Within hours Kashi, Varanasi or Benaras grew on us. As we roamed aimlessly around the ghats of Varanasi, we could connect with this ancient city. The first impression of Varanasi can be quite overwhelming. The city, that is said to be even older than history is chaotic, confusing and in a state of pandemonium. We were greeted by a cacophony of various sounds and for a moment we rolled our eyes and thought, “why another crowded place”. Gradually, we fell in love with the ‘chaotic, crowded, dirty’, but an endearing Varanasi.
The first impression that I have of the city was when I visited Varanasi during my childhood. We lovingly called the place Benaras. My memory fails when I try to recollect those experiences. Then I read ‘Joy Baba Felunath’ by Satyajit Ray and I wanted to come back to Benaras again to trace the path the iconic detective character had taken! (For the uninitiated, I am talking about Feluda, the suave Bengali detective who holds a dear place in almost all Bengali’s hearts).
So we traced the narrow alleys of Vishwanath Gali, we totally embraced the colour, sound and odour of the place. As we watched the corpse being burnt on funeral pyres, we could understand how ephemeral life could be. As we watched the many people performing the last rites of their loved ones at the ghats, little boys getting their head shaved for the first time, we realized that faith is unquestioning belief. We are happy that we experienced the city of light, not just visited it!
- Kashi, Varanasi or Benaras – what’s in a name?
- History of Varanasi (Kashi)
- What are the things to do in Varanasi?
- 3 days itinerary of Varanasi
- Where should I stay at Varanasi (Benaras)?
- Best Time to visit Varanasi
- Best Places to eat in Varanasi
- How to avoid Scams in Varanasi
Kashi, Varanasi or Benaras – what’s in a name?
According to Shakespeare, what’s in a name? In whatever name we call Varanasi, the place will remain as spiritual and charming as it is. Interestingly, the city has got all the three names and each has its own significance. So what do the names represent?
Kashi or Kāśi
It is of no surprise that Mark Twain had said Benaras or Varanasi to be older than history, older than legend. The spiritual capital of India, Varanasi has been referred to as Kashi (Kāśi) in Rig Veda, one of the most ancient Hindu sacred texts. Kashi is derived from the words Kaś that means ‘to shine’. Kashi is thus also known as the ‘city of light’. Perhaps, the city was the spiritual guide, the beacon to lost souls looking for enlightenment. Kashi was also known as Avimuktaka (never forsaken by Shiva), Rudravasa (the place where Shiva resides), Anandakanana, Mahasmasana, Surandhana, Brahma Vardha, Sudarsana and Ramya in various religious texts.
The name Varanasi came from the two river tributaries of Ganga that border the city. Varuna flows in the northern part and Assi flows in the southern part near the Assi Ghat.
Benaras or Banaras
Benaras is probably the modified or corrupted version of Varanasi. Some blame it on the colonizers who had changed the name to suit their accent.
Kashi is believed to be the ‘original ground’ created by Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati.
And there are many more legends, myths and stories spun around the city of light. Varanasi is the microcosm of Hinduism, the holiest pilgrimage sanctified by the religious scriptures. That is why perhaps Hindus want to visit Kashi once in their lifetime. But, religion apart, Kashi does have the ability to change you spiritually.
History of Varanasi (Kashi)
Varanasi has found mention time and again in Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata as well as Buddhists Jataka tales. Varanasi was the seat of Aryan civilization during the 2nd millennium BCE and was an important centre for trade and commerce. Varanasi was the capital of the kingdom of Kashi during 6th century BCE. Lord Buddha preached his first sermon at Sarnath, merely 10 km from Varanasi. The famous Chinese traveller Xuanzang, who visited Varanasi during 635 BCE, substantiated the glory and prosperity of Varanasi.
The prosperity of Varanasi declined during the Mughal rule, but was again revived by the Marathas. Under the British rule, it remained as a religious and commercial centre. The eventful history of the city can be seen at the various ghats of Varanasi.
What are the things to do in Varanasi?
