A city older than history itself? Varanasi is arguably one of the oldest cities and stakes its claim to be the oldest continually habited city in the world. A place where religion and spirituality form the fabric of this city’s storied history and culture. Varanasi is a city that should definitely be on your bucket list.
Varanasi is a city that is most likely going to attack your senses and there’s no way of being prepared for it rather than being physically there. Varanasi basks in chaos and openness. Everything is openly practiced in Varanasi, the religious prayers, bathing in the Holy Ganges and the encounter with Death! Yes! Death.
Being one of the holiest cities in Hinduism, one of the things that Varanasi is symbolic of is death. According to Hinduism, Varanasi is the city of Lord Shiva, The God of Death and Destruction. And if you die in Varanasi, you attain ‘Moksha’; liberation from the continuous cycle of reincarnation.
The Manikarnika Ghat on the Ganges is where you are going to be confronted with death. You are likely to find a burning pyre almost through the entire day. Witnessing life coming to a full circle for someone else at Manikarnika is just one of the many surreal experiences you will have in the City of Light. Like many have said in Varanasi, everything including Life and Death are up for display. Nothing is hidden here. The city encapsulates life in all its naked glory.
History And Culture Of Varanasi
Kashi for some, Banaras for some and Varanasi now for everybody else. Varanasi is one of the oldest cities around. A city that has been at the forefront of civilization. Varanasi was named after the culminations of the Northern river Varuna and the Southern River Asi, which would later be anglicized into an easier to pronounce Benaras by the Brits.
A land which is considered the holiest place for a Hindu is home to 2000 major temples and around 30,000 small temples. It is the temples that have earned Varanasi the moniker of being the ‘city of light’. It is also from Varanasi itself that the river Ganges changes it general southward trajectory to make its way north towards its Himalayan abode.
Varanasi is also an extremely important site in Buddhism. Gautama Buddha chose Sarnath near Kashi as the site of his first sermon as a large part of the spiritual seekers would be traveling via Sarnath before heading to then Kashi (Varanasi).
While Hinduism has massively influenced Varanasi, it is also symbolic of the beautiful coexistence that you are likely to associate the rest of the country with. Varanasi is home to 1.6 Million Muslims and you are likely to find more than a thousand shrines sprinkled across the city. You will find a mosque and a temple peacefully coexist next to each other and that is just one of Varanai’s many beautiful facets.
To say that Varanasi gets all its culture from religion would be unfair to the land that has produced some of the greatest artists in the country. Varanasi has always been a city that has nurtured a great emphasis on knowledge. The Banaras Hindu University and its alumni have always been prominent contributors in the fields of music, arts, literature, science and mathematics.
To experience Varanasi in all its glory, you must visit Varanasi during Dev Deepawali, usually a week after Diwali. You are sure to have a surreal experience as the whole city is lit up and celebrating Dev Deepawali in full gusto. Consumption of Bhang (the extract of the leaves of the male cannabis plant) in food generally in Lassis and Thandai is legal in Varanasi and is something you should definitely try. Although, we recommend exercising caution and consuming Bhang in moderation.
Varanasi has an interesting food circuit, it doesn’t have as many distinctly different decisions but they have their own interpretations of dishes. The Kachori in Varanasi is distinctly unique with a potato filling and lentils on top. Unlike elsewhere in the country, Kachoris here are consumed with Pooris. It is an extremely popular breakfast dish and is normally teamed with fresh jalebis and some piping hot chai.
Varanasi also has their own variations to Poha in the Choora Matar; essentially flattened rice soaked in ghee mixed with spices and milk or ghee. A chat delicacy that we definitely recommend is the Tamatar Chaat. Varanasi’s take on chaat. Tomatoes mixed with spices and boiled potatoes are sprinkled with chaat masala and served bite sized semolina biscuits.
In terms of beverages, Varanasi like the rest of the country makes great Chai, then there’s the local favorite Thandai and Lassi, both regular and special (with Bhang).
How To Get To Varanasi
By Air – All the big metro airports, especially Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata are extremely well connected to Varanasi by air. Places like Bangalore and Cochin also have decent direct flight connectivity. For most other cities, there’s always the option of a one stop flight via Delhi or Mumbai.
