In a nutshell… Are you thinking steppes and stonewalled temples, bathed by sacred rivers and their tranquil waters? Are you seeing yourself join your palms and let the sacred water run through your fingers as you face the sun? Or are you thinking Narendra Modi’s – current Premier of India – political stronghold? Then you are most definitely thinking of Varanasi. This ancient holy city, bathed by the River Ganga (Ganges), is located in the state of Uttar Pradesh and is considered to be one of the seven holy cities in Hinduism and Jainism. It is equally a Buddhist birthplace, as Gautam Buddha is believed to have founded Buddhism there in the 5th century BC. He is claimed to have given his first sermon at Sarnath (13 kilometres from Varanasi): "The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma”. Many refer to Varanasi as the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. The famous American author Mark Twain even allegedly said that it is “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together”. One of the things that also stands out about Varanasi, Banaras or Kashi (City of Life) as it was formerly known, is that is a true spiritual crossroad. The Hindu deity, Lord Shiva, literally regulates the pulse of this city. In the 8th century, worshiping Lord Shiva was established as the official cult by philosopher and theologian Adi Shankara and so amidst the Muslim rule. This did not thwart the proliferous cultural and religious activities that were pursued there by academics and theologians. The city is also intricately linked to the Ganga. Some Hindus believe that being cremated there is highly auspicious, allowing their life cycle to come to a perfect close. The tradition has been so strongly intertwined with the Varanasi lifestyle that it lives to this day, and is what attracts local and foreign tourists to this corner of the world. Over and above its spiritual dimension, Varanasi is home to a proliferous textile industry, particularly its muslin and silk. You may have remotely heard of the ‘Banarasi saree’… and indeed, the now renowned ‘Banarasi silk’ which is revered by all the saree-wearers around the world, hails from this city. Fragrances and ivory works are also prized local products. These are the multitude of aspects which weave in with the place’s spirituality and all of these elements are so deeply infused in the atmosphere, so much so that it cannot be gauged unless one visits the place, and allows all its magic to unfold… Is it a long way to Varanasi? Air Varanasi is located roughly 800 km from the Indian capital Delhi and about 300 km from Lucknow, the state capital of Uttar Pradesh. Much like most of the main cities in India, it boasts an international airport – the Lal Bahadur Shastri Airport – which therefore connects the city to India’s major metropolitan hubs, including Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. International flights can be hailed to and from neighbouring countries such as Nepal and Sri Lanka. The airport lays at about 20 km north of the main city centre. Like anywhere in India, taxi services are pretty reliable and usually booked pre-paid from a counter at the airport premise. These will connect travellers to the city centre in all manners and forms they may desire, whether it’s a small ‘mini’ vehicle with a stirring ‘mini’ fan plugged from the ceiling, or the romantic ‘Ambassador’, the voluptuous Indian-made vehicle which will make you feel like you’ve just hit a movie location of the golden years. Land Bus routes to and from the city links it to towns including Allahabad (3 hours), Lucknow (8 hours), Kanpur (9 hours) and Bodhgaya (7 hours). Several of these services are state-run and are therefore available at competitive prices. Buses, like taxis, also come in all shapes and sizes in India. The price range is usually related to the service, whether sleeper or AC, so expect to pay extra for the extra service as required. The cliché idea that they are old, colourful and noisy vehicles is true to many respects, but the luxurious type, hyper-comfortable and modern ‘Volvo-type’ coaches are also very widespread in the country, especially in typical tourist hot spots such as Varanasi. Rail There are several rail services which link the city to hubs such as Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Agra. The city has three main railway stations: Varanasi Junction, Manduadih Railway Station and Mughal Sarai Junction. Indian trains are all ‘slow-coaches’, but they don’t all only go to Calcutta. It’s best to take the train if you’re not on a schedule, or not in a hurry. The Indian Railways (IRCTC) has a website, but train tickets cannot be booked there ad lib. If you’re looking for last minute seats, these many only be available through a travel agent (online or they are usually found around hotels or tourist landmarks). There are several different categories on trains, including 1st, 2nd and 3rd classes, the latter which is not in the least uncomfortable, even for long journeys of 10 hours and over. Most of the long-haul trains will have a sleeping berth, therefore one can get pretty comfortable. Not all the trains carry restaurant coaches, but most stations have a lot of eating facilities on site. Some offer food services on order, delivering at one of the stops along the way. There is