Varanasi is a city in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Regarded as the spiritual capital of India, the city draws Hindu pilgrims who bathe in the Ganges River’s sacred waters and perform funeral rites. Along the city’s winding streets are some 2,000 temples, including Kashi Vishwanath, the “Golden Temple,” dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Varanasi, the holy city of India, is also known by the name of Kashi and Benaras. Kashi, the city of Moksha for Hindus since centuries, is known for its fine-quality silks, ‘paan’ and Benares Hindu University and Avimukta of the ancient days.
Take a Holy Bath in Ganges
River Ganges is considered to the holiest Hindu River. Legends suggest that taking a dip in the holy waters here will offer salvation of sins and purification of the soul. In fact, the religious texts of Hinduism widely suggest that one should get a salvation by bathing in River Ganges to purify all sins accumulated in current or previous births.
Taking a dip or bathing in the holy waters of Ganges is one of the major things to do in Varanasi. The river’s personification is Ganga, the elder sister of Goddess Parvati, wife of Lord Shiva.
It is said that Ganga came to earth for giving salvation to 60000 ancestors. She came to earth as human, but her falling force is said to be so enormous that Lord Shiva had to hold her in his matted hair and he was the one who ultimately released her in the form of river.
The river, associated to Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh is therefore revered by Hindus. Varanasi has 84 Ghats and their steps lead to the River Ganges. The Ghats can be accessed easily and used for dipping or taking bath in Ganga. To complement this, travellers are recommended to opt for boat rides, which will help you gain insight into the culture and historical significance of the mystical river.
Explore Varanasi Temples
Best known for its Ghats and Temples, a visit to Varanasi is incomplete without the best temples of this city. There is one on almost every road and road crossing in Varanasi. While the small temples are used for daily local prayers and rituals, larger ones are associated with Hindu history and mythology. These places of worships are regularly visited by travellers in large numbers. They also reflect the architecture in India.
The most popular temple here is the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Also called the Golden Temple, this place of interest was built in 1780 by Queen Ahilyabai Holker of Indore. The Vishwanath or the Jyotirlinga of Lord Shiva is enshrined in here. The place of worship is also popular because Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh donated huge amounts of gold. Using the same gold, two domes of temples were constructed.
Durga Temple, built during the 18th century is also a popular in this city. According to legends, the statue of Goddess Durga in here was made by the Goddess herself. Every year, devotees visit this revered place during auspicious occasions, particularly Navratri.
It is popular among architecture students who visit it to see the Nagara Style of architecture, wherein the temple is layered in multi-tiered spires and has a rectangular tank of water. Among other shrines, Baba Keenaram Sthal, is regularly visited by researchers, tourists, documentary makers and writers.
Witness Grandeur Evening Aarti Ceremony
Watching Evening Aarti Ceremony is certainly once in a lifetime experience. The spectacular event must be viewed from the Dasawamedh Ghat, where beautiful rituals unfold themselves in front of your eyes. Brass lamps of large sizes are used during this event, which is accompanied by chants and crowds of people waiting to pray.
Visit at least an hour before the Aarti if you want to gather the experience at its best. At this time, you can witness how five elevated planks are placed at the edge of the steps of the Ghats and brass lamps are cleaned and readied for the occasion.
It is also interesting to watch how priests don identical dhotis and kurta for prayer and Aarti ceremony. Those who wish to click pictures from their cameras should visit the Ghats in evening boats, as this will allow one to easily capture everything in attention.
These brass lamps are quite heavy, almost four and half kilograms in weight. Therefore, make sure you carry one only if you are able to hold it in the crowds. As soon as they are lit, spectacular images are formed. The night sky shines with radiance of these lamps while incense sticks will fill the atmosphere with aroma of different types. The Aarti ceremony is performed every night and a 45 minute ritual is held for the same. The usual time it is 6: 45 in the evening.
Morning Boat Ride in Ganges River
Rowing boat rides during the dawn is perhaps one of the best things to do in Varanasi. The ride along Ganges River offers the quintessential Varanasi experience. It takes one through different Ghats and former palaces situated close to the banks of Ganges, giving a panoramic view of this River and the region.
The best time to enjoy boat ride of the Ganges River is from 5:30 AM to 8 AM. This is when the colour and clamour of the place will enthral you. Travellers will be surprised to see that the city is awake and cheery even during 5 in the morning.
Morning experience of the boat ride will leave an indelible imprint on your heart, especially because you will get to see the faith that people have in River Ganges. During the ride, don’t be surprised to see Sadhus and pilgrims bathing and performing prayers in front of you. This entire ride will unfold the religious significance of Varanasi and why River Ganges is revered all over the world.
Mostly, an hour long boat ride is ideal to give the traveller a taste of what this city has to offer. It usually starts from Dasawamedh Ghat, goes to the Harishchandra Ghat and then back. In the evening, you can see how women from all over the world light lotus flower candles and set it adrift in water. You can also opt for Ganges Aarti ceremony at the Dasawamedh Ghat. Travellers can access boats from Manmandir area.
