Varanasi

“Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together” ~ Mark Twain.

How well this summarises Benares also known as Varanasi, one of the oldest living cities in the world. An impromptu opportunity to visit Benares came along in December of 2017. Just a month back, Nagesh had been lucky to have been in Varanasi during its famous Dev Deepavali. And when the opportunity came along again, there was no way I was going to miss it.

Kashi, the city of Light. Varanasi, between the Varuna and the Assi rivers. Avimukta, the never forsaken. Anandavana, the forest of bliss. Rudravasa, the city of Shiva. Mahasmashana, the great cremation ground. These are the various names of the sacred city of Benares, the Spiritual Capital of India.

Panoramic view of the Ghats of Varanasi

There are very few places in India which are as traditionally Hindu and symbolic of Hindu culture and tradition like Varanasi. Millions of pilgrims have been visiting the great city for over 2500 years. Buddha visited the outskirts of Kashi in the sixth century BC to preach his first sermon. The great Poet Tulsidas wrote his epic Ramcharit Manas in Varanasi. Many important people who were part of the Bhakti movement like Kabir and Ravidas lived in Varanasi. Guru Nanak visited the city during Maha Shivarathri and the trip is said to have played a major role in the founding of Sikhism. Thus Varanasi has always been a centre of religious education, culture, pilgrimage, mysticism and poetry. Despite the Muslim rule in the middle ages, the city has retained its reputation of being a place of cultural and religious importance. Though most of the temples and buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt several times, the city looks old.

Diana L. Eck says in her book Banaras City of Light,

“Kashi is said to be the city of Lord Shiva and founded at the dawn of creation. As per Hinduism, Banaras is said to stand at the centre of the earth and gathers together the whole of the sacred universe in a single symbolic circle, a mandala. And yet it is not an earthly city. It is said to sit high above the earth on the top of the trident of Lord Shiva as a crossing place between this world and the far shore of the transcendent Brahman. Kashi is not subject to the relentless movement of the great cycles of time and the eras of creation and dissolution. It is the still centre which anchors the perpetual movement of time and space without participating in the ever turning world of Samsara. The city is not easy to comprehend for those who are outside the Hindu tradition. Kashi is famous for death and people come here from all over the country as death in Kashi is believed to be a liberation from a long pilgrimage through many lives. Kashi is one of the Sapta Puri (seven sacred cities) which are said to bestow liberation which is the highest spiritual goal. The following verse describes the seven cities :

Ayodhya, Mathura, Maya,
Kashi, Kanchi, Avantika,
And the city of Dvaraka,
These seven are mokshada.”

Ghats of Varanasi

Varanasi is closely associated with the Ghats along the Ganga river. Ghats are embankments along the banks of the river in the form of steps made out of stone slabs. The ghats are generally the hub of all activity along the river. Pilgrims can be seen performing the religious ablutions here. While religious ceremonies are performed on some ghats, some are reserved exclusively for cremation.

Pilgrims taking a dip in the Ganga river

Manikarnika Ghat where the cremations take place

A submerged temple along the Ghats

Fireworks add a magical touch to the lit Ghats at night

Buffaloes walking along the ghats at dusk

Around 84 Ghats stretch from the Raj Ghat in the North to Assi Ghat in the South. Most of the Ghats were patronized and constructed by royal families from different parts of India like Marathas, Holkars, Scindias, Bhonsles, Peshwas and Rajputs. Boat rides at dawn or dusk along the river are a good way to see the Ghats.

Gulls accompany the boats along the Ganga

Boat rides are a popular way to view the Ghats

A new day starts along the river

A lotus in the river

The ghats can be reached via Galis or narrow roads of the old city. The streets are like a maze and give a glimpse into the life of the locals.

The Ganga Aarti that takes place at Dasashwamedh Ghat is something that should not be missed when in Varanasi. In fact I would highly recommend multiple visits to watch the aarti if time permits. The synchronisation between the priests who perform the aarti is amazing. It takes place in the evening just after sunset. The crowds gather along the steps of the ghat and also in boats which are moored next to the ghat to watch the Aarti. The religious fervour of the crowd is an unforgettable experience.  There is also Subah Benares which is early morning Aarti which takes place at the Assi Ghat just before sunrise.