a lot of method in the Indian railway madness indeed! Seeing is believing Landmarks Vishwanath Temple Perhaps all travel websites focus on the ‘must’ temple in Varanasi, and that is the Vishwanath Temple, which is dedicated – like most of the city itself – to Lord Shiva. This particular temple features one of the 12 most sacred shrines of Lord Shiva in India. The saying goes that only seeing the temple from afar bestows blessings upon the beholder. The place of worship has a history as strong as the faith of those who tread its floors. It is not known when it was built because it was repeatedly destroyed by invaders. As a living legend, it was re-built each time it was brought down, thus depicting the inherent destruction and rebirth which Lord Shiva himself incarnates. The last re builder of the temple is known to be Queen Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore in 1777. Substantial donors include Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who have the temple nearly a ton of gold which was used in various ornaments inside the premises, thus its “Golden Temple” sobriquet. Durga Temple One cannot pay respects to Lord Shiva and ignore his consort, Parvati. She is also known as Durga, or Shakti… or another hundred or so names and avatars which represent all of the aspects of Her divinity. So this is what should bring the visitor to the Durga Temple. As by its name, it is dedicated to the Hindu Goddess Durga and is over 200 years old. It was built by a Bengali Maharani (or queen) whose devotion to the Goddess was unfailing. Perhaps one of the most mystical and exotic ideas that floats around this beautiful place is that the idol of the Goddess appeared miraculously in this temple, as opposed to having being built or brought in by man. This ties in nicely with the notion that, in Hinduism, Durga is the embodiment of female power. Therefore She is Power and whether or not Her idol was brought in or appeared as a religious miracle, it is enough to cement the faith of her devotees. The Legend is also an attraction to Her shrine, which depicts her wearing red, riding a tiger, with her multiple arms bearing sacred weapons from other prominent Hindu deities. Water is sacred in Hinduism, as much as it is in Varanasi and this temple may not have its compelling religious aura without the pond which lies on the right side of the building and which is known as the Durga Kund (Kund means pond or pool). It homes various religious rites and representations during the main Hindu festivals during the year, including Navratri, which is a 9-day celebration of the Goddess and some of her many forms. The temple is also called the Monkey Temple for the many primates which are present there. Nepali Temple Varanasi lies only about 320 km from Nepal and this is what potentially explains the bond which seems to have existed between the two places at some point. The Nepali Temple is a tribute of this bond, and sits on the Lalita Ghat of the Ganga River. It is the King of Nepal who commissioned this building. He had it fashioned in a unique Nepali type of architecture, by traditional Nepali artisan builders. Most of the raw materials used for its construction are also Nepali, including a speciality wood which is resistant to wood-eating insects such as termites. It is particularly known for the erotic woodwork and sculptures which adorn external and internal structures. St Mary’s Church This church is found in the Cantonment area of Varanasi. The 200-year old Protestant Church is also locally known as the ‘Church of England’. Some deem it to be one of the oldest of its kind in the northern part of India, except for Calcutta. The Church was founded by Reverend George Wheatly, an English officer, in 1810 and served as a garrison church by the British military. Its other claim to fame is that it was visited by none other than Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II during her tour of India in 1960. Another interesting fact is that, in over 10 years, there has been no worship in the church. However, locals of Christian faith continue to hold prayers on the 12-acre grounds of the church. Gyanvapi Mosque India’s richness lies in the fact many religions coexist, although perhaps not always peacefully. But as proof of this war and peace cycle, the Gyanvapi Mosque recalls that the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb built it on the site of a Hindu temple he destroyed in the 17th century. History does provide a few political love-and-hate, capture-and-escape reasons for the destruction of the site, the vestige of which remains engraved on the walls of the new place of worship. Hindus believe that the temple which was demolished was the original Kashi Vishwanath (described above) temple, meaning that it remains a holy place in their belief. Despite its existence being marred amidst contests and protests, the Mosque continues to faithfully contribute to the diverse spiritual dimension of the city. Bharat Mata Temple Perhaps one of the most unique places not only in Varanasi, but also in India, as this is a temple which has been consecrated to no other deity that one’s Country. It is also a true reflection of the Indian soul itself, where religion and patriotism are in equal parts. Therefore, the idea that was embodied in the realisation of