Varanasi - One of the Oldest Continually Inhabited Cities of the World
The city of Varanasi (also known as Banaras or Benares) is where the revered and the earthly converge amidst color, drama and activity. Nestled on the banks of the holy Ganges the three thousand years old city is believed to be one of the holiest and the oldest cities in India. The city has an ethereal, almost magical feel to it with ash smeared saints and sinners, dilapidated colonial buildings and tiny shops selling aromatic flowers, children playing on the smooth ghats and women aggressively beating laundry on stones, devotees praying at the shrines and merchants vending their wares all sharing space here. This holy nerve centre of the Hindu religion is famed for releasing the physical body from the process of reincarnation.
According to the Hindu faith, after death the soul is reincarnated into another physical being, dependent on the actions one has performed in this life. When one engages in the right actions or good karma the soul is purified and attains moksha or releases itself from the cycle of rebirth. Varanasi offers instant moksha because the Hindu religion believes that being cremated on the ghats and submerging the ashes to be cleansed in the Ganges will release the body from the cycle of rebirth. Hindus flock here by the hundreds, some carrying dead bodies of their loved ones and many others, waiting to die.
The charming old city of Varanasi is a labyrinthine of narrow cobbled passage ways lined on either side with cell like shops selling every conceivable product from perfumes and bangles to sweets and saris. These compressed alleys or galis wind their way between decrepit havelis finally opening out to the majestic ghats, as vendors selling their wares, cows and motorcyclists all compete for space.
Life in Varanasi centers around the ghats, several stone platforms, smoothened with centuries of use border the glorious river side, from Assi Ghat to the Raj Ghat, each ghat is a mini city complete with temples, devotees, half naked sadhus, boatmen, vendors and people. The ghats sprawling on the western bank of the Ganges have been built to commemorate princes and holy men. While a few of the ghats have mythical names, most of them are named after Maharajas of princely states, honoring the patrons who built them.
Manikarnika ghat, the chief burning ghat leads to Dasaswamedha ghat followed by Harishchandra ghat, Panchaganga Ghat, Asi Ghat and finally the Varuna ghat, where the Varuna river joins the Ganga.
Manikarnika Ghat is said to be the most sacred and the oldest ghat in Varanasi. Hindus trust that since the ghat is built in the centre of the other five, it is the epicenter of birth and death, creation and destruction. The ghat houses the holy Manikarnika Kund or well, believed to be dug by Lord Vishnu at the beginning of the world. The central ghat is always buzzing with life, the saffron clad Brahmin sadhus performing the puja to the sound of harmonium and drums while a sea of people watch the ceremony transfixed, boats brimming with people rowing the length of the holy river, buffalos and children cooling off in the shallow sections of the river are common sights. Small shrines in alleyways and ledges covered in flowers and vermillion bathe the ghats with religious essence.
Dasaswamedh when translated means ten sacrificed horses. Legend has it that Lord Brahma sacrificed ten white horses to enable Lord Shiva to come back from his banishment. The ghat is equally important and is renowned for the famous evening pujas. Altars and shrines are lit up with diyas and burning torches while groups of Priests chant Sanskrit shlokas and worship the deities with plates of burning incense. One can hear the chanting from gathered crowds mingle with temple bells and gongs ringing loudly across the river as the crowd watch the ceremonies in awe and admiration.
Harishchandra ghat is named after Raja Harishchandra, the just king who sacrificed everything and became a grave digger but never spoke a lie or lost his faith. The story of his self negation and absolute faith give the ghat an enchanting feel of being in a fairy tale. The inky black waters in the night are uninterrupted save for the fiery orange funeral pyres and bright spotlights of the shrines and temples.
Visiting the ghats at dawn or dusk is perhaps the most peaceful way to experience them. The morning sky is bathed in a warm hue of honey gold changing the color of the water from green to a dull golden; the banks are relatively empty with a sense of peaceful serenity enveloping the scene. There is a tranquil almost dreamlike feel, the only sound being that of the water lapping against the shores.
Even though people of every shape and size travel hundreds of miles to dip in the Ganges, bathing in the Ganges is no small feat. The river is choked with pollutants and blackened with the ashes of the dead. It is a common occurrence to spot bloated corpses floating by during a boat trip. Many bodies are submerged into the holy waters without being cremated. According to Hindu religious belief there are five kinds of deaths that are not allowed to undergo cremation, amongst these are pregnant women, sadhus, snake bite victims and children. The bodies of these people are wrapped in muslin cloth weighted down with cement shoes and released into the river.
