Mystical, spiritual, intellectual, musical, historical, Varanasi has wooed travellers and fascinated creators since its birth in 11th century BC
Words and photographs: Ambica Gulati
Venerating the Ganga, celebrating the power of the Almighty, and revering the verdict of death, Varanasi continues to fascinate the world. Symbolic of the circle of life, the ancient city has inspired poets, spiritualists, artistes and curious travellers alike.
Varanasi is a confluence of many cultures and philosophies. It is among the seven sacred cities for Hindus. The city is the birthplace of the four Jain tirthankaras—23rd tirthankara Parshvanatha, and the other three are Suparshvanatha, Chandraprabha and Shreyansanatha. Close to Varanasi is Sarnath, where the Buddha gave his first sermon after enlightenment.
It is the home of the late shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan. Varanasi is also the centre of silk weavers and tabla manufacturers. It is also the land where performing arts such as kathak are patronised.
There is something for everyone in Varanasi—from temples to delicious food, historical spots, traditional arts & crafts, museums and Nature.
GHATS & TEMPLES OF VARANASI
I was enthralled by the Subah-e-Benaras at Assi Ghat. The spellbinding morning begins at 5.30am with chants. Sanskrit shlokas and fragrance of incense fill the air, as a row of priests clad in their red dhotis perform the rituals in perfect synchronicity. Unlike the overwhelming crowd of the evening arti, here, there is a place to soak in the ambience. You can also take part in the havan which happens simultaneously.
Legend says that Goddess Durga threw her sword in the Assi river after killing the demons Shumbh and Nishumbh. A shivalinga under the peepal tree is the revered spot on this ghat.
The land of Shiva, Kashi Vishwanath temple with its golden dome draws many visitors. This was made by Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar, queen of Indore, in 1780. And it is also called the golden temple.
For darshan, there is an entrance from the old alleyways and also from the riverside. That entrance is known as Ganga Dwaar. The queues are long and mobile phones and cameras are not allowed inside the main temple areas. There are special artis for which devotees will need to buy tickets. Be sure to buy a box of red ladoo prasad on the way home. And if you come through the old alleys, then you can easily visit Ma Annapurna temple outside.
Right next to the Kashi Vishwanath temple is the Manikarnika Ghat or the burning ghat. This holy cremation ground is the gateway to heaven where last rites are performed 24X7. Hence, Manikarnika ghat is also called mahashamshan ghat. And the priests keep a genealogy register.
Among the oldest ghats, it was built in 5th century during the Gupta dynasty. There are different stories behind its name: mani means jewel, karna is ear. According to one legend, Goddess Parvati’s ear ring fell here, another one says Lord Shiva’s ear ring fell here. The kund or pond here was made by Lord Vishnu.
On the other side of the Kashi Vishwanath temple is the Dasashwamedha Ghat. It is famous for its spectacular evening arti. But you have to reach early to find a place, otherwise you will be crammed amid hundreds who are there before you. Another option is to hire a boat and watch the hour-long arti while cruising in the river. The sound of bells and shlokas carries far as the priests perform the ritual on the well-lit ghat.
Dasashwamedha ghat was built by Bajirao Pesava in 1740 and then reconstructed by Ahilyabai Holkar, queen of Indore, in 1774.
I also wove my way in an e-rickshaw through the alleys to the famous Kal Bhairav temple. This is about a kilometre from the Kashi Vishwanath temple. Here, the fearsome god atoned for his sin of cutting of Brahma’s fourth head.
Silk & Handicrafts of Varanasi
No trip to Varanasi can be complete without meeting the silk weavers. These generational weavers are found in Pili Kothi, Lallapura and Bari Bazaar. The silk saris of Banaras have graced almost every household in India. They are an invaluable part of a bride’s trousseau.
Banarasi silk finds mention in the Mahabharata and Buddhist scriptures of the first millennium. Then, crafted exclusively for the royals, the sari was made with real gold and silver threads and took almost a year to complete.
The rich textiles of Varanasi are exhibited at the Deendayal Hastkala Sankul. The textile museum has exquisite examples of design and gold as well as silver brocade or ‘Zari’s works.
This also houses a trade facilitation centre. You can see the famous wooden toys, pink meenakari, carpet exhibits and also all kinds of silk stoles and saris. There are shops here too. A light and sound show is held daily. There is a short video screening as well. It’s a ticketed entry.
