World’s oldest living city, Varanasi – also known as Kashi (City of Life) and Benaras, is the spiritual capital of India. It is one of Hinduism’s seven holy cities. The old city of Varanasi lies along the western banks of the Ganges, spread across a labyrinth of narrow galis. Be prepared to walk on foot and encounter some holy cows! Temples at almost every turn engulf Varanasi but the Kashi Vishwanath Temple is the most visited and the oldest of the lot. Benaras is known as the city of Lord Shiva for a reason, and rightfully so.
Varanasi is considered an auspicious place to die, as it is believed to grant moksha or liberation from the cycle of life and death. Spiritually enlightening, the heart of the city pulsates around the ghats, about 80 of which border the Ganges. Be prepared for the sights, sounds and smells! Don’t miss out on the hot chaat and cool lassi. Though, all chaos and noise on the ghats take a pause before dusk when the Ganga Aarti begins to take place, a ceremony of immense grandeur.
This divine city is also an important destination for Buddhists. Gautam Buddha preached his first sermon in Benaras, a part which is now in Sarnath.
Places to Visit
Kashi Vishwanath Temple
Situated on the western bank of holy river Ganga in Varanasi, Kashi Vishwanath Temple is one of the 12 Jyotirlingas or temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. The main deity of Kashi Vishwanath Temple is Lord Shiva, also known as Vishwanatha or Vishweshwarar meaning ‘the ruler of the universe’. The city of Varanasi, the cultural capital of India, is thus known as the city of Lord Shiva. The temple has 800 kg of gold plating on its tower.
Camera, mobile phones, electronic devices are not allowed inside and must be deposited in lockers outside. Foreigners can enter from Gate number 2 where they can walk past the Indians waiting for their turn. There is also a well present within the temple complex called Jnana Vapi or wisdom well where only Hindus are allowed to enter.
In the olden times, on special festivals such as Shivaratri, the king of Kashi (Kashi Naresh) visited the temple for worship during which nobody else was allowed to enter the temple premises. Devotees were allowed after the king had concluded his prayers. The importance of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple also stems from the fact that it finds mentions in several holy scriptures of the Hindus. On the outside, the temple is adorned with intricate carvings that impart a divine quality to the facade. Other than that, the temple also houses several other small temples such as Kaalbhairav, Vishnu, Virupaksh Gauri, Vinayaka and Avimukteshwara.
As the name suggests, it is believed that this is the place where Lord Brahma performed the Dasa Ashwamedha sacrifice. This ghat is a religious spot and many rituals are performed here.
Visit at the time of Kartik Purnima to witness a celestial manifestation in the city of lights – Dev Deepavali. This Ghat is most famous for the Ganga Aarti conducted every evening, and hundreds of people visit it every day. Watching the Ganga Aarti is an experience which cannot be explained in words. When in Varanasi, make sure not to miss this calming experience.
Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple
The Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple is situated by the River Assi and was built in the 1900s by the freedom fighter Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya. It is dedicated to Lord Rama and Hanuman.
Varanasi is always related to Sankat Mochan Temple and is an essential part of this holy city. Every person visiting Varanasi visits this temple and pays their respects to Hanuman. The laddoo offered at this temple is essentially famous among the locals.While visiting Sankat Mochan be aware of the monkeys who throng the temple premises and tend to steal away the prasad. However, they are totally harmless if you let them be on their own.
The Assi Ghat is placed at the confluence of the Rivers Assi and Ganga and is famous for the large Shiva Lingam installed under a peepal tree. It has immense religious importance and has been mentioned in the Puranas and various legends as well.
Assi Ghat is the heart of Varanasi and the locals, as well as, the tourists flock there to enjoy the amazing view of the sunset and sunrise at the Ganges. It is where tourists and foreigners who travel and stay in Varanasi for a prolonged period live. The Ghat has been a famous spot among the local youths to while away their time in the evening. Recently, the Ghat started having Aarti in the morning which is a must watch if you want to experience the true feel of Varanasi. Also, the tourists generally travel from Assi to Dashaswamedh Ghat in the evening by boat, to see the famous aarti conducted there every evening which is an experience like none other. Assi ghat is near Banaras Hindu University, and hence it is frequented by students.