By Rail – Varanasi is well connected to some of the bigger cities and tourist hotspots like Agra by train. It takes about 8 hours from Kolkata, 12 from Delhi and around 16 from Agra. A train ride from Mumbai to Varanasi is about 30 hours. Trains are notorious for being delayed during the winter months primarily owing to fog.
By Road – You can get to Varanasi by road, easily from Agra, Delhi or Kolkata. These are an overnight bus journey away. Cities like Lucknow and Allahabad are not too far from Varanasi. There’s an option of taking either a state transport bus, which is much cheaper than a private air conditioned bus. We recommend taking the state bus if that’s the last option or you are on a super tight budget
Best Time To Travel To Varanasi
Just like other cities in North India, anytime between October to March is a good time to visit. You should look to time your visit to Varanasi during Dussehra, Diwali or Dev Deepavali to catch a glimpse of Varanasi’s fevered celebrations, or during Holi.
The months of April to June are very hot and do not make a good time to visit Varanasi. Monsoons in Varanasi can be disruptive, since the trajectory of the Ganges changes to northwards in Varanasi. The advent of the monsoon causes the lower lying ghats in Varanasi to flood.
Getting Around Varanasi
Public transport isn’t the best in Varanasi, for the old part of the city, closer to the ghats. Walking is the best way of exploring the ghats and all the bylanes. Alternatively, you can consider taking the cycle rickshaw. For places further away, you can take a regular auto or even book an Ola cab on your phone. Railway stations and Varanasi airport both have prepaid cab booths for you to get into the city.
Breaking Stereotypes About Varanasi
Varanasi is Dirty and Chaotic:- The stereotype tends to hold through to a certain extent, but let’s try to debunk the stereotype a bit. Varanasi is and has been dirty due to the size of the population and the recklessness of tourists. However, off late there’s been a massive clean up initiative by the government and the locals. Massive strides have already been made in the cleanup of the station, the river and that city is getting cleaner by the day. As travelers, it is imperative that we play our part in helping Varanasi get cleaner whenever we visit.
Varanasi is a city that is of extreme religious importance to the locals, and the focus on death can be too much for some. The city sure can be overbearing at times. However, if you can manage to take a second and find a sweet desolate spot on the ghats, you will find a certain sense of peace and gain some intriguing perspective. A full circle of life comes to so many people in this very city right in front of your eyes everyday. You just have to accept it for what it is.
Go Check Out
Subah-e-Benaras – Subah-e-Benaras is a ganga Aarti that takes place every morning. It is one of the best ways to start the day. The Ganga aarti is mesmerizing. Does not pull in as massive a crowd and you get to see the sun rise over the Ganges and experience the calm before the chaotic storm that is to explode in a few hours.
Boat Ride on the Ganges– Another beautiful way of experiencing all the ghats from the river. A great opportunity to take some amazing photographs as well. The best time to take this boat ride is just post the Subah-e-Benaras ceremony as you can see the city getting ready to start their day and witness thousands of devout locals, young and old practice their religious rituals with unwavering commitment day in and day out. Their devotion is remarkable and the boat ride enables a panoramic experience of the same.
Evening Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat – While this is another Ganga Aarti, the atmosphere for this one is quite intense and different from the morning Aarti. The temple bells are sign to attend the Aarti, soon after sunset. The Evening Aarti makes for a picturesque viewing as while the Aarti is performed in the background the last cremation is performed before the sun sets. You also sense the chaos fade with the end of the Aarti, as the city and its people get ready to relax after another eventful day.
Visit the Wrestling Akhadas of Varanasi – People of all ages come together at the local akhada (wrestling gym) to practice and further hone their skills. Their commitment to the form is inspiring. Spend some time at the Akhada and interact with wrestlers and be in awe of their discipline.
Explore the Handicraft scene in Varanasi – Varanasi is known for its skilled craftsmen, a lot of these craftsmen are the last beacons of their art forms. Interact with craftsmen who build wooden lacquerware toys, the man who has been a significant contributor to the Gulabi Meenakari and the skilled craftsmen who weave Banarasi silk sarees.