In fact, you can buy many souvenirs such as silk handbags, wooden idols and stone artefacts outside Sarnath Archaeological Museum too. This heritage building was designed by James Ransome like a sangharam or a vihar. The construction began in 1904 and was completed in 1910.
Drive to Sarnath
Like Varanasi, Sarnath has many names-Sarangnath, Rishipattana, Migadaya, Mrigadava, Isipatana. It is about an 8 to 10-minute drive from Varanasi.
Once a sanctuary for deers, this serene place was where Gautama Buddha taught his first sermon after attaining enlightenment and the sangha came into existence. His first five disciples were Kaundinya, Vappa, Bhadriya, Mahanaman and Asvajit.
Sarnath is one of the four most important Buddhist Pilgrimage centers. The other three being Lumbini in Nepal, Bodhgaya in Bihar and Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh.
Seeing the remains of the Ashoka Pillar, it was difficult to believe that it was originally a monolith. It was broken during Turk invasions. Mauryan emperor Ashoka (273-32 B.C.) had built several monuments here.
The ‘Lion Capital of Ashoka’ is on display at the Sarnath Archaeological Museum which is near the stupa ruins. This was the base of a large 32-spoke stone dharma-chakra which was found broken into many pieces. Seeing the shining lions, it’s difficult to imagine how this amazing sculpture survived the 45-foot fall from the pillar. The seal of the Supreme Court of India displays the Dharma Chakra.
There is a temple near the Ashoka Pillar. And the Buddha spent his first rainy season at the Mulagandhakuti Vihara there. A southeast Asian family was praying there, as I reached the sacred site.
Right in front was the magnificent Dhamek Stupa, all of 39 metres (128 ft) high and 28 metres (92 ft) in diameter with beautiful carvings on the lower half. It marks the exact location where the Buddha gave his first sermon. It is believed that some part of his ashes are also buried here. I felt as if I had been touched by divinity.
Walking amid the ruins of the sacred Dhamek stupa and monastery, I wished it was the era of videos and we could have heard that sermon.
Nations following Buddhism such as Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Japan, Tibet, have also built their monasteries in Sarnath. An 80-foot-tall statue of the Buddha, inspired by the Bamiyan Buddhas, has also been built here, as result of Indo-Thai partnership (1997-2011).
For Jains too, Sarnath is sacred. The 11th tirthankara Shreyansanatha was born in the village Singhpur, approximately 1.7 km from Sarnath.
Performing arts of Varanasi
In the city where the sacred lives in many forms, dance and music play an important part in connecting to the divine.
The sun rose over the Ganga as the notes of tabla and sitar filled the morning air. Seated in the bajra, a traditional wooden double-decker boat, a kulhad (terracotta cup) of hot tea in my hand, the waves and the notes of the music seemed to become one. And then the flock of migratory brown and black sea gulls broke the reverie. Leaving their snow-clad land in Siberia, Russia and Mongolia, the birds come every winter to meet the river mother in India.
While the morning music was instrumental, the evening was about kathak, the traditional dance form of Uttar Pradesh. Coming from the word kathakar or storyteller, the dance was popularised by travelling bards. They told stories of Radha-Krishna and Shiva. This musical storytelling through dance has survived over the centuries. And now, you can watch them while dining.
What to eat in Varanasi
The city’s famous treats of kachoris, pooris and jalebi are a delicious meal after all the exploration. We had platefuls at Theth Banarasi, Bhelupur. It’s best to down these with a cup of the famous hot lemon tea.
There is also a restaurant called Baati Chokha, where the mainstay is bati chokha—a blend of the Rajasthani bati and Bihari chokha. It has floor seating and thali concept.
Varanasi is a crowded, noisy city. But you can find your little piece of peace on the ghats or even in the conundrum of the alleys, rituals and jostling people because when the light shines within, the outside world disappears. And I guess that’s the road to liberation.
Where to Stay
We stayed at Hotel Amayaa in Varanasi Cantt. That area has many hotels, including the Ramada and Radisson.
All those who seek heritage, there’s the Brij Rama Palace at Darbhanga Ghat, next to Dasashwamedha Ghat.
For offbeat travellers, there is luxurious tented accommodation at Omvilas.
All those who like clean places to shop, there are malls in the Cantt area.
Best time to go
It is a city which never sleeps. Between September and March, the weather is good and walking around is easier.
How to reach
By Air:Varanasi airport is connected to Delhi, Mumbai and Agra.
By Train: There are two station: Varanasi junction and Kashi junction. Varanasi is well-connected with all major railway stations in India.
By Road: Varanasi is well connected with all major cities.