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. This is 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 throughout 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, Benaras for some and Varanasi now for everybody else. Varanasi has been at the forefront of civilization for millenia. This city was named after the culmination of the Northern river Varuna and the Southern River Asi, which would later be anglicized into an easier-to-pronounce Benaras by the British.
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 also from Varanasi itself that the river Ganges changes its general southward trajectory to make its way north.
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 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 a sizeable Muslim population 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 Varanasi’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.
How To Get To Varanasi
By Air – Varanasi is serviced by the Lal Bahadur Shastri International Airport, which is about 26 km away from the city proper. All the big metro airports, especially those in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata are extremely well connected to Varanasi by air. Cities 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 – If it’s by train you’re traveling, getting to Varanasi is easy. Varanasi Junction is well connected to some of the bigger cities across India and tourist hotspots like Agra by train. But remember that 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 Deepawali 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 especially in 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 hiring a cycle rickshaw. For places further away, you can take a regular auto or even book an Ola cab on your phone. The airport and the railway station both have prepaid cab booths for you to get into the city.
Food In Varanasi
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 puris. 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 chaat 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 one added with a little special herb (Bhang!).
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-Banaras is a Ganga aarti that takes place every morning. It is one of the best ways to start the day. This aarti is mesmerizing and does not pull in too much 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-Banaras ceremony as you can see the city getting ready to start their day and witness thousands of devout locals, young and old practise 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 the famous Banarasi silk sarees.
Dos and don’ts in Varanasi
Ensure that you’re booking your hotel from a reliable website.
Visit in the winter months (September to March).
Go to the ghats in the early mornings and late evenings.
Visit the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.
Hire a guide to lead you through the labyrinthine streets.
Bargain and negotiate to get what you want for the best price!
Use cameras in the temples. Most of them prohibit photography.
Don’t expect a thrilling nightlife here. Varanasi is a pilgrimage site.
Feeding the monkeys (at the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple) is a big NO. Also, they’re likely to snatch food off your hands, so keep them well-hidden.
You’re unlikely to find meat in any of Varanasi’s restaurants. So don’t expect it!
How Many Days Are Enough For Varanasi?
Two days would be sufficient for you to get the perfect Varanasi experience. There would be enough time for you to witness both aartis and the boat ride on the Ganges, and exploring the ghats at your leisure. Also, don’t forget to visit Sarnath, the place where Gautama Buddha delivered his first ever sermon after his enlightenment.
Is Varanasi Worth Visiting?
Irrespective of whether you’re a devout Hindu, Varanasi is a city that must be on the bucket list of every traveler. The oldest city in India and the holiest for the Hindus has a lot of surprises and a bustling life that could even be overwhelming for international travelers. The walk through the ghats, watching the funeral rituals and the priests hold huge lamps in obeisance to the Ganges are all a sight to behold, and not seen anywhere else!
Is Varanasi Safe At Night?
Varanasi is generally safe, but like big cities everywhere, has its share of issues too. The primary among them are the narrow lanes that you’re highly likely to get lost in, especially at night for women. We recommend that you avoid stepping out at night, particularly if you’re not accompanied by a guide.
Where Should I Stay In Varanasi?
Being one of the biggest pilgrimage sites in India, Varanasi has its share of budget and luxury hotels alike. Based on your preferences, check out Unstumbled’s curated list of hotels in Varanasi.
Which Is The Best Time To Visit Varanasi?
The winter months (between October to March), are the best time to visit Varanasi. Just make sure to pack something warm to wear, as it could get quite chilly, but on the upside, you won’t be tired from all the walking.
What Should I Wear In Varanasi?
If you’re visiting Varanasi in the summer months, wear something light, preferably loose fitting cotton clothes and a cap/hat as the heat can get unbearable. For winters, get something warm. Remember that Varanasi is a pilgrimage site, so you must take care to wear decent, modest clothes.
What Is The Famous Food Of Banaras?
The city is almost exclusively vegetarian. When you’re in Benaras, don’t forget to try the litti chokha, baati chokha, kachoris and samosas. When it comes to sweets, treat yourself to malaiyo, thandais and lassis. Varanasi is quite liberal when it comes to consumption of bhang, so you can have a merry good time here too. Just remember to be responsible!
Does Varanasi Smell?
There’s no denying that Varanasi does have a distinctive odor to it, especially near the cremation grounds, and unsurprisingly so.
How Far Is Ayodhya From Varanasi?
Ayodhya is about 204 km away from Varanasi, and the travel would take you about 5 hours. The cities are connected by train and bus routes as well.