Varanasi

Varanasi, also known as Kashi and Banaras, is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth. Situated in Uttar Pradesh on the banks of river Ganga, it is among the most revered religious destinations in India.

Varanasi got its name from two rivers - Varuna and Assi - which meet here. The word Kashi is derived from the word ‘Kas’ which means to shine. Varanasi is famous for the bathing ghats along the banks of river Ganga. Pilgrims throng these Ghats to take a holy dip and rid themselves of sins.

Varanasi has been synonymous with the majestic river Ganga and her numerous rivulets. The Ganga Aarti held every evening at Dasashwamedha Ghat is a sight to behold.

The Kashi Vishwanath temple and is one of the 12 Jyotirlingas, the holiest of pilgrimages dedicated to Lord Shiva.

Varanasi is important for Hindus as they believe those who die in Varanasi attain salvation. Many people like to spend their old-age in this holy city and prefer to die here. Varanasi is also preferred site for immersing ashes of the dead in river Ganga. Performing funeral rites and cremation in the pyres are very common sights here.

Tips

  • The best way to watch the ghats is to take a boat-ride and see them from the river.

History

Legend says Varanasi was first founded by Lord Shiva about 5000 years ago. This holy place has also been mentioned in epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The city is said to have been the capital of Kingdom of Kashi during the time of Gautam Buddha.
According to Hindu mythology, Raja Harishchandra, an ancestor of Lord Rama, worked as a crematorium undertaker at ghat on the banks of river Ganga. The ghat is now known as Harishchandra ghat.

Shikhandi, who was the cause of death of Mahabharata hero Bhishma, was in his earlier birth born as the daughter of the King of Kashi.

In the 18th century, it was an important centre for commerce and religion. Varanasi served as an independent kingdom under the British.Varanasi was declares an independent state with Ramnagar as capital in 1910.

Fun facts

  • A website developed in 2007 for the Kashi Vishwanath temple allows devotees to offer poojas and rituals online.
  • According to legend, Parvati hid her earrings to keep Lord Shiva from moving around with his devotees. Parvati told Shiva she had lost her ornament on the banks of Ganga and asked him to find them. Parvati believed Shiva would stay around, searching forever for the lost earrings. Whenever a body gets cremated at Manikarnika Ghat, Lord Shiva asks the soul if it has seen the earrings.
  • Dom community has traditionally been custodians of cremation grounds. Cremation undertakers at Manikarnika and Harishchandra ghats are called Dom Raja, who consider themselves to be descendants of Kalu Dom, who bough Raja Harishchandra as a slave. Since that day, Doms add Raja as their title.
  • Pilgrimage to Kashi requires that pilgrims also visit Rameswaram. Pilrims take water from river Ganga to offer at Rameswaram and bring back sand from there.

Culture

Ghats: Renowned all across the world, there are 64 ghats spread over a six km stretch in Varanasi. A ghat is used by bathers and pilgrims and has series of steps leading down to the river. Assi, Dasashwamedha, Harishchandra, Panchganga and Manikaranika are five most important ones. It is believed that if pilgrims bathe in the five ghats on the same day, they are absolved of all their sins. Ritual is called Panchatirthi Yatra.

Assi Ghat: Popular with pilgrims and preferred place to stay.

Dasaswamedh Ghat: Derives its name from the legend that 10 horses were sacrificed here by Brahma; also the site of evening aarti. The Ganga Aarti at Varanasi differs from those at Haridwar and Rishikesh. It is a highly choreographed ceremony with pundits performing the rituals in high synchronized movements.

Harishchandra Ghat: Place were Raja Harishchandra worked as an undertaker at the crematorium and did the last rituals of his son.

Panchganga Ghat: Spot where Ganga, Saraswati, Dhupapapa, Yamuna and Kirna meet. Also the site of Alamgir Mosque built by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.

Manikarnika Ghat: Main cremation ghat, it is a must see.

Narad Ghat: The only ghat on which people don’t bathe as it is believed a couple bathing here will start fighting amongst themselves. It is named after the mischievous sage Narada, who always created trouble between gods.

Varanasi is famous for silk weaving and quality silk apparels. It has been a prime centre for art, craft, education and culture. Many philosophers and scholars have been attracted to Varanasi to understand the lifestyle and culture of Hinds and the virtues of Hindu beliefs. Buddha, Mahavira, Adi Shankaracharya and Acharya Ramanuja are some of those who spent a good part of their lives on the banks of Ganges in Kashi.

Some of the recent scholars associated with Varanasi are novelist Prem Chand and popular saint-poet Tulsidas. Famous musicians Ravi Shankar and Ustad Bismillah Khan have also lived in the city for most part of their lives.

Shopping

Varanasi is a renowned centre for silk weaving and brassware. Fine silks, brocades, exquisite saris, brassware, jewelry, woodcraft, carpets, wall hangings, lamp shades and masks of Hindu and Buddhist deities, etc. can be bought here. The main shopping areas are Gyan Vapi, Vishwanath Gali, Thatheri Bazar, Lahurabir, Dashaswamedh Gali and Golghar. Be careful, however, while buying silk saris because duplicates are much cheaper than the real silk ones, but are not easy to distinguish.

Bottled 'Ganga jal' (water from Holy Ganga river) can also be bought for religious purposes.

Where to stay

Varanasi has numerous Ashrams around the Ghats. Affordable hotels and lodgings are available in the interior sections of the city. The hotels also provide travel and medical assistance to the guests. The city gets very hot and humid in summer, but is quite cool during the nights. Air-conditioned rooms are available in almost all hotels. Most hotels here are located near the Ghats and offer a beautiful view of the Ganges.

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Where to eat

Food in Varanasi is basically traditional, plain and simple. Roof-top restaurants offering homemade food are also available. The restaurants and bars (found in some hotels) serve variety of cuisines. Restaurants located closer to the ghats cater more to foreign tourists. To get the taste of authentic Banarasi food, head to the main market area. The city is also known for its sweetmeats. You can't go from Varanasi without trying street food specialties like aloo chat and pani puri. But the one thing you must try here is the famous ‘Benarasi Paan’ (mixture of betel nut leaves, arecanut, tobacco and lime), made even more popular by Bollywood movies and songs.

The famous Bhang is a potent, powdered form of canabis often mixed into lassis, and called Bhang Lassi. As Varanasi is a major center of Shiva worship, it is offered to the Lord in form of prasad. It can be quite intoxicating. Thandai is a cool milk based drink made with pistachios, almonds and saffron, served with a large dollop of malai (cream). Many thandai and lassi stores are located near the Godowlia area.

Best time to visit

Varanasi is an all weather destination. However, the city can be very hot in summer. Best time to visit this city is October to March. Carry woolens for chilly days and nights if planning to visit in winter.

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