Ganga Aarti at Dasashwamedh Ghat

Synchronised movements of the priests during the Aarti

Kashi Vishwanath Temple

The famed Kashi Vishwanath temple dedicated to Lord Shiva is the ultimate pilgrimage site for Hindus. It is one of the twelve Jyotirlings of India. The temple was built and destroyed several times during the centuries of unrest under the rule of the Muslims. Today the temple does not have any of the magnificence or architectural splendour like some of India’s greatest temples. The current temple was built under the patronage of Queen Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore in the late eighteenth century. The Gyanvapi Mosque adjacent to the temple is the original site of the temple.

The approach to the temple is through narrow and winding lanes of the old city. It is quite hard to get a proper perspective of the architectural features of the temple from behind the compound wall. Only Hindus are permitted inside the temple. Security is stringent and bags or cellphones are not allowed inside the temple. Like most Shiva temples no leather items like wallets and belts are allowed. The courtyard has subsidiary shrines in addition to the main temple at the centre. The Shiva linga is set into the floor in a square-shaped recess area made of silver. The shaft of the linga is a smooth black stone while the seat is made of silver. The interior of the temple is neither very elaborate or large. The shikara or spire rising over the main temple was plated with Gold by Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab in the nineteenth century. Thus the temple is referred to as Golden Temple by tourists sometimes.

Sankat Mochan Temple

The Sankat Mochan Temple located near the Asi river is another prominent temple of Varanasi. It is dedicated to Lord Hanuman. It was built during the twentieth century by Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya who was a prominent educationist and freedom fighter of the Indian independence movement. He also founded the Banaras Hindu University which is referred to as ‘the Oxford of the East’. As per legends, the medieval Hindu Poet Saint Tulsidas had a vision of Lord Hanuman at this spot. Due to a terrorist attack on the temple in the recent past, there is a police post even at this temple and no bags or cellphones can be taken inside.

Sankat Mochan Temple

Sarnath

Sarnath is an important pilgrimage site of both Buddhism and Jainism. It is around 10 km from Varanasi and can be covered as part of a day trip. This is the place where the Gautama Buddha did his first teaching in which he taught the four noble truths after attaining enlightenment. It is also the birthplace of Shreyansanath who was the Eleventh Tirthankara of Jainism. Throughout its long history Sarnath has been referred to by various names such as Isipatana (translates to place where holy men landed), Rishipattana, Mrigadaya and Mrigadava (translates to Deer Park). The word Sarnath is derived from the Sanskrit work Saranganatha which means the Lord of the Deer.

Jain Temple

Buddhism flourished in Sarnath under the patronage of Kings and wealthy merchants of Varanasi. Sarnath became a centre of arts by the third century BC and reached its zenith during the Gupta period between the fourth and sixth centuries. By the end of the twelfth century the town was sacked by Turkish Muslim invaders and the site was plundered for building materials. The remains of the town were found by the British officer Alexander Cunningham in the mid-nineteenth century.

Today some of the distinguished ancient landmarks that stand amidst ruins include the Dhamekh Stupa, foundations of the Dharmarajika Stupa and the Ashoka Pillar base. Dhamekh Stupa is a massive 128 feet high Stupa which marks the spot where the Buddha is said to have given his first sermon to five Brahmin disciples after attaining enlightenment. It was built in 500 CE to replace an earlier structure that had been commissioned by the great Mauryan King Ashoka along with several other monuments to commemorate the activities of the Buddha in this region. The base of the stupa seems to have survived from the time of the great Mauryan King Ashoka and the stone facing has delicate floral carvings from the times of the Guptas. The walls of the stupa have beautiful carvings of humans and birds with inscriptions in Brahmi script. The upper part of this magnificent stupa which dominates the landscape of Sarnath is still unfinished.