New Vishwanath Temple
The New Vishwanath Temple is every pious man’s go-to destination to feel overwhelmed by the presence and power of the great Lord Shiva. Not only is it located in the heart of the cultural capital of India – Varanasi, but it’s divinity is multiplied by the holy river Ganga that flows by its side. Banaras Hindu University is hence home to one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city of Varanasi, the grand New Vishwanath Temple. Visiting this temple gives the worshipper the space to put himself in the hands of God, at his disposition, and listen to the voice in his heart.
The peace and calm of the temple help you forget the distractions of daily life. The positive aura in the air compels one to surrender himself in the gentle caress of the Almighty. The very famous Jyotirlinga of Shiva, Vishweshwara, is believed to have immense and unending power. A single glance of this Jyotirlinga has the ability to cleanse our soul and set us on the true path of knowledge and devotion.
Although primarily a Lord Shiva temple, this beautiful temple consists of nine other temples within one and invites people of every faith to bask in its grandeur; using symbolism to express the ideas and beliefs of Hinduism. The New Vishwanath Temple incorporates every element of the Hindu cosmos- the good, the evil and the human; thus implying the major role that Dharma, Kama, Artha, Moksha and Karma play in our life.
Tulsi Manasa Temple
Constructed in 1964, this temple is dedicated to Lord Rama and is named after the saint poet Tulsi Das. It displays the Shikhara style of architecture and exhibits various inscriptions from the Ram Charit Manas on the walls of the temple.
Various episodes of Ramayana have also been depicted on the upper storey of the temple in the form of carvings. The temple is a must visit during the months of Saawan (July – August) when it opens up a special display of puppets, related to Ramayana, and is a fun experience for everyone.
Located near the Durga Ghat on the bank of the River Ganga, Durga Temple was built in the 18th century. It houses an imposing idol of Goddess Durga and is one of the main temples in Varanasi.
A shrine with stunning Tibetan Architecture, Tibetan Temple was where Lord Buddha taught his disciples the four truths of life. The edifice has a beautiful statue of Shakyamuni, prayer wheels and is decorated with traditional Buddhist paintings also called Thangksa. The unique feature of the temple is the prayer wheels that release strips of paper with chants written on them when rotated clockwise.
Considered as a gateway to the next life, Manikarnika Ghat is a highly sacred riverfront in India. It is believed that spending the last few days of life at the Ghat and completing the rituals of cremation here ensure a painless passing and also a way to attain freedom from the endless cycle of birth and death.
The Ganga Mahotsav is celebrated every year to display the cultural heritage of the Gangetic plains, especially that of the ancient city of Kashi, which is now known as Varanasi. The festival is celebrated for five days and is organised by the Mahotsav Samiti of the Department of Tourism of the Government of Uttar Pradesh. The five-day festival, with all its rituals and customs, traditional music and dance shows, provides for a soulful experience the likeness of which is difficult to find. Taking place in different months – beginning on Prabodhini Ekadashi of Kartik month – and at various ghats of the river every year, the Ganga Mahotsav brings forth the cultural heritage of the land, which people from across the nation and abroad come together to witness and experience.
Yoga Training Centres at Varanasi are the best centres to learn Yoga in its true form that involves the body, the mind and the spirit. The trainers are highly experienced professionals or Yoga Acharyas who guide students through the accurate postures and the science of Yoga.
Ganga Aarti is an important ritual held on a grand scale every morning and evening on the banks of the holy Ganges. The priests perform the Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat. The entire Ghat gets illuminated with a divine light that can be felt strongly. The magnificent ritual involves huge brass lamps lit with oil and the priests chant the holy mantras that reverberate in the entire location.
Vishwanath Gali is famous for street shopping in Varanasi. A variety of items are sold in the bustling gali at affordable rates. One can easily find modern or traditional apparel, household items, home decor items, brass idols of deities, etc. The Gali is also well known for local snacks and sweets.
