The train it seemed was running on time. To be doubly sure, I cross checked with the tea vendor and he confirmed it was. I was happy. I immediately jumped down from my top berth and peeped out of the window. And there in front of me was the platform, the train zipping past. And finally it came to a halt.
A new morning, it was fresh as ever. A new day, a new city and a completely new feeling. And I told myself. Must make the best of this journey. The journey to discover myself, my life. I took the first baby steps and moved out, in search of my destination.
That was exactly thirty five years back. And I spent four years here, living the charm of this wonderful city. But today I was back again to rediscover this city, from a completely new perspective. From that of a traveler.
The first thing that attracted my attention was the newly built Lal Bahadur Shastri Airport, approximately twenty six kilometers away from the heart of the city.
I had booked my cab in advance, the flight landed on time and we were soon off towards the heart of the city, Benares.
Kashi, Benares, Banaras, Varanasi. The names are many, but the charm is the same. Benares, the City Of Lights.
“Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together” – Mark Twain
The Holy city of Varanasi has a written history of more than 3000 years. Its the abode of Lord Shiva and Maa Parvati (Hindu God and Goddess). The land of second oldest continuous civilization. The land of Mysticism and Spiritualism. The land of Sanskrit and Culture. The land of Great Learners, Teachers, Authors, Poets, Philosophers, Musicians. The land where Indian Medical science, Ayurveda and Yoga originated.
The land where Lord Buddha gave his first preaching. The land of Buddhism history. The city which Jainism revers to as the most holy. The city of knowledge and religions. Benares, the Culture Capital of India.
The three names Kashi, Varanasi and Benares actually denote three different era’s of the iconic history of this city. Kashi is the oldest name found in books and written documents which walk us through the ancient history of this city. The holy city on the banks of River Ganges. Derived from the word Kashya which means Lights the city got its name – Kashi, The city of Lights!
Then, times changed. The city flourished. People prospered, trade grew and the city needed to expand with the growing needs of land, people, tourism and knowledge. People realized that they could not settle near to the holy Ganges anymore. It was more a royal land now and only kings could settle there in solitude. So the city expanded towards the tributaries of Ganges, River Assi and River Varuna and beyond. There the city got its second name, Varanasi named after the lands between Varuna and Assi Rivers. The lands here were fertile, the floods were rare and hence the people were happy.
Then came the Britishers. And with them came the name Benares. This name is said to have many origins. Some say that the word Benares is based on the name of one of the kings of city, King Banara. Others say that its just a twisted version of Varanasi in Sanskrit.
We were now approaching our hotel. I had intentionally booked one near the happening city center, Godowlia. The hotel though was not too happening. But then I was here this time to explore. The luxurious hotels, most of which I have stayed in during my numerous business visits, are a little far away. The thrills of Benares are best explored by foot. And to experience the real Benares, you should stay at a place from where you can walk out anytime till late in the night and head towards the Ghats. This city, by the way, never sleeps.
The city had changed. But nothing much had changed. Except that there were more people, more rickshaws, more autos, more carts, more street vendors and more cattle jostling for the same narrow roads and lanes. But what is striking is that all are at peace.
Benares my favourite city, will probably soon be yours too.
Quickly checked in, freshened up and headed off towards the Ghats. It is the only place in the world which has 84 ghats , making it the city with highest number of river banks in the world.
We will explore most of the ghats tomorrow morning. On foot. For now let’s head off for some lunch. And I love the thali at this vegetarian paradise, Jaipuria Dharamshala, right on Godowlia. The food here is awesome Rajasthani food and there is always the risk of overeating. So watch out. The place also has decent rooms available which you need to book much in advance as they are hot selling ones.
Happily satisfied I walk back again towards the Ghats to explore some of them today on foot and on boat.
As I get back to Dashashwamedh Ghat, it was approaching evening. And the evenings in Benares are spectacular. Come get a feel.
Just going around the ghats next to each other is itself an experience that you would relish. And then now it was time for the event of the evening. The famous “Ganga Aarti”. Aarti is a devotional ritual that uses fire as an offering and is usually made in the form of a lit lamp, and in case of the Ganges River, a small diya, a candle and flowers are floated down the river after the prayer ceremony is over.
Let’s also have a view of this spectacular ritual from one of the boats on the river and a few other ones.
And now a short live view of the proceedings for you. Experience it absolutely live when you come to Benares.
Mornings in Benares are just out of the world. But you need to get up very early. I was up by four o’clock and after a bath was out heading towards Kashi Vishwanath Temple to offer my prayers and offerings.
The queues are huge but having stayed there for long, knew this priest who took me inside in no time. This experience inside the temple is such a special one, every time you visit here. Is it spiritual? Is it peace? For me, it is those few moments you feel you are interacting with the center of this universe, I call God.