this temple is none other but genial, given that the temple’s devotion is entirely to Bharat Mata or Mother India. It therefore stands as a true temple, a human manifestation of India as a nation, designed to be a place of worship for the whole country, irrespective of colour or creed. Ramnagar Fort If your idea of India is also all about Maharajas (kings) and their riches, then you may want to wander to Ramnagar Fort. Do venture there also if your curiosity is piqued by royal antiques, such as palanquins or vintage cars. This place, built in the 18th century, however, remains the ancestral home of the King of Varanasi. It is located on the opposite bank of the River Ganga and includes a temple and, of course, a museum in its compound. The story goes that Ved Vyasa, who wrote the Indian epic the Mahabharata, stayed at the Fort for some time, thus the particular dedication the place holds in his regard. Today, the palace continues to be the residence of the Royal family of Varanasi. Besides being popular with tourists who are attracted by its mixed architecture, public halls and temples, its signature Indian Maharaja period-type location has attracted many a film-maker hailing from Bollywood. Ghats These are the picture postcards of Varanasi. The word ghat in fact refers to the broad flight of steps leading down to the bank of a river in India, used especially by bathers. It is the most romantic aspect of the city, if not the core of its spiritual buoyancy. If the majority of the ghats are for bathing, there are numerous cremation ghats in the city, which, as previously indicated, is a spiritually-soaked location for passing-on rituals. Cremations are also often carried out publicly, particularly in Manikarnika. Some 80 such ghats follow the river’s course from the Assi Ghat to the Raj Ghat, on the western side of the Ganges. Assi Ghat The Assi Ghat, which is located south of the ghat row, is one of the biggest and liveliest. It is situated at a confluence, where the Assi and Ganga rivers converge. Spiritual and tourist endeavours intertwine at this spot where devotees adorn and bathe the Shiva shrines, while visitors keep themselves entertained by the numerous hawkers or choose one of the river cruises. Other ghats in this stretch include the Hanuman Ghat, the Tulsi Ghat, the Dandi Ghat and the Shivala Ghat. Manikarnika Ghat. This ghat is considered as the holiest place where one’s final rites can be concluded. The procedural pyre is carefully crafted and the final rites observed with both tradition and respect. Like the Harish Chandra ghat, it is considered to be a bonus for a Hindu’s karma to be able to be cremated there. Legend also has it that the nearby Manikarnika Well is where Lord Shiva’s consort, Parvati, dropped a piece of jewellery which left him to dive in to the rescue, filling the well with his sweat. Charanpaduka is a nearby platform said to have been treaded by Vishnu, therefore making it an upscale cremation ground. Harish Chandra Ghat This is reputedly one of the oldest ghats in Varanasi. It bears the name of a mythological philanthropist king, who once worked at the grounds which is dedicated to cremation rites. Such was his endeavour, legend has it, that his son was resurrected, as a reward by the Gods to King Harish Chandra himself. Like the Manikarnika cremation ground, it is another highly ‘auspicious’ place for final rites in Hindu belief. Over and above the traditional wood pyres that can be seen there, this particular ghat also offers the modern ‘electric’ option, for those that may be so inclined. Dashashwamedh Ghat. The Dashashwamedh Ghat is found close to the popular Godawlia junction of the city. This ghat has profound spiritual importance as it is believed that the Creator – Bramha – sacrificed 10 horses in this very place. It is also a place where a sumptuous Ganga ceremonies take place in the evenings, with full works including powerful prayers and dazzling dances. Nearby ghats include the Someswar Ghat and the Man Mandir Ghat. Other ghats Scindhia Ghat is known to have been so beautifully hefty it collapsed into the river and had to be rebuilt over a 100 years ago. Another holy nearby site is the Dattatreya Ghat which bears the name of a Brahmin saint. Ram Ghat is further up north on the river and was built by a Jaipuri king. Close by are the Gai Ghat and Panchganga Ghat. The Alamgir Mosque also features along this coastline. The ghats inspire morning worship, where one turns to the sun for enlightenment, and pour water to be cleansed and purified. This is why many prefer to visit the ghats at sunrise, either to partake in, or to watch these rituals. A Ganga ‘aarti’ or ‘blessing’ is also performed at dusk at several locations, but mostly in the largest and most popular ghats. Been there, done that? If you’ve been to the temples and done the ghats, there may be one more thing for you to do that would complement your journey so far. Consider hopping on a boat for a river cruise. It will be like watching everything unfold before your eyes, like a slideshow or 3D postcard. Just everything and anything exotic happens of the banks of Ganges … be it praying, meditating, negotiating, giving, taking, loving, talking or just thinking. Allow yourself to loiter on the water or in the crowd to ‘suck in’ the atmosphere and experience. The ‘galis’ or alleyways are also worth adding to your bucket list on this trip. They are a conundrum of the city’s nooks and crannies, particularly the Vishwanath Gali. If the temple which bears the same name is the height of spirituality, this particular lane is more of a ‘devout’ to business. Your traditional tourist items, including jewellery and sarees can easily be found here. Or if not, the nearby Godowlia market is another local shopping hotspot. It features the renowned Banarasi silk sarees and other local ethnic textiles. Off this beaten track of things, there may be something else you may want to ‘do’, and that is observe the uniqueness of the ‘Aghori Sadhus’ or ‘holy men’ of the city. Varanasi is the home of this particular sect which has been known for its ‘left’ way to God, as opposed to the ‘right’ way observed by the common man. Now, there are a lot of things circulating on the web and through hearsay about their way of life, which dates back to about a 1000 years. In Varanasi, there will be no other deity this sect could be attached to than Lord Shiva. This in part explains their fearlessness of destruction and death. Part of their practice also involves eating excrements, human remains and regular use of cannabis to focus on their mantra-chanting. As colourful or outlandish as this may seem, these practices are not frowned upon or considered malevolent; it so happens that devotees seek the blessings of these sadhus, in all shapes and forms so to speak, or even resort to their intervention through tantric exercise. So for the culturally curious, it would be worth learning more about the sect and its followers, but with due respect and restrain as applicable. Eat, drink and be merry… Food is part of the local culture anywhere in India, or in the world. Varanasi is no exception. It is an inherent part of the landscape of the city, whether kachoris, paans, lassi, or thandai. Actually, the ‘Bhang ki Thandai’, which is considered to be a holy offering to Lord Shiva during his dedicated festival at the beginning of the spring time, is ‘the’ thing to have if you are in Varanasi either at that period or at any other time it is available for you to order. So what is it exactly? It’s a milk-based beverage concocted with an array of spices including almonds, fennel seeds (locally called saunf) , magaztari seeds (watermelon kernel), rose flower petals, black pepper, vetiver seeds, cardamom (locally called eliachi), saffron (locally called kesar) and sugar (dont get too carried away every one calls it sugar). What turns into the ‘bhang’ concoction is the addition of cannabis buds, thus giving the brew a more mystical essence, in keeping with its nature of being ‘prasad’ or an offering to Lord Shiva. Bhang/cannabis is sold in shops which are authorised by the government and you do not need any special permits or license to buy some for your own consumption. You can see one of such shops in the picture above. Yeh take that first flight into Varanasi and don't wait for the plane to land, just use a para shoot to make it to the shop quicker If you want something less exotic, however, or to just play it safe, Varanasi has something for the less adventurous palates. In general, the best places to eat either line the ghats or are furrowed inside the galis. There are an array of more upscale restaurants, either stand-alone or luxury hotel restaurants, which also offer food outside the North Indian spectrum. So you can indeed expect to find your Hakka noodles or wood fire pizza on the ghats. The Keshari Restaurant This is a popular vegetarian eating outlet with tourists and locals alike. Whether you are looking for paneer pakauda, idly fry or want to try the Keshari special burger, the place suits a variety of tastes. Patrons claim it can be a bit crowded, but is a welcome stop at the nearby Gowdolia Chowk. Prices within the middle range (INR 60-170). Bana Lassi Patrons roar about this place’s mango lassi, which is a fermented milk drink. The city is also known for this particular beverage, which is a big favourite in most parts of India. One review about this place sums it up: “This is a must stop in Varanasi. The great lassi is only an extra. The owner is a unique soul of honesty… Ask him about anything you need, come here to relax from the craziness outside.” Pizzeria Vaatika Café This is one of the ghats’ pizza places you may have heard about. The café, located at the Assi Ghat, boasts some fresh pizzas as well as a fresh-feeling garden, with a view. In fact, the restaurant overlooks the ceremonial area of the Ganga. If many people flock there particularly for the view, they also like to eat something a little off the beaten Indian culinary track, although popular curries of all sorts still make up some part of the menu. The Bread of Life Bakery & Restaurant If you’re looking for more than off the beaten track, then you may want to stop at this bakery which does a little more than baked goods. From muffins to goulash, there is something here for everyone and anyone that may not have adjusted to the spices (and potential tummy troubles) or is simply wanting to try something very unusual, for this very unusual place. For a touch of CSR, know that the owners offer parts of their proceeds to benefit local charities. Lotus Lounge Lounge by name, lounge by