brass), or Jnana Vapi and the Vishwanatha Gali in Godaulia with its Temple Bazaar (for silk brocade and jewellery). And of course, never go shopping with a guide, official or not, nor ask any guide or rickshaw-wallah to take you to any shop.
Like Agra and Delhi, Varanasi is rife with touts, and you’ll have to be careful of scams, especially on arrival. Many hotels pay a commission of up to eighty percent of the room rate (for every day you stay) to whoever takes you to the door – a cost that is passed on to you.
All English-speaking rickshaw drivers are part of this racket, and avoiding it takes persistence. At Cantonment railway station, you can phone your hotel of choice, who will send someone to pick you up (the tourist office will even do this for you). If you want to make your own way to the hotels of the old town, walk away from the bus or railway station to the main road, find a non-English-speaking cycle rickshaw driver, and ask to be taken to Godaulia, 3km southeast – a ₹60 ride. Rickshaws are unable to penetrate the maze of lanes around Vishwanatha Temple and are banned from the central part of Godaulia. Again, you can call a hotel from here to come and find you – if you attempt to get to a hotel yourself, touts may try to attach themselves and claim a commission on arrival. When trying to find hotels in the old town that don’t pay commission to touts, it’s common to hear that they have “burned down” or “flooded”; touts may also try to remove signs directing people to them.
The great riverbanks at Varanasi, built high with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pavilions and palaces, temples and terraces, are lined by stone steps – the ghats – which stretch along the whole waterfront, changing dramatically in appearance with the seasonal fluctuations of the river level. Each of the hundred ghats, big and small, is marked by a lingam, and occupies its own special place in the religious geography of the city. Some have crumbled over the years while others continue to thrive, visited by early-morning bathers, brahmin priests offering puja, and people practising meditation and yoga. Hindus regard the Ganges as amrita, the elixir of life, which brings purity to the living and salvation to the dead, but in reality the river is scummy with effluent, so don’t be tempted to join the bathers; never mind the chemicals and human body parts, it’s the level of heavy metals, dumped by factories upstream, that are the real cause for concern. Whether Ganga water still has the power to absolve sin if sterilized is a contentious point among the faithful; current thinking has it that boiling is acceptable but chemical treatment ruins it.
For centuries, pilgrims have traced the perimeter of the city by a ritual circumambulation, paying homage to shrines on the way. Among the most popular routes is the Panchatirthi Yatra, which takes in the pancha (five) tirthi (crossings) of Asi, Dash, Manikarnaka, Panchganga, and finally Adi Kesh. To gain merit or appease the gods, the devotee, accompanied by a panda (priest), recites a sankalpa (statement of intent) and performs a ritual at each stage of the journey. For the casual visitor, however, the easiest way to see the ghats is to follow a south–north sequence either by boat or on foot.
All along the ghats, and especially at the main ones such as Dashaswamedh, the prices of boat (bajra) rental are highly inflated, with local boatmen under pressure from touts to fleece tourists and pilgrims. Renting a boat to catch the dawn in particular can be a bit of a free-for-all, and haggling is essential. There used to be an official rate, which everyone ignored, but it’s now down to your bargaining skills. You’ll get a far better rate (₹150/hr for a one- or two-person boat, ₹75/hr per person on a shared boat) if you walk up to Mir Ghat near the Alka hotel, where punters are thinner on the ground. Some small hotels offer special deals to their guests, including free rides at sunrise and sunset if you’re staying at the Shanti Guest House.
At the heart of Varanasi, between Dashaswamedh Ghat and Godaulia to the south and west and Manikarnika Ghat on the river to the north, lies the maze of ramshackle alleys that comprise the Old City, or Vishwanatha Khanda. The whole area buzzes with the activity of pilgrims, pandas and stalls selling offerings to the faithful, and there are lingams and shrines tucked into every corner. If you get lost just head for the river.
Accessed from Vishwanatha Mandir Lane to the north of Vishwanatha Gali, but closed to non-Hindus, the Vishwanatha Mandir temple complex, also called Visheshwara (the “Lord of All”), is popularly known as the Golden Temple, due to the gold plating on its massive spire. Because it is largely hidden behind walls, non-Hindus have to make do with glimpses of it from adjacent buildings. Vishwanatha’s history has been fraught. Sacked by successive Muslim rulers, it was repeatedly rebuilt and destroyed; in 1785, Queen Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore built the temple that stands today. Its simple white domes tower over the Jnana Vapi (“Wisdom Well”), immediately north, housed in an open-arcaded hall built in 1828, where Shiva cooled his lingam after the construction of Vishwanatha.
