- Location: State of Uttar Pradesh, India
- Significance: Ancient and Historic City, Temples, Shrines, Holiest Hindu Site
- Attraction Type: Ancient City, Pilgrimage
- Best Time to Visit: You can visit Varanasi at any time of the year, however, the weather is the most pleasant between September and April.
- How to Reach: There are daily domestic flights to Varanasi from all major Indian cities. There are trains to Varanasi from all major cities in India but is most easily accessible from Delhi and Howrah (Kolkata). You can get off at Mughalsarai and then take a ride to Varanasi, which is only 10 km away. Buses are available from Kanpur, Allahabad and other Uttar Pradesh cities.
- Nearest Airport: Varanasi Airport or Babatpur Airport (VNS)
Chances are that you are already familiar with Varanasi even before you set your foot in this ancient Indian city. Celebrated in countless photographs, films, literature, art, legends, and popular folklore, Varanasi, or Benaras or Kasi, as it is often referred to as presents the quintessential Indian experience. Although the holiest of the Hindu cities, Varanasi has actually stood at the crossroads of diverse cultures from the Buddhist to the Islamic.
Folklore places Varanasi’s antiquity to a time before history. It was apparently built by Lord Shiva, the reigning Hindu deity of the city in some lost time in history, around five thousand years ago. Popular folk beliefs may have a propensity to exaggerate reality, but the fact that it is at least three thousand years old is clearly recorded in history; which in itself makes it the oldest living city in the world.
In ancient India, Kasi was an important kingdom of Northern India, an independent protectorate rule by the King of Kasi, or Kashi Naresh. The King of Kashi still inhabits the Ramnagar Fort on the Eastern side of the Ganga and is still at the helm of all cultural and religious activities of the city. The city, from the earliest times, was an important center of learning, where the greatest scholars of philosophy, philology, religion, astronomy, and astrology gathered from the farthest recesses of the Orient to try, teach, learn and disseminate their knowledge. Its importance as a major educational center continued well into Buddhist times. Buddha himself delivered his first sermon at nearby Sarnath.
The Muslim era brought about a catastrophe in this ancient Hindu city, as Aurangzeb routed through the city, destroying many of its million temples. The central Vishwanath Temple did not escape his wrath. However, most of them were rebuilt at later stages. Presently, it is under the jurisdiction of the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Varanasi may have a colorful and eventful political history, but its charm transcends history. Life here appears to go on at a pace and style that is not much different than how it was thousands of years ago. Mark Twain’s comment appears apt: ‘Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together’.
It is difficult to enlist attractions in Varanasi, as the thousands of temples and the narrow atmospheric alleys and bylanes are attractions in themselves. The very experience of being in Varanasi makes it worth a visit. You never know when a sight or a sound will grab your attention and offer you an experience that you will cherish for a lifetime. However, you will not be disappointed if sightseeing is what you have on your mind. Being a temple city, the temples and religious houses are the greatest attractions of Varanasi. Some of the most popular attractions are:
Kashi Vishwanath Temple (Golden Temple) and the Durga Temple: The Vishwanath Temple is the nerve center of Varanasi, housing the famous icon or ‘lingam’ of Lord Shiva, who is here manifested in his Vishwanatha or Vishweshwara form. Visited by devotees from the earliest of times, this temple is built in the Nagara style of architecture by the Queen Ahilyabai Holkar after Aurangzeb built a mosque on the remains of the earlier temple that he demolished. Ranjit Singh donated gold to enshrine two of its shrines. The courtyard can be accessed by people of all religious affiliations but the sanctum sanctorum is reserved only for Hindus. The Durga Temple is located just across the Vishwanath temple. This red temple built in the Nagara style is visited by thousands of devotees during the Navaratri festival. The Durga Kund is a holy reservoir of water located in its vicinity.
Sankat Mochan Temple: This is a temple devoted to Lord Hanumana, and is immensely popular among the local inhabitants of Kashi.
Ramnagar Fort: This is the royal residence of the King of Kashi. It has a museum that contains a large number of ancient weapons, heralds, manuscripts, artworks and other objects of great interest.
Benaras Hindu University: In keeping with Varanasi’s stupendous reputation as a center of higher education and learning, the Benaras Hindu University (BHU) is a major center of learning. The Vishwanath Temple built in the campus, in imitation of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple by Madan Mohan Malviya as a way to resurrect the nationalist spirit in the times of Indian Independence of the British period. It can be entered by one and all irrespective of race and religion.
Sarnath: Located close to the city, this is the place where Lord Buddha gave his first sermon after attaining enlightenment. It is a very popular tourist destination for visitors from all over the world.
Varanasi is the city of temples. If the legend is to be believed then there are thirty three hundred million temples in the city. Incredible as it may sound, the mere prolificacy that you will witness when you visit the city will somehow tempt you to believe it. There is a temple at almost every bent of every street. If you want to catch glimpses of the major Varanasi temples, you can undertake one of the two popular temple tours that date back to thousands of years. The first is the Panchkoshi Parikrama which will give you an access to as many as 108 shrines, the number having special significance in the Hindu faith. The second is the Nagara Parikrama, where you will have a chance to visit 72 temples and shrines.
Varanasi has a close and historic relationship with the Ganges. The ghats evoke the most representative images of Varanasi. Sprawling staircases of throne go down into the river waters. Many of them are old, and like many things in Varanasi, date their origin to an age that belongs only in myths and legends. Many of them were built by subsequent kings and many commemorate historic events. The Rajput rulers were particularly keen on building ghats in Varanasi, and many ghats bear their names and titles. Some of the most popular Varanasi ghats are:
Dashashwamedh Ghat: The most popular and largest of the ghats, the evening arati, or fire offering performed by a group of priests on this ghat, is a sight to behold. It is said that this ghat was built by Lord Brahma to commemorate Lord Shiva’s entry into the city.
Manikarnika Ghat: The most sacred cremation ghat among Hindus, the Manikarnika Ghat also has legends associated with it. This is the place where Harischandra, the king of Kashi, was taken in as a slave and made to work on the pyres as a mode of penance. Hindus believe that being cremated at Manikarnika provides immediate release from the karmic cycle of life and death.
Assi Ghat: This is the most picturesque of all Varanasi Ghats, and is an artist’s and photographer’s favorite. Chances are that most of the memorable images of Varanasi that you have come across were taken from the Assi Ghat.
Dining and Accommodation in Varanasi
There are countless hotels and inns in Varanasi. Many of them are rated and belong to the luxury category. However, being a popular destination among backpackers and other casual and budget travelers, there is a number of budget accommodations and hostels as well. Some of the most popular luxury hotels are Hotel Clarks Varanasi, Hotel Taj Ganges, and Hotel Hindustan International. Budget travelers can check in at Hotel Buddha, Sandhya Guest House, Trimurti Guest House, Hotel Sunrise and Hotel Son Many. Most of the hotels have in-house restaurants with great food and an equally fantastic ambiance. Apsara Restaurants, Local Instant Noodles and Ganga Fuji are some of the popular restaurants in Varanasi.