nature. Many come here for respite from the hustle and bustle of pilgrim-cum-tourist tracks, or just get a landscape view of the sacred river. Expect this eatery to be as cosmopolitan as the city’s visitors – you will find anything from gazpacho to momos, amongst the many international cuisine favorites. It is also one of the very few places near the Ganga which offers non-vegetarian meals, for those who may be so inclined. Weather or not Varanasi rises at about 80 metres inside the Ganges valley, steeped by fertile lands periodically nourished by the low Gangetic floods. As it lies in the Tropic of Cancer, its humid subtropical climate accounts for the large variations between the summer and winter months which are characteristic of Northern India. Winters are not how they are known in the western hemisphere; if the days are generally mild (23-32 degrees Celsius), the nights can be more cooling, especially if the Himalayan winds decide to invite themselves to the weather party. December to February are the colder months, with these wide temperature gaps between daytime and night-time. Summer strolls in rather not so gently from April to June, with highs in the mid 40 degrees Celsius, but no rain until the monsoon season pours in. So the best time to visit? Whatever takes your fancy really – if you’re up for the humidity, sweats and scorching heat, you should by all means head there during the hotter months which last from April to about October. The remainder, cooler months are also the ones which see the signature festivals such as Maha Shivaratri (The Great Night of Shiva) and Holi, the Festival of Colours. So this could be your cue to prefer those months and ensure you get an eyeful of the delights of celebrating the most iconic Hindu festivals you will encounter in the land! To sum up, best times to visit are October to March, for the milder-weather lovers who will be able to expect temperatures ranging from 5 to 25 degrees Celsius. For those who like the roast and rain, then summer is yours at a mere 30 to 45 degrees Celsius. Put your head down Varanasi caters for a variety of budgets, as do most tourism hotspots in India. There are over a 180 hotels in the city, ranging from the backpacker 2-star to the more luxurious 4-star hotels. Cantonment is the upscale area of town, whereas the city centre itself is more for the mid range traveller. Many solutions are also available outside of the traditional hostel or hotel, including home stays and guest houses which often give the opportunity to visitors to have a more ‘authentic’ experience. Websites with information on ‘where to stay in Varanasi’ are crawling around the web. You may want to try the ‘throw the dice’ approach and hop on a rickshaw on arrival to see where that just might take you. It is always recommended, however, to have a place booked before arrival especially during busy times such as festivals. Not so far away Sarnath This town lies roughly 12 km from Varanasi. This is the town which is important to Buddhism as, as previously mentioned, the Buddha himself is known to have delivered his debut discourse there. International Buddhist missions have established branches in this location, given its historical and spiritual importance. There are impressive dome-shaped structures known as ‘stupas’ found in Sarnath. These usually contains relics of Buddhist monks or nuns and are considered propitious to the practice of meditation. The most well-known one is potentially the Dhamek Stupa. The Buddha’s ashes were divided and reportedly buried under eight such similar structures, and two others were built to contain them. Some mystery shrouds the stupas to this day however, so where these sacred remains currently are is not exactly known. The Dhamek Stupa was built by the great Mauryan king Ashoka as a tribute to The Buddha’s activities there. King Ashoka had the stupas hold relics of the Buddha and his disciples. It is also said to be the place where this epic first speech was delivered, as Buddha attained enlightenment. [Lakhania Dari Waterfall Some 50 kilometres outside Varanasi, you will across the Vindhyanchal mountains. These home the Lakhania Dari, which is a gobsmacking waterfall which ends its course in a beautiful, clear lake. But, as with all things beautiful, they don’t come by easily so you will have to trek for about 2 kilometres over a boulder and slab-strewn path to get to this visual treat. The trek in itself is pleasing, energising and fresh, though potentially not for the faint of heart or those with improper footwear. One (word) for the road So are your bags packed? If not they should be! Varanasi has it all for anyone who is truly culturally and spiritually inquisitive, or even for anyone with a wonderful DSLR who just wants to take the best and most authentic pictures. Whichever way it is for you, whether it is the ghats, the ghalis, the sadhus or sarees which attract you, or if you want to either indulge in bhang or bathing, then hop on the bus, train or plane which will get you to this incredible part of incredible India. Varanasi, this city of eternity, will definitely fill you with eternal memories, a sense of something you ‘had not tried before’. Like Richard in the famous Alex Garland novel The Beach: “Never refuse an invitation… never resist the unfamiliar…” Enjoy your trip!