Dhamekh Stupa seen from the grounds of the Mulagandhakuti monastery

Dhamekh Stupa

Ruins of Sarnath

Carvings of Tirthankaras

The ruins of the Mulagandhakuti Vihara mark the place where the Buddha spent his first rainy season. The modern Mulagandhakuti Vihara monastery was built by the Sri Lankan Mahabodhi Society in the 1930s. The walls of the monastery are adorned with beautiful paintings.  There is a Deer park behind the monastery where Deer can still be seen. There is also a Bodhi tree which was planted by the Angarika Dharmapala from a cutting of the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya. A number of Asian Countries where Buddhism is a dominant religion such as Thailand, Tibet, Japan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar have established temples and monasteries in Sarnath in their own architectural styles.

Mulagandhakuti Vihara Monastery

Huge bell at the doorway to the monastery

Main hall inside the monastery

Bodhi Tree Complex

Inside the Bodhi Tree Complex

Plaque explaining the significance of this site

Prayer wheels inside the Bodhi tree complex

The Ashoka Pillar was broken during the Turk invasion but the base is still intact at the original location. The top half of the pillar called the “Lion Capital of Ashoka” is on display at the Sarnath museum. It miraculously survived its fall to the ground from a height of 45 feet. It is made of Sandstone and comprises of four Asiatic Lions standing back to back on a circular base which has the wheel called the Ashoka Chakra at the centre with a Horse on the left and a Bull on the right. The circular base stands on an inverted bell-shaped Lotus flower. A graphical representation of the Ashokan Lion Capital was adopted as the official emblem of India in 1950. The Ashoka Chakra was placed at the centre of the National Flag of India.

Base of the Askoka Pillar

The Sarnath museum which is the oldest museum of the Archaeological Society of India (ASI) houses sculptures and other relics found during excavations around this region. The artefacts are from the Maurya, Kushana and the Gupta periods.

Arts

Varanasi is a rich centre for arts. The most famous of which is the Banarasi Sarees and Brocades with its intricate Gold and Silver threadwork. Banarasi Silk Sarees are treasured heirlooms and part of the bridal trousseau in most Indian households. Apart from this, arts here include carpet weaving, wooden toys, perfumes, artistic Brass and Copperware, glass beads, Gulabi Meenakari and other handicrafts. Beautiful paintings adorn the walls of some houses in the narrow lanes of the old city. Many interesting paintings can be seen while walking next to the Ghats as well.

A visit to a weaver’s workplace reveals the conditions under which they weave such intricate and beautiful yardage. The sarees typically have Mughal influenced designs like intertwining floral and foliage motifs.

Weaver at the loom

Design template

Checking out Banarasi dupattas at the weavers place

Gulabi Meenakari is an art unique to Varanasi. The pink coloured enamelling style was bought to the city by the Persians during the Mughal rule in the seventeenth century. Today there are only a handful of craftsmen who practice the art in making jewellery using Gold and Silver as well as handicrafts. We were lucky to find our way through narrow meandering lanes to a jeweller’s place. His father is a National Awardee. The jewellery is exquisite and the intricacy of the work is mind-blowing. The art awaits getting the Geographical Indicator (GI) tag.

Gulabi Meenakari pendant on which the artist was working

Gulabi Meenakari Jhumka

I couldn’t resist ordering jewellery here and ended up owning the below pendant 🙂

Pendant with Kundan Work and Gulabi Meenakari

The Gorgeous Gulabi Meenakari work at the rear of the pendant

The wooden toys of Banaras are not to be missed when visiting the city. Agarwal Toys Emporium had quite a good collection when we visited. One of the interesting souvenir which I had read about in blogs online and picked up was the Russian dolls collection of the family of Shiva. Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha, Skanda (Karthikeya) and the Shivalinga one within the other.

Wooden dolls of the family of God Shiva

Varanasi has been associated very closely with music since medieval times and is home to the Banaras Gharana of classical music. It is also part of the UNESCO “Cities of music”. Concerts and musical renditions keep taking place in the city.

Food

Street food in the bustling streets of the old city is just amazing. While some eateries have sitting space, most are just hole in the wall which offer delicious fare. Breakfast in most places is the popular Kachori Subzi and Jalebi. This is followed up with either Lassi or Tea served in earthenware cups called Kulhad. The Banarasi Paan is something that the locals like to eat all through the day. The Lal Pedas of Varanasi are famous and made by slow cooking milk with sugar till it caramelises and attains a brownish red colour thus giving it its name. Though it can be found in many sweet shops, one of the best places to try it is the Sankat Mochan Temple.