Kashi Vishwanath Temple is the most important place to see in Varanasi. The history of this sacred shrine can be traced back to 3500 years. The temple is one of the 12th Jyotirlingas, which are considered the holiest Shiva temples. The Linga is the presiding deity here and the temple is a quadrangle, surrounded by temples of other gods. The temple once had a golden spire and domes; hence it was also called the Golden Temple.
Once through my riruals I headed towards the Ghats to relive once again, a Benares morning.
I sat there for quite some time doing nothing. Just observing people, their devotion, their happiness. Looking at our Mother Ganges flowing away and the beauty of nature. The Sun was out and so I decided to take yet another boat ride to check out some other Ghats.
Back refreshed with the lovely Ganges breeze while on the boat, I was now feeling really hungry. For the best breakfast in Benares, head to Kachori Gali. And I did exactly that.
The lane is dotted with a number of shops complete with large kadhais (woks) filled with oil, ready to fry a batch of kachoris to golden perfection. The first half of this lane is called Vishwanath Gali as the temple by this name is located here. The hot kachoris come with a variety of filling and side dish like Indian cheese and potato curry and tamarind chutney. And in the end you must relish the delicious Jalebis. A word of caution though to those who plan to visit here. Visit the Gali (lane) by 7 am as the later its gets, the more the food runs out here.
Feeling full and satisfied, it was time to visit the other must visit places of this historic city. So let’s move, live life.
In the heart of the holy city of Benaras, which is the centre of Hindu pilgrimage, there lies a centuries old St Thomas Church in Godowlia. This church has popularized the area as ‘Girija Ghar (Church) crossing’. However little is known about the history of this church which belongs to the Protestant Church of North India denomination. Most travelers to the city have to stop at this crossing because auto rickshaws and taxis are not allowed to take them any further into the Old City. Painted yellow, the architecture is built in typical European style with its main spire soaring into the sky with a cross atop it.
Alamgir mosque is famed for its exquisite architecture and enviable location. The mosque is situated on the edge of River Ganga. Said to be built by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb who is believed to have demolished the old Kashi Vishwanath Temple and constructed this mosque in its place. Alamgir mosque is a fine piece of architecture. The mosque is also known as Gyanvapi mosque due to the well of the same name situated close to it. One can notice the influence of North Indian or Hindu architecture in this mosque; however most of the mosque is done in Islam architecture.
Situated in the premises of Banaras Hindu University (BHU), New Vishwanath Temple is definitely a must visit in Varanasi. The temple was constructed by the famed Birla family and hence is also known as Birla Temple. In fact, it is a temple complex which consists of 7 temples. The Shiva temple is situated on the ground floor, whereas Durga temple and Lakshmi Narayan temple are located on the first floor. The architecture of the temple is inspired by the old Vishwanath Temple and the structure is made of white marbles. The walls of the temple are adorned with the text of Gita, which you will not fail to notice.
Dedicated to Lord Rama, Tulsi Manas Temple is situated next to another famed shrine called Durga Temple. It is a white-marble temple that has its walls covered with the text from Tulsi Das written Ramcharitramanas. It is believed that the temple is located at a place where Tulsi Das wrote this famous Indian epic.
The temple is dedicated to Goddess Durga but is recognized as a Monkey Temple, due to excessive population of monkeys around it. It is believed the presiding deity was not man made but appeared on its own. The temple is built by a Bengali Queen in a Nagara style of architecture. Non-Hindus are allowed to enter the courtyard of the shrine but not the inner sanctum.
And monkeys this city has in plenty. All around. But don’t worry. They don’t trouble you unless you do.
This temple is one of its kind as instead of being dedicated to any god or goddess, the temple is dedicated to Bharat Mata or India (assumed as Mother). The temple is situated in Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth Campus. Inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi in 1936, the temple was an inspiration for those who were fighting the war of independence. The statue in the shrine denotes mountain, plain and ocean and the major highlight of the temple is the map of India carved on a marble.
This temple is famous for its exquisite architecture and wood work. It is believed that the temple was built by King of Nepal and thus, this shrine is also called Nepali Temple. It is situated in the Lalita Ghat and catches the attention of many visitors in Varanasi. The intricate wood carving is what attracts visitors the most; the temple reflects the refined taste for good architecture taste of the rulers of Nepal.
It was now late afternoon. So I had to hurry to catch up on some lunch. Benares is also known as Mini-Bengal due to a large population of Bengali’s who have settled down here over the years. And hence you get some great Bengali vegetarian and non-vegetarian food here. I checked out Jalojog, right on Godowlia crossing. Food is quite good and tasty. There is another place you could try out by the name Shri Gouri Cafe near Dashaswamedh Gali. The place is nice and clean and has some great Bengali delicacies.