Go for a Sightseeing Tour of Sarnath
Just a few kilometres away from Varanasi, is the sleepy village of Singhpur. While Varanasi is a Hindu religious centre, Singhpur’s Sarnath is a Buddhist centre of religion. Visit to this village, which is known for its Buddhist monuments, is one of the best things to do in Varanasi and nearby areas. Sarnath is also referred to a deer park, which is the place where Gautama Buddha first came and taught about the concept of Dharma.
This is where Buddhist Sangha received enlightenment. It is located in Singhpur, known as the birthplace of Shreyansanath, the eleventh Tirthankara in Jainism. Sarnath is certainly one of the best places near Varanasi, especially for those who are keen to learn more about history and religion in India.
It is where Emperor Ashoka erected a number of stupas and monuments for spreading Buddhism. The crumbling stupas here are a house of relics, manuscripts and fascinating inscriptions that can teach one a lot of Indian history, development of Buddhism and provide alternative theories such as Aliens and how they visited the earth.
A tour to Sarnath is usually for half a day and starts early in the morning. During the morning, one can revel in the beauty of Chaukhandi Stupa, which is one of the main stupas built by Ashoka after he converted into Buddhism.
Another main attraction is the Dhammek Stupa, made from a blend of stone and bricks. The stupa is 28 meters in diameter and has a height of 43.6 meters. Alternate theorist and historians from other countries suggest that the dome of this stupa indirectly refers to aliens and UFOs.
The intricate floral carvings of this stupa are reflective of early Gupta style of architecture. The other highlight of Sarnath is Mulagandha Kuti Vihar, which is a monument that showcases beautiful frescoes made a Japanese painter. This area is a rich repository of the culture and heritage of Buddhism. To gain more insight into Buddhism and to be enthralled by this history of this place, you can visit Sarnath Museum.
It is said to be the home of large number of relics that were excavated from Sarnath. The lion capital of Ashoka Pillar, which features on Indian emblem, is also showcased here.
Stroll Along the Ghats
Exploring the Ghats is one of the best things to do in Varanasi. The city has almost a hundred Ghats, the steps of each leading the banks of River Ganges. These are bathing Ghats, praying Ghats and cremation sites for Hindus from all over the world. It makes them alluring and enthralling for a traveller as it is associated with some legend or mythologies.
The privately owned ones here are known for morning boat rides which provide impeccable, panoramic views of the place. Some of the major Ghats that one can visit during their trip to Varanasi includes the Mata Anandamai Ghat, Assi Ghat, Manikarnika Ghat, Munshi Ghat, Raj Ghat, Dashashwamedh Ghat, Scindia Ghat and Raj Ghat.
Of these, Dashashwamedh Ghat is perhaps the most popular. It is located close to Vishwanath Temple and therefore, its spectacular appearance makes it an enchanting place to visit in Varanasi. The Ghat is associated with two Hindu mythologies.
One of these suggests that this where Lord Brahma welcomed Lord Shiva. The other states the place where Lord Brahma sacrificed ten horses during a Yajna. Every day, saints here perform Worship to Fire or Agni Pooja, which is a charismatic and spectacular event to watch.
Apart from this, Lalita Ghat is a destination worth visiting. Built by King of Nepal, it is the site of Keshav Temple and a number of local festivals are organized at this place. For cremating electrically, a crematorium has been set in Harishchandra Ghat.
Visit Historical Ramnagar Fort
A popular fortification, Ramnagar Fort is located in Varanasi. It is one of the best places to see on a monotonous afternoon. The fortification on the eastern bank of River Ganges is known for its cream coloured Chunar Sandstone, which gives it a strong, sophisticated appearance.
Although, it isn’t as old as usual forts in the country, it is popular around the world for its strong, lavish appearance. The fascinating structure is one of the best places for tourists and history buffs. Built by Raja Balwant Singh in 1750, this castle is the best representation of Mughal style of architecture.
It features carved balconies, pavilions and open courtyards, which is associated with summer resorts, palaces and forts of Mughal. The fort has been the home of the Maharaja and then his children. Currently, Anant Narayan Singh is the resident and occupies it despite the abolishing of Royal title in 1971.
The fort is often used for outdoor shooting locations of various films and has a museum, which showcases unusual and rare collection of vintage cars from America along with ivory work, sedan chairs, golden and silver palanquins in the shape of lotus and elephant saddles made of beautiful designs. It also features an armoury hall that displays swords and guns from around the world.
Shopping in Varanasi’s Local Market
Shopping in Varanasi is the best thing to do on a free afternoon or evening. The city is widely famous for its silk saris and ornate jewels. Visit the local market to buy different items of interest. The intricate pattern of floral designs and elaborate zari or thread work saris must be purchased from this beautiful place.
The local market here is filled with illustrious fine silk and apart from saris, one can buy shawls, carpets, stone inlay work, bangles and idols of Hindu or Buddhist deities. The main shopping areas to explore in this city include Vishwanath Lane, Thateri Bazaar, Chowk and Godowilia.