Kachori and Subzi

A speciality during winters here is the lip-smacking and delectable Malaiyo. It is made by boiling milk in a  large wok and left open overnight so that dew drops deposit on it and it becomes a bit frothy. In the morning Sugar, Saffron strands, Cardamom and slivers of Almonds as well as Pistachios are added and the milk is hand churned such that it is very frothy and creamy. Despite it looking very thick, it melts in the mouth and is very light. It is served in small earthen pots. It is best had early in the morning. It can be found at small nameless hole in the wall shops of the old city.

Melt in the mouth Malaiyyo

Shri Ram Bhandar

This is a famous place for breakfast in Thatheri Bazaar in the old city. A sumptuous breakfast of Kachori Subji followed by Jalebis can be had here.

Deena Chat Bhandar

Chats are popular in Varanasi. Some of the famous places for Chats are Deena Chat Bhandar and Kashi Chat Bhandar. We visited Deena Chat Bhandar and loved all the food that we tried there. Going in a group is helpful as one gets to taste  multiple dishes. We tried the local special Tamatar (Tomato) Chat, Spinach Chat, Aloo Tikki Chat, Dahi Papdi Chat, Choora Matar (another local speciality), Pani Poori (at the insistence of the person who served) and finished off the meal with Gulab Jamoon. Everything was just delicious!

Pani Poori

Choora Matar

Dahi Papdi Chat

Tamatar Chat

Palak Patta Chat

Gulab Jamun

Baba Thandai

Thandai is a famous cold drink in Northern India. It is made using milk, sugar, saffron, rose petals, almonds and spices like pepper, cardamom, fennel seeds etc. It is associated with festivals such as Holi and Maha Shivarathri. Sometimes Bhang (Cannabis leaves and buds) is mixed in the Thandai. The recommended place for Thandai when in Varanasi is Baba Thandai and we had it there. With or without the Bhang is of course your choice ;)

Thandai with or without the Bhaang at the side is one’s choice 🙂

Thandai

Baati Chokha Restaurant

Baati Chokha is a restaurant with a lovely village themed ambience. Staples from the neighbouring state of Bihar like Sattu (Roasted gram flour) Paratha and Litti Chokha (Baked bread and curry) are the must haves here. A thali can be ordered to experience the flavours of traditional Bihari food.

Baati Chokha

Littis being prepared in courtyard

Ready for a delicious meal

The delicious thali of litti chokha

Interiors of the restaurant

Other Places

Varanasi has many significant landmarks apart from the ones that we managed to cover during our visit. Some of the other important temples in Varanasi that we couldn’t go to are as follows :

  • Kaal Bhairav Temple – Kaal Bhairav is believed to be the Kothwal of Varanasi.
  • Annapurna Devi Temple – A temple dedicated to Annapurna Devi (the Goddess of Food) who is also known as Kashipuradeeshwari or the Queen of Kashi.
  • Vishalaskshi Temple – A temple dedicated to Goddess Parvati.
  • Adi Keshava Temple – An ancient temple dedicated to God Vishnu.
  • Bharat Mata Mandir – A unique temple dedicated to Mother India. This temple has a huge map of undivided India carved out of Marble.
  • Durga Kund Temple – A temple dedicated to Goddess Durga.
  • Tulsi Manas Temple – A temple that has been constructed at the place where Tulsidas composed the Hindu epic Ramcharitmanas.

Kabir Chaura Math dedicated to Sant Kabir houses paintings which portray the events in kabir’s life.

The Ramnagar Fort on the other side of the river from the Ghats has been home to the royal family of Varanasi since the eighteenth century. It can be accessed via a bridge or by boat.

Ending this post with another nice quote on Varanasi as follows :

“Here religious feeling reigns supreme, and no sensual thought ever seems to assail these beauteous mingled forms. They come into unconscious contact with each other but only heed the river, the sun, and the splendour of the morning in a dream of ecstasy” ~ Pierre Loti

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