In the evening before you visit another ghat to witness the Ganga Aarti, there are two more places that you must catch up on.
The first of them, within the campus of Banaras Hindu University is the famed Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum, which is renowned for its rich collection of Indian paintings. The paintings date back to between 11th century and 20thcentury and are about 12000 in number. The Mughal miniatures, the sculpture of marriage of Shiva and Parvati and the 11th century statue of Vishnu and the Gandhara sculpture are the major attractions here.
The second place is a major attraction for all Hindu pilgrims.
Sankat Mochan temple is one of the sacred temples of Varanasi. It is located near the Banaras Hindu University. It is dedicated to the Hindu God, Hanuman. The word “Sankat Mochan” means one who helps in removing sufferings. Tulsidas, the author of the famous Hindu epic Ramacharitamanasa, founded the Sankat Mochan temple. According to Hindu mythology, one who visits the Sankat Mochan temple regularly, his wishes get fulfilled.
Every Tuesday and Saturday, thousands of devotees queue up in front of the Sankat Mochan temple to offer prayers to Lord Hanuman. According to Vedic Astrology, Hanuman protects human beings from the anger of planet Saturn and those who have ill placed Saturn in their horoscope visit the Sankat Mochan temple to get remedy. People put “Sindoor” on the statue and offer “laddoos” to Lord Hanuman. The “Sindoor”, from the statue of Lord Hanuman is put on the foreheads of devotees.
Back to my room after witnessing Ganga Aarti again and catching up on some light dinner, I was excited looking forward to yet another eventful day.
The day again began very early which was followed by some more Ghat lazing around and then a wonderful English breakfast at Brown Bread Bakery. This restaurant does not serve traditional Indian food, but has sandwiches, omelets, breads and other such offerings popular with foreigners. There are three or four shops with the same name around Dashashwamedha Ghat. But this one is located on the fourth floor of a narrow building. The food is expensive but it’s recommended for its ambiance. Also, this is perhaps one of the few places around the ghats where you can get non-vegetarian food.
If you are coming from outside India, you must check out Dashaswamedh Gali very near the Ghat by the same name. You have a lot of restaurants here serving Western oriented food. This lane also has the Bana Lassi restaurant that I have talked about earlier. I recommend you visit this place because it is very different and only one of it’s kind.
We were now all set to visit two other must visit locations while you are in Benares.
Ramnagar Fort is situated across the river beyond the Asi Ghat. Built in the 17th century, this fort has been the home to royals of Varanasi for over 400 years. Although not very well maintained, the palace still retains its charm. One can still witness the ornamented swords, photographs of tiger shoots and visits by the King and Queen of Belgium can be seen decorated on the wall. The Durbar Hall of the fort is converted into a museum, where several objects like palanquins and elephant howdahs are on display.
Sarnath is to Buddhists what Varanasi is to Hindus. This city was once the greatest learning centre in India and had also been visited by Chinese travellers Fa-Hien and Huien Tsang. The Deer Park is a major attraction in Sarnath; it is believed it is the place where Buddha visited in 528 BC to preach Dharmachakra or the Wheel of Law (his first major sermon after gaining enlightment). Deer Park is a complex now and the central monument here is Dhamekh Stupa, which is believed to be erected at place, where Buddha delivered his first sermon to five disciples. There is another stupa that catches the attention and it is called Dharmarajika Stupa (built by emperor Ashoka). The complex is dotted with small monasteries and temples. The Bodhi Tree was also planted here in the year 1931. In Sarnath, one can also visit the Archaeological Museum that displays a wonderful collection of Buddhist artifacts. The major attraction here is the Ashokan Lion Capital in polished sandstone.
And here are some other interesting piece of information for you on Benares –
- Banaras Hindu University (BHU) of Benaras is the one of the biggest universities in the world offering studies in Hindu scriptures, Vedas.
- It is the place where marriage of Frog is carried out with much pomp and show. Hundreds gather at Ashwamegh Ghat every year to see this interesting frog marriage in the rainy season duly carried out by Hindu priest.
- This place is famous for its five – day musical Drupad festival held at Tulsi Ghat, Ganga Mahotsav festival held in November and Nag Nathaiya festival.
- Benares is the largest manufacturer and seller of Benarasi silk. It can take up to six months to complete a single piece of saree. The best known ones are Katan, Organza, Georgette and Shattir.
It as also a major center for manufacturing of perfumes, ivory works, and sculpture.
Back to the city after spending a wonderful day out, a visit to this place can never be complete without tasting some more of it’s delicacies and famous offerings. Have a look.
And finally round off your meals with a Banarasi Meetha or Zarda Paan.
Benares. Experience the peace. Experience the madness. Experience a city, which has it all.
Come to Benares. Experience, India Beautiful 🇮🇳