Varanasi has been named the city of temples because close to two thousand temples dedicated to almost every god and goddess in the Hindu pantheon are scattered around the town. Legend has it that the first Siva Jyotirlinga or the pillar of light pierced the earth here and disappeared into the skies. There after Varanasi was named Kashi or the City of Light.
A must see is the Bharat Mata temple, the only temple dedicated to Mother India. Built by Babu Shiv Prasad in 1936, the map of undivided India in white marble is worshipped instead of a deity. The temple was built to boost feelings of brotherhood and nationalism.
Also called the cultural capital of the country, Varanasi has much to offer visitors, its temples and unexplored educational institutes are deemed to be the best in the country. The city has seen many great holy men like Buddha and Mahavira, Tulsidas and Adi Shankara, Guru Nanak and Guru Gobind Singh, Dayananda Saraswati and Vivekananda, all of whom have left their influence on its culture, education and heritage. Some of the greatest classics have been written here and the city has been home to writers and preachers like Kabir, Ravi Das, Tulsidas, Bharatendu Harishchandra, Jayshankar Prasad, Acharya Ram Chandra Shukla, Munshi Prem Chand, Jagannath Prasad Ratnakar, Devaki Nandan Khatri, Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Tegh Ali, Vidya Niwas Mishra, Kashi Nath Singh, Namvar Singh and Rudra Kashikeya. Banaras Hindu University, Kashi Vidyapeeth and Sanskrit University are the more acclaimed educational centers.
Banaras Hindu University was founded by the political leader, Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, in 1916. Today it ranks amongst the top ten universities for cultural education in the world. Besides being internationally eminent it also played an important role in the freedom movement. Many freedom fighters, scholars, artists, scientists and technologists have completed their education here and have helped the country in re-building its economy after independence.
Banaras is famous the world over for its stunning brocades and variety of hand woven textiles. The ancient art of weaving is well preserved in Banaras and still retains the same quality as it had centuries ago. Zari and brocades are woven with warp and weft threads of different colors and different materials. The weavers or karigars are primarily Muslims. Hundreds of years ago, the river Ganges kept Varanasi’s tradition alive by trading it's products in other parts of India. In the current day, the trade route might have changed but its trademark Banaras Silk and brocades are still as sought-after. The Banarasi Sari is a must have in ant bride’s trousseau. An exquisite combination of Indian textiles and Persian designs the deep red and golden zari saris never fail to flatter. The markets in Varanasi are main Chowk, Gyan Vapi, Vishwanath Gali, Thatheri Bazar, Lahurabir, Godoulia or Dashswamedh Gali and Golghar. Except for the gorgeous silks and brocades, shawls, carpets, wall hangings, Zari and salma work, stone inlay work, glass beads and bangles, lamp shades, brass ware, copper ware, ivory work, glass bangles, wood, stone and clay toys and exquisite gold jewellery have been popular over the ages.
Popular amongst tourists, students and an important pilgrimage Varanasi has many hotels available to suit every pocket. Many heritage havelis have been beautifully restored and converted into hotels, grander and more modern hotel options are also available. Similarly the influx of tourists has resulted in multi cuisine restaurants to open near the ghats, the main tourist area. Particularly worth mentioning is Nirvana, it has exceptionally well done up interiors in dazzling bright hues contrasted with stone floors, it serves great food at affordable prices. Pizzeria Vaatika near Assi ghat serves great coffee and food, the lasagna, spinach pizza, apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream is especially good. A few blocks away, Haifa restaurant has delicious middle-eastern fare like hummus, falafel, pita bread and salad.
The mystical city of Varanasi makes a special place in your heart. While it gets overwhelming for some people most go away wanting to return again and again. The city is the essence of India, its soul and life best combining the colors and chaos that India is famous for. Mark Twain couldn’t have described the city better.
“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
Varanasi is well connected and accessible to major Indian cities and tourist spots. There are daily domestic flights to and from Varanasi to several cities in India. Apart from the state owned Indian Airlines, there are many private air taxi operators that offer their services from Varanasi to other Indian cities. In fact, the daily flights on Delhi-Agra-Khajuraho-Varanasi route are quite popular among the tourists.
Since Varanasi lies in the heartland of the North Indian plains, it is well connected to Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and other parts of India. There are two railway stations in Varanasi, the Kashi Junction and the Varanasi Junction (also known as Varanasi Cantonment). Rajdhani Express from Delhi or from Calcutta passes through Varanasi too. One can also catch trains from Mughalsarai, just 10 km south of Varanasi.
Situated in the flat Ganga plains, Varanasi has a good network of roads. Frequent public and private buses and road transport to all the major towns of Uttar Pradesh and nearby areas.