If I have already bored you with too much history, let us travel back to the present. We stayed for 3 days in Varanasi and completely fell in love with the city. We explored the narrow lanes and alleys, enjoyed the kaleidoscope of colours, savoured the gastronomical trails and sought spirituality in the ghats of Varanasi. Here is our list of things to do in Varanasi. I am sure there are many and you can also discover your own delights.
Visit the Ghats of Varanasi
There are more than 70 ghats in Varanasi! The Ghats are the riverfront steps leading to the banks of the River Ganga. But Varanasi ghats are not just any other ghats. They are history in itself. The huge structures by the ghats tell you a lot about the story of the place.
The Dasaswamedh Ghat is the most important and famous one at Varanasi. Obviously, it is the busiest and you will always see a lot of people there taking a holy dip, shaving off their head or doing some puja. The evening Arti is also one of the major attractions of this Ghat.
The Assi Ghat at the southernmost end is comparatively less crowded, but an equally important Ghat. This place is mostly visited and inhabited by long-term students, researchers and foreign students. The morning Arti at Assi Ghat is a spectacle to watch.
Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat are the two places where cremations take place. You will see the pyre burning at any time of the day here. These two ghats are a bit dirty and do have a peculiar smell.
Pro Tip: Walk through the ghats. The numbers sound daunting, but the ghats are near each other. We walked from the Manikarnika Ghat (almost the middle point) to Assi Ghat, and then returned by auto to our hostel near Dasaswamedh Ghat.
Take a boat ride on the Ganges
Boat ride at the Ganges is a surreal experience, especially so if you do it early in the morning during the sunrise. There are two types of boats – the motorized one and the hand-rowed one. The motorized one will take a certain number of passengers, while you can hire a hand-rowed boat for yourself. You can talk to the boatman and fix a certain rate for a fixed amount of time on the boat. The ghats look quite beautiful from the river. A hand rowed boat would take between INR 500 – 700 for one-hour boat ride.
Pro Tip: Seeing the sunrise from the boat is a unique experience, but if you want to take some great pictures of the ghat from the boat, then take a boat ride later in the day.
Attend the Ganga Arti
Ganga Arti is one of the most spectacular things to watch at Varanasi. We had earlier seen the Arti at Haridwar. The evening Ganga Arti takes place at Dasaswamedh ghat and Rajendra Prasad Ghat. Morning Arti takes place at Assi Ghat. The evening arti starts at around 6:30 PM and lasts for 45 minutes. The morning Arti starts at about 5:45 AM.
You can see the Arti by booking special seats or by riding a boat. Even if you don’t do so, you will be able to see the Arti from the ghat. Believe us, the Ganga Arti is quite impressive.
Pro Tip: Try to attend the morning Arti at Assi Ghat. It is less crowded and you can watch the Arti in peace and take some great photographs.
Visit the temples of Varanasi
Kashi is known for its temples. The Kashi Viswanath Temple is the most revered temple and is considered one of the most sacred places of worship by the Hindus. You can hire an auto and visit the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Kaal Bhairav temple, Durga Kund Temple, Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple, Maa Annapurna Temple among others.
Pro Tip: Be careful while you visit Kashi Vishwanath Temple. There are a lot of touts there. Especially beware of the shopkeepers who ask you to keep your belongings at their locker for free (You are not allowed to take anything inside the temple). Well, nothing in this world is free.
Go on a culinary trail at Varanasi
Varanasi can be a gastronomical delight. And the place is an absolute delight for vegetarians. The Chaats of Varanasi are quite famous and it will be a sin not to try the famous Benaras Chaats. Have Kachori and Jalebi, numerous chaats and then the mouth-watering desserts. Try the Lassi, Rabri and the other sweets here. And after you are full, definitely try the famous Benaras Paan (betel leaf).
Pro tip: The street food is just awesome. Just stop in front of any shop and eat to your heart’s content. In winter, definitely try Malaiyo, another frothy dessert that tastes like heaven. And yes, do visit Blue Lassi.
What is Varanasi without the Galis (lanes and alleys)
Roam around the alleys of Varanasi. They are narrow, crowded and maybe even filled with cow dung. But you can see the real Varanasi at these alleys. There is a chance that you may get lost in the alleys as we did. We could not find our way to the main road. But in the process, we saw some very beautiful buildings, old temples and lots of subject for photography.
