Few things in life are as wonderful as watching a stream of water pass you by in the middle of a moonlit night. Add some music to the atmosphere and it can really invigorate the mind and body. For such an experience, a visit to Varanasi (also known as Benares and Kashi), located in the state of Uttar Pradesh, is highly recommended.
Varanasi is part of Indian mythology and has been mentioned in the Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabhrata. Its name comes from the two tributaries of the Ganges - Varuna, which flows to the north and Asi that flows to the south of the city. Varanasi is the holiest pilgrimage spot for thousands of Hindus, with many coming to have a dip in the Ganges in order to cleanse their souls. Legend has it that Varanasi is the home of Lord Shiva, the destroyer, where his fiery light broke through the earth to reach the heavens.
Varanasi is known as the 'eternal city', where life and death are both a celebration, where traditions are revered and modernity is worshipped, where saints are still mystical and thieves abundant, and where a visit is not just part of a travel itinerary but an experience you remember all your life.
Nature carved out Varanasi along the banks of the river Ganges at the only place along its course where the river flows from the south to the north (in Hindu mythology towards the abode of the Gods - hence the sanctity of the place). These days it can be reached conveniently by most of the Indian national airlines (the nearest airport is Babatpur, about 22km away), by train (to Varanasi or Mughal Sarai railway stations), or by road. For the more adventurous, a seven-day boat ride from Allahabad to Varanasi is recommended.
The City's Attractions
It is unlikely you will fall in love with Varanasi in a day. The roads are narrow (travelling is most efficient by carts pulled by men), drains overflow to depths of up to two feet during monsoons, and many innocent but scary-looking people can be seen all around. However, digging a little deeper unearths little pots of gold and the true charm of this ancient city.
On a short visit one will miss the alluring sights that each season has to offer. For example, the celebrations witnessed in the city during Dev Deepavali and Holi on either side of the winters should be compelling enough reasons to tempt one for a longer stay. Nimmish is a delicacy to be savoured in the winter months whereas the summer brings with it scorching heat and a chance to escape to the waterfalls, of which Rajdari, Devdari and Lakhanyadari are the most famous. The Ghats1 are an awe-inspiring enigma. The power of the mighty river Ganges, with the serenity of its calm flow, transports the mind over matter and makes the city feel 'alive'.
A Historical Perspective
Legend has it that the city of Varanasi has been a centre of learning and civilisation for over 2000 years. In fact, it was at Sarnath (a stone's throw away from the city) that Lord Buddha first preached his message of enlightenment almost 25 centuries ago. Later the city became a great Hindu centre. It was looted a number of times by Muslim invaders from the 11th Century onwards, and these destructive visits climaxed with that of the Mughal emperor, Aurangazeb, who destroyed almost all the temples and converted the most famous one into a mosque. Parts of a restored temple standing next to the mosque in peaceful co-existence can still be seen.
The city is the biggest learning centre of Sanskrit, the most scientific language in the world. It has also become a symbol of the Hindu renaissance; Tulsi Das, the famous poet, wrote the Hindi version of the Ramayana - known as the Ram Charit Manas - on the Tulsi Ghat.
Things to Do
The city offers a unique blend of ancient and medieval architecture and lifestyle. An exploration through the 'gullies' - or narrow roads - is highly recommended, for you never know what part of history you might stumble upon. Make sure to watch the 'aarti' ceremony at dusk from a boat on the river. This is a traditional form of worship at the end of the day - in Varanasi it is done in quite a fashion along the Dashashwamedh Ghat (named after the Hindu God Ram, who was as powerful as ten horses).
Another historic attraction is Rani Lakshmibai's 2 place of birth near the Hanuman Ghat. Not too many people know about it, as it is kept off the tourist map.
Across the Ganges is the Ramnagar Fort, where one can admire the antique car collection of the Maharajah. This 17th Century fort-palace was the home of the Maharajah of Varanasi and has a temple and a museum within its grounds.
A major shrine in Varanasi is the Viswanath Temple devoted to Shiva, which is said to be at the site of the pillar of light. The original temple was destroyed by Aurangzeb, a Mughal emperor, but was later restored in the 18th Century by Rani Ahilyabai of Indore.
It is inadvisable to go in for a swim in the Ganges3 during the monsoon season, as the river swells to dangerous levels and rises as high as the Ghats. For the less adventurous traveller, a calm boat ride on the river Ganges promises a unique and worthwhile experience.
If one tires of visiting the many temples in the city, shopping for Banarasi silk and handicrafts serves to lift the spirits.