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Varanasi: A city older than History (Spiritual Travel Guide)

In the words of the popular American author and Humorist, Mark Twain, ” Varanasi (Banaras) is older than History. Older than Tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.

Varanasi
Image source: Wikipedia Commons

Varanasi: A city older than History

The Eternal city of India; Call it Varanasi or Banaras or Kashi! By any name and by all means, Varanasi is one of the oldest, continuously inhabitated cities in the world.

This city is more so remarkable since its great contemporaries-Beijing, Jerusalem and Athens have moved on and away from their ancient ways of life.

On the other hand, the lanes and buildings of old Varanasi still ooze the ethos of ancient India.

More than 3000 years old, this city has been referred to by various travelers across time zones.

From Xuanzang of China to Mark Twain of America everyone has attested to this great city being extremely old and the center of religion, education, and artistic activities.

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To this day, this city is significant from many angles. It is one of the most important pilgrim centers for Hindus, Buddhists and Jains.

Varanasi
Image Source: Sadhu, Monk and  Jains

It is one of the seven sacred cities of Hindus. It is famous for its muslin and silk fabric, ivory work and sculptures.

Varanasi
Image Source: Silk and Sculpture

Infact from faith, philosophy and culture to Indian arts and crafts all have gained tremendously from this eminent city of India.

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City of Ghats

Speak of Vranasi, and the first thing flashes across your mind is the image of numerous Ghats along the Easter bank of the River Ganges.

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There are more than 100 Ghats lined up here back to back.

Varanasi
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

The religious and cultural life at Varanasi is closely associated with the River Ganges, so a trip to these stepped embankments is a must if you wish to feel the pulse of the city.

A boat ride across this 6-1/2 kilometer crescent-shaped stretch is the best way to glimpse life at Varanasi unraveling on the Ghats, some 52 of them facing the river.

The best time to take a boat ride is pre-dawn, at about 04:30.

Varanasi
16 March 1962 First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s (JBK) trip to India and Pakistan: Benares (Varanasi), Uttar Pradesh, India, boat ride on Ganges River. Credit “Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston”

When the first rays of the Sun fall on the Ghats there is already a humdrum of activity along the banks.

The sun-lit Ghats exude radiance, glowing against the exhilarating blue sky of dawn.

The multitude of devotees are already busy performing rituals and Suryanamaskaar.

Varanasi
Image Soure. Every year, Shree Vidya Muth organises a session of Surya Namaskar at Kedar Ghat to welcome the Hindi New Year.

Many can be seen taking a dip in the ice cold waters of the holy river to absolve themselves of all sins.

Most of the Ghats are bathing Ghats, with a few serving as cremation grounds.

Varanasi
Image Source. Manikaranika Ghat – One of the important cremation ground in Varanasi.

Important Ghats of Varanasi

According to Hindu Mythology, the entire city of Kashi – is suppose to be a cremation place.

It is the belief of Hindus, that dying at this holy city of Lord Shiva and the Ganges will free them from the cycle of dying and re-birth.

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And it is for this reason that many widows and elderly come to Varanasi to spend their last few days of life and die here in.

As many as 5 million Hindus frequent these Ghats every year!

  • At the Southern most end is the Asi Ghat. It is here that the River Ganges joins the river Asi.
  • Just around the corner is the campus of Banaras Hindu University.
Varanasi
Banaras Hindu University
  • The next ghat, which is the Tulsi Ghat, is named after the great Hindi poet of the 16th century, Tulsidas.
  • At the foot of Janaki Ghat, is the pumping station of the Varanasi water-works.
  • Bachhraj Ghat is of significant importance to the followers of Jainism.
  • Shivala, or Kali Ghat, gets its name from the historic “Shivala fort” here.
  • Harishchandra Ghat, the next Ghat, is used for cremation purposes, being the second important cremation ghat after Manikaranika.
  • The Kedar Ghat is a shrine for the Bengalis.
  • Raja Ghat, which comes next, has a large inn for Brahmins.
  • RanaMahal Ghat, Munshi Ghat and Prayag Ghat are the other smaller bathing ghats that follows, before one reaches the imposing Das-aswa-medh Ghat.
  • Das-aswa-medh Ghat is the main ghat of the city. Centrally located, the most popular among all the ghats.

There is always a humdrum of activity taking place here.The most prominent feature of this ghat is the sight of huge parasols with self-poclaimed holy men seated beneath them, making a rich living performing rituals.

Varanasi

Another very disheartening sight is the filfth apparent all around, polluting these historic ghats. It is indeed sad that such a beautiful site is so lacking in basic maintenance.

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Indeed, Varanasi is a melting pot where life and death come together.

Eat your way through Varanasi

  • Early morning tea at Chowk: There are chaiwallas who serve tea with crisp toast and fresh white butter. Ask them how they make it as creamy (most make theirs themselves).
  • Kachori for breakfast: Do as locals do and land up for breakfast at Ram Bhandar at Thatheri bazaar.
  • Varanasi’s Best Bread… Is at Shivala Ghat. Bread of life bakery makes some of the best bagels, doughnuts and pasta.
  • And then there is the Brown Bread Bakery on Tripura Bhairavi Road, which is run by a German baker and has great organic food and cheeses at pocket-friendly rates.
  • There’s sushi too: The cozy Megu Café in Chetganj has well-priced, authentic Asian food. Try their sushi rolls, ramen and bibimbap.
  • Don’t miss the chaat and jalebi: Because that would be criminal. Deena Chat Bhandar on Luxa Road is the place to go—get the tamaatar chaat and dahi puri.
  • For the best jalebis, go to Madhur Jalpan at Kadoi Chowk.

General tips

  • Local auto rickshaws are not reliable, but cycle rickshaws are a great way to explore the narrow gullies.
  • It’s best to get your own vehicle to get around in Varanasi. Call Anand Travels at 9198128100 to book a taxi.
  • Everybody in the city has their favourite paanwala. While you must try the famous banarasi paan—most vendors get their leaf from Kolkata—be careful to make sure they don’t add in anything you’re not comfortable with. Tip: if you’re trying it for the first time, go for the sweet paan and ask them to skip the khada supari.
  • The rains (July–September) are a bad time to visit—the river overflows so much so that many temples are submerged underwater and are out of bounds.

Stay

Suryauday Haveli (doubles from Rs8,500) is a restored 20th-century property right on Shivala Ghat and formerly served as a retreat for the aged.

Practise yoga on the terrace and enjoy traditionally cooked vegetarian food after you watch the evening aarti right from the haveli.

Or, stay at the Zostel near Luxa police station or Stops Hostel in Bhelupur.

they offers spacious dormitories and private rooms and a chance to interact with travellers from around the world.

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