Visit the Flower Market, Kite Market, Kachori Gali and Daal Mandi. Well, Kachori Gali does not really sell Kachoris all the way. There are only a few shops there. We were very eager to have kachoris (a mouth-watering Indian dish) in the morning and headed straight towards the Kachori Gali, only to find most of the shops closed there. The Kachori shops are only a few that too at one end.
Daal Mandi is the big market place of Benaras. Some people asked us not to visit there. We understood later why they stopped us. It is a huge marketplace with so many alleys and bye-lanes that we simply lost our way through the mazes of shops. It was anyways interesting to see the hawkers shouting to market their goods and the colourful merchandise in the stores. After walking around for about 30 minutes through the puzzling lanes of Daal Mandi, we could find our way out to the main road! Phew! So do this at your own risk.
Take a day tour to Sarnath and Ramnagar Fort
Sarnath is just 10 km away and Ramnagar Fort is 10 km but in an opposite direction. You can hire an auto and make a day trip to both these places on a day. Negotiate with the auto driver about the rate. They usually charge less if you do both the trips together.
At Sarnath, we had hired a guide who took us around the attractions. After visiting 2-3 places, he took us to a saree shop. When we did not buy anything from there, he abruptly ended the trip there, saying there is nothing more to see. We could smell a rat and checked on the net and found that there are many more things at Sarnath. By that time the guide had left after taking the charge. We had to literally argue with our auto driver to take us to those places. Sarnath is basically a small place. You can see all the attractions by walking from one place to the other.
Pro Tip: At Sarnath, if you are hiring a guide, talk to them about the places you want to see and the rate. Negotiate the price with the auto driver if you are seeing the Ramnagar Fort also.
Visit Chunar Fort and Vindyachal if you have an extra day
I had wanted to visit the Chunar Fort as it had appeared in the Hindi novel ‘Chandrakanta’. It was known as ‘Tilismi Qila’ or the ‘Magical Fort’ in the novel. But as time did not permit, we could not visit the place. Located near Mirzapur on the Vindyachal ranges, the fort is quite an interesting place. You can make a day trip to Chunar Fort and Vindyachal.
3 days itinerary of Varanasi
There is so much to see, do and experience at Varanasi, that it might sound a bit overwhelming. So here we suggest a tentative 3 days itinerary of Benaras. This is what we did.
- Arrive at Varanasi.
- Visit the Temples of Varanasi in the afternoon.
- Watch the Ganga Arti at Dasaswamedh Ghat in the evening
- Take a boat ride in the morning and watch the sunrise.
- Have a breakfast of Kachori and Jalebi.
- Make a day trip to Sarnath and Ramnagar Fort (If you start by 10 AM, you will be back by 2 PM).
- Roam about the Varanasi alleys.
- In the evening go for a culinary trail.
- Visit Assi Ghat to see the morning Arti.
- Walk through the Ghats of Varanasi and immerse in the experience.
- Visit the markets in the afternoon.
- Leave Varanasi at night.
Where should I stay at Varanasi (Benaras)?
Varanasi has a number of hotels of various budget and categories. Ther are a number of guest houses, Dharamshalas (motels), hostels and hotels of various range. Decide where you want to stay. If you want the stay around the buzz and crowd, stay at any place near the Dasaswamedh Ghat or Manikarnika Ghat. If you are looking for peace, then stay somewhere near the Assi Ghat, Kedar Ghat or nearby.
Many of the buildings overlooking the ghats have been converted to heritage hotels. We stayed at Zostel which was about a km from the Dasaswamedh Ghat.
Best Time to visit Varanasi
The best time to visit Varanasi will be during any festival. The ghats will be lit up with numerous earthen lamps and it would be wonderful to watch. But also, there will be a lot of crowd. Otherwise, winters are the best time to visit Varanasi.
Visit Varanasi during Dev Deepavali on Kartik Poornima usually held in November. The entire ghat is lit with earthen lamps. We heard that the evening Ganga Arti is performed by 21 priests during the Dev Deepavali. But again, there will be a lot of people visiting Varanasi then.