Adjacent to the temple, guarded by armed police to protect it from Hindu fanatics, stands the Jnana Vapi Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque of Aurangzeb. Close by, the temple of Annapurna Bhavani is dedicated to Shakti, the divine female energy. Manifest in many forms, including the awesome Kali and Durga with their weapons and gruesome garlands of skulls, she’s seen here as the provider of sustenance and carries a cooking pot. Nearby is a stunning image, faced in silver against a black surround, of Shani or Saturn. Slightly north, across the main road, the thirteenth-century Razia’s Mosque stands atop the ruins of a still earlier Vishwanatha temple that was destroyed under the Sultanate.
About 3km northwest of Godaulia, outside the Old City, the modern temple of Bharat Mata (“Mother India”), inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi, is unusual in that it has a huge relief map in marble of the whole of the Indian Subcontinent and the Tibetan plateau, with mountains, rivers and the holy tirthas all clearly visible. Pilgrims circumambulate the map before viewing it in its entirety from the second floor. The temple can be reached by rickshaw from Godaulia.
Varanasi is renowned for its Ram Lila, held during Dussehra (Oct), during which episodes from the Ramayana are re-enacted throughout the city and the maharaja sponsors three weeks of elaborate celebrations.
Inland from the ghats, Sonapura Road and Durga Kund Road both lead south towards the Banaras Hindu University (BHU). The most popular sight at this end of town is the famous Monkey Temple, but there are also a couple of other interesting temples.
The nineteenth-century Durga Temple – stained red with ochre, and popularly known as the Monkey Temple, thanks to its aggressive and irritable monkeys – stands in a walled enclosure 4km south of Godaulia. It is devoted to Durga, the terrifying aspect of Shiva’s consort, Parvati, and the embodiment of Shakti (divine female energy), and was built in a typical north Indian style, with an ornate shikhara in five segments, symbolizing the elements. The best views are from across Durga kund, the adjoining tank. A forked stake in the courtyard is used during some festivals to behead sacrificial goats. Non-Hindus are admitted to the courtyard, but not the inner sanctum.
The Tulsi Manas Temple is open to all. Built in 1964 of white-streaked marble, its walls are inscribed with verses by Goswami Tulsidas, the poet and author of the Ramcharitmanas, the Hindi equivalent of the great Sanskrit epic Ramayana.
In the campus of the BHU, the Bharat Kala Bhawan Museum has a fabulous collection of miniature paintings, sculpture, contemporary art and bronzes. A gallery dedicated to the city of Varanasi, with a stunning nineteenth-century map, has a display of the recent Raj Ghat excavations and old etchings of the city. Along with Buddhist and Hindu sculpture and Mughal glass, further galleries are devoted to foreign artists who found inspiration in India, such as Nicholas Roerich and Alice Boner; the Bengali renaissance painter Jamini Roy, so influenced by folk art, is also well represented.
The BHU campus is home to the New Vishwanatha Temple, distinguished by its lofty white-marble spire. The temple was the brainchild of Pandit Malaviya, founder of the BHU and a great believer in an egalitarian and casteless Hindu revival. It was financed by the Birlas, a wealthy Marwari industrial family. Although supposedly modelled on an original temple destroyed by Aurangzeb, the building displays characteristics of the new wave of temple architecture, amalgamating influences from various parts of India with a garish interior. Outside the gates a small market with teashops, flower-sellers and other vendors caters for the continuous flow of visitors.
South of the ghats, on the opposite side of the river, the residence of the maharaja of Varanasi, Ramnagar Fort looks down upon the Ganges. The best views of the fortifications – especially impressive in late afternoon – are to be had from the bridge to the fort, which is reached by a road heading south from the BHU area. This was previously a seasonal pontoon bridge, but that is now being replaced with a new permanent bridge. The fort can also be reached by chartering a boat from Dashaswamedh Ghat.
Inside, the fort bears testimony to the wealth of the maharaja and his continuing influence. A dusty and poorly kept museum provides glimpses of a decadent past: horse-drawn carriages, old motor cars, palanquins, ornate gilded and silver howdahs (elephant seats), hookahs, costumes and old silk in a sorry state are all part of the collection, along with an armoury, some minute ivory carvings, an astronomical clock and hunting trophies.
River Ganges in Varanasi © D'July/Shutterstock