Varanasi Travel – A Quick & Handy Guide to India’s Spiritual Centre
A city’s soul is in its people, in the stories of its past and the vibe of its present. Varanasi’s soul is ingrained its tangible spirituality and the beautiful visuals of the ghats of the holy Rives Ganges. Varanasi, or Benaras as it has been known for centuries, has attracted millions of travellers over the years, seeking peace, and it has emerged as one of the world’s spiritual centres. Its deep roots in Hinduism may be its first identity, but there is so much more to this ancient city, that will elevate your spirit and satisfy the curious traveller in you. Let’s embark upon this journey to explore one of India’s oldest civilisations. Here’s your quick and handy guide to Varanasi Travel
Places You Must Visit
1. Ganges & its Ghats
Kashi, as the city of Varanasi is fondly called, is located by the banks of the river Ganga. Known to be the cultural capital of India, and home to some of the most sacred Hindu heritage, the place almost has a tangible spirituality. It
is said that if one dies and is buried on the ghats of Ganga, they gain liberation from the cycle of reincarnation, and their soul is transported to their celestial abode. There are several hundreds of temples in Varanasi, but none is more sacred than the river itself. The Ganges is worshipped as a living goddess, in Varanasi and daily prayers at dawn and dusk serve as salutations to the river. Oil lamps are offered and bells rung while sacred mantras are chanted.
2. Ancient Buddhist Site of Sarnath
Varanasi, although known for its deep roots in Hinduism, is also one of the most important centres and cultural hubs for Buddhism. Located around 10 kilometres north of Kashi, is Sarnath, a UNESCO listed World Heritage site, the place where Gautam Buddha, the spiritual leader of Buddhism, gave his first sermon. This is one of the four places of pilgrimage for Buddhists; the legend says that Gautama Buddha travelled to Sarnath after attaining enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya. Visit the Dhamekh Stupa, Sarnath Archaeological Museum (closed on Friday), Chaukhandi Stupa, Dharmarajika Stupa, the temple of the Tibetan Community, the Mulgandha Kuti Vihar and the centuries old pillar established by Emperor Ashoka, which is also an influence for the design of India’s National Emblem.
3. Historic Temples of Varanasi
The holy city of Varanasi is home to some of the most ancient and beautiful temples in India and they all come with their own unique and interesting stories. Among the most noteworthy temples are the Sri Kashi Vishwanath Temple (one of the oldest temples, this one is said to be dug out by Lord Shiva himself and is one of the 12 Jyotirlingas or most spiritual places for devotees of Lord Shiva), Bharat Mata Mandir (Mother India Temple, was inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi himself and is dedicated to the motherland), Sankat Mochan Mandir (established by saint Tulsidas, this is a temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman), Nepali Temple (made of traditional terracotta wood and design unique to the ancient structures of Nepali temples), Durga Temple (also known as Monkey temples, given the swarm of monkeys that surround it), and many more.
4. Benaras Hindu University (BHU)
Take a tour of one of India’s most renowned universities, the Benaras Hindu University. Originally intended for the study of Sanskrit, Indian art, Music and Culture, the university has expanded vastly to include many other streams of education. The university campus is home to the New Vishwanath Temple, one of the tallest temples in India. Famous paintings, scriptures and bronze structure add to the attraction of this beautiful temple. Inside the campus, is the Bharat Kala Bhawan, a museum with a fabulous collection of miniature paintings, coins, sculpture and contemporary art and bronze.
Things to do in Varanasi – Something for Everyone
Varanasi is a place parents would like to introduce to their children, as one of the most real, earth and cultural experiences one can get in India. Stay at a home stay or heritage hotel on the ghats, take a boat ride at sunrise and sunset along the Ghats of the Ganga to witness a spectacular sight of religious rituals being carried out. Witness the overwhelming Ganga Aarti by boat, where thousands of diyas are immersed into the river, an unforgettable visual that you can take back as a memory and can relive as a family. Children may also enjoy a visit to the Deer Park in Sarnath, where they can view the spot where Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon, or witness a morning Kushti session, the traditional form of mud-wrestling at an akhara.
Benaras, with its rich cultural heritage, the magnificent Ganga, the stories of its past, and the faith of its devotees, is an unusually romantic destination for couples. Take an early morning boat ride with classical music and satvik breakfast, and watch the sun rise with early morning prayers at the Ghats. A spectacular visual to start the day. Or enjoy a private yoga session overlooking the Ganges or take part in a literary session at an old haveli.
3. Solo Travellers
There is perhaps no place better for self-discovery, than the cultural capital of India. Varanasi is a spiritual wonder, where millions come seeking salvation. With an accompanying storyteller, witness Varanasi up, close and personal. If interested in music, join an introductory session on the classical ragas and talas with a musician or learn a few steps of the classical dance form of Kathak. Benares is the perfect setting for quiet contemplation, where one learns to be with themselves, even when the world outside is chaotic and noisy.
A visit to Varanasi with friends can be a most unique and fun experience. Varanasi has its own vibe, and apart from the spiritual side, also has a tripped out, vibrant city feel. Take a food walk with the gang and explore the many places to eat in Varanasi, which will satisfy your soul without the meditating! Start early morning with a delicious jalebi and dahi (a Benaras specialty), then move on to an aloo-tikki (potato cutlet) chaat, and finally try the main course of piping hot kachoris (freshly made hot bread) with a delicious aloo kisabzi (potato curry). End the meal with a Benarasi paan, a delicacy and an unmissable identity of the city. Once your culinary cravings are quenched, head to the busy markets of the city, and shop for the traditional Benarasi silk sarees, with their exquisite designs and stunning workmanship. End your day at the Ghats, and be a part of the evening Ganga aarti, a truly spectacular experience that will be a talking point for decades between friends!
How to Reach
By Air – Varanasi airport is connected to all the major airports in the country, and easily accessible from other tourist spots.
By Rail – Located in the heart of Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi is well connected to Delhi, Lucknow, Kolkata, Mumbai, as well as other parts of India, by train.
By Road – The city is well connected by roads, and there is frequent public transport from most major cities in Uttar Pradesh and nearby areas.
Best Time to Visit Varanasi
Between October and March, days are normally warm and sunny while early mornings and nights are much cooler, particularly in December, January and February. The pre-monsoon months of May and June are very warm, while the rains usually arrive in July and continue till early September. During heavy rains boat rides and ghats may be inaccessible.
Travel Tips You’d be Thankful For
Varanasi can be quite overwhelming for the uninitiated. Here are some handy tips to ease your stay:
1. Make your travel arrangements in advance – you don’t want to be stuck here without a place to stay.
2. As it is a holy city, is advisable to dress modestly. It’s best to avoid sleeveless tops, shorts, and revealing clothes. Both men and women are advised to keep their shoulders and legs covered, and in temples, women may carry a scarf.
3. It’s recommended not to walk alone through isolated areas, and beware of touts.
4. Be respectful of the religious rituals and practices that take places throughout the city.
5. Respect the holiest of holy Ganga River, and do not litter.
Varanasi is a journey to your own soul, and if you can look past the crowded ghats, the narrow lanes, the soothing sounds of religious prayers, somewhere you’ll find calmness, like the still waters of the Ganga. Something will give way in your heart, if you just surrender to the city.
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Neha Mathur loves to explore the stories behind places and people. She believes travel is the best form of education, and loses no opportunity to visit a new place. Neha writes to express stories that touch her heart or entice her mind. She’s a foodie and nothing gives her more happiness than delicious local food! She has a deep love for poetry and music, and swears by the artistic genius of Mirza Ghalib and R.D. Burman.