Best Places to eat in Varanasi
For Chaats, we would suggest Kashi Chaat Bhandar and Deena Chat Bhandar near the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. The street shops are just as good.
For Kachoris, visit Gyanchand Kachori near Assi Ghat or any other shops near the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.
There are many roadside shops selling Rabri, Lassi and Malayio (only during winter). All are superb.
If you want to visit the cafes, the good ones are Kerala Café near Bhelupur, Vaatika Pizzeria at Assi Ghat, Dosa café and Brown Bread Bakery near Dasaswamedh Ghat. Bati Chokha is a veg restaurant serving some great food. But it is 3 km away from Dasaswamedh Ghat. For the meat lovers, El Parador near Maldahiya should be the place to head for.
How to avoid Scams in Varanasi
Now that we have spoken all the beautiful things about Varanasi, we also need to say a few words about the problems you might face there. No doubt the place is chaotic, crowded and unrelentingly indiscreet. Benaras is simply unapologetic. Benaras holds the reputation of having some ingenious scammers and you will be showered with constant attention from the touts. Of the many sadhus that you encounter at Varanasi, it is difficult to tell how many of them are real, and how many frauds. First timers and especially foreign tourists are the target of the scams. Here are a few of the known scams that you can avoid at Varanasi.
Cremation Wood Scam
This has been mentioned and told in a lot of places. Even Lonely Planet mentions it. This targets mainly the foreign tourists visiting the Ghats of Varanasi. Manikarnika Ghat is the place where the cremation takes place. While you are there, you might be approached by some well-spoken person who will probably tell you some story about the cremation process. He would then ask you for a donation to buy wood for some poor family. You might shell out a few bucks but the amount never goes to any poor. Simply ignore these people.
Over friendly historians
Again at the Ghats, someone who looks like a Sadhu or Pundit might approach you. He will start telling you about the history of the Ghat and Benaras. And then he would ask for money. It is better to ignore these people at the beginning. If you really want to know about Benaras, take part in the heritage walks in Benaras. You will spend some amount, but will not be cheated. Search online, look at Trip Advisor and then select your guide.
Hotel shut down
This happens mostly to first-time visitors to Varanasi. Once you are at the airport or railway station, you will be approached by auto and cab drivers. If you do not know about the location of the hotel, the driver will take you near the location of the hotel and then ask some shopkeeper about the location. That person (who is probably an accomplice) will tell that the hotel is shut down. Then they will take you to another hotel and quote a higher price.
It may also happen that the auto driver takes you to a different place and try to pass it off as that particular hotel.
The best thing you can do in this case is confirming from the hotel itself and ask for a pickup. If you are taking a pre-paid taxi, then do not hand over the receipt to the driver until you reach your destination.
At the ghats, you will get various rates of boats. It is better to see a few boats and then decide. Also, bargain a lot.
Near Kashi Viswanath Temple, you will see a lot of shopkeepers will ask you to avail free lockers at their shop to keep your belonging. Try to refrain from these shops. Most of these are scammers and will try to extract money from you by selling you stuff.
Guides at Sarnath
If you are taking an auto from Varanasi to Sarnath, the auto driver will take you to a guide. The guide will tell you politely to pay whatever you want and he will show a couple of places. And then he takes you to a Saree shop. You are expected to buy something from the shop so that he gets his cut money. We did not buy anything and so our tour ended abruptly. We had already paid him and later found out many other places to visit in Sarnath. When we confronted our auto driver, he asked for extra money. So before you start your tour, research the places to see and talk beforehand with the auto driver about the attractions and rate.
And then you will be approached by many Sadhus, frauds dressed as sadhus, beggars and many people asking for money. It is better to ignore all these people.
We felt that Varanasi is much like our hometown Kolkata. It takes little time to get acquainted with it. But once you know the place, it is hard not to fall in love with the city. You have to see the soul of Varanasi, it is simply bewitching. Otherwise, it is just another dirty Indian city!
Here are a few more pictures of Varanasi!
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