Banaras Hindu University
Established by Madan Mohan Malviya in 1916, Banaras Hindu University is a 5.3 square kilometre campus in the city. It has about 30,000 students residing in the campus and is the largest residential university in the continent. The University has a long list of notable alumni and faculty. The Indo-Gothic architecture and the sprawling lawns add to the beauty of the place.
Batuk Bhairav Mandir
Famous for being a place of worship for Aghoris and Tantriks, Batuk Bhairav Mandir is considered to be of immense religious importance. The temple is dedicated to Batuk Bhairav who was an incarnation of Lord Shiva. An interesting feature of the temple is the sacred Akhand Deep which is believed to be burning for ages. The oil from this lamp is said to have healing powers.
What does every Indian want after death? No, it is not heaven but moksha. Moksha is the Hindu concept of liberation from the trials and tribulations of life. It is when you give up all materialistic pleasures and become one with yourself or the Atman. Though moksha or true liberation can be attained even while living, it is believed that attaining moksha on your death-bed frees you from the cycle of life-and-death and your soul is free ever-after. Many Indians go to different extremes for their Moksha. A dip in the Ganges to wash off your sins is the most popular concept but holy cities in India like Varanasi are filled with devouts asking priests to liberate them. And this one house or hostel: aptly named Mukti Bhavan – gives people just that. Liberation from their life and a promise of Moksha. Though it sounds absurd, Mukti Bhavan sees thousands of visitors every year. While there are more visitors in winters when more people die, the number of visitors decreases in summers. The quaint little house is popular for helping the ravaged and lost should attain their final liberation. The priests at the residence help perform rituals and rites that help the dying depart from the Earth in peace.
But before you misconstrue things- wait. The house is not a place where people go to commit suicide. Or it is not even a place of mercy killing. Only people right on their death-bed are allowed. They could be ailing due to a disease or they “feel they will die”, they can stay at the house. Hale and hearty people are not allowed to stay at Mukti Bhavan. People who are on their death-bed can check-in to Mukti Bhavan and stay there for 2 weeks. However, if the person does not die within 2 weeks, he/she has to leave Mukti Bhavan and give his/her room to someone else.
Mukti Bhavan has 12 rooms with a small temple and priest and all facilities for the guests. There are a lot of old people who visit the hostel and stay here. The hostel manager Bhairav Nath Shukla has been in-charge and praying for the salvation of these dying souls for the past 44 years. He lives with his family in the same compound and his family members are used to people dying in their hostel.
While it is mostly those who have no friends or family who come here to die, Mukti Bhavan has seen its share of deaths. The concept is very similar to the olden days Kashi concept where Indians, after living the Grihasthashram and Vanaprasha would go to Kashi. When people said they were going to Kashi, it was assumed they would not return as they would spend the remainder of their lives there and die there in hopes of moksha.
Must Try Food in Varanasi
1. Baati Chokha Restaurant
2. Shree Shivay Vegetarian Thali Restaurant
3. Roma’s Cafe Diner
4. Kerala Cafe
5. Phulwaree Restaurant & Sami Cafe
6. Kashi Chaat Bhandar
7. Megu Cafe
8. Niyati Cafe
9. Canton Royale Restaurant
10. Spicy Bites Restaurant
How To Get Here
Varanasi is well connected by train, road as well as by air. It has two major railway stations, Varanasi Junction and the Mughal Sarai Junction. The city has its own airport with daily flights to Mumbai and Delhi. Buses are also available.
Varanasi has an international airport, and though not many international flights arrive directly to Varanasi, almost all domestic airlines operate regular flights to and from this city. Jet Airways, Air India and SpiceJet operate the most frequent flights.
Nearest Airport: Varanasi
The road connections to Varanasi are well maintained and convenient, and most tourists who travel to Uttar Pradesh usually club two or three nearby cities and commute between them by road. The distance to nearby cities like Allahabad, Kanpur and Gorakhpur are located within driving distance. National Highway 19 is the main connecting road.
Varanasi is a major railway station and almost all trains passing through northern India go to Varanasi. The Mughal Sarai Junction is another major station that is 18 kilometres away from the main city and has trains coming in from cities all over India.