Shravan is the month of Lord Shiva, as per the Hindu calendar in India. It is believed that Lord Shiva’s favourite city is Kashi or Varanasi. Varanasi is set on the western banks of the holy river Ganga, in Uttar Pradesh, India. On this auspicious month of Shravan, I decided to tell you about the different pilgrimage sites of Lord shiva. Today it’s about the things to do in Varanasi. Varanasi, known as Benares or Banaras, is one of the oldest cities in the world.
Artefacts dating back to 1800 BCE have been unearthed in excavations around Varanasi. Mark Twain had written, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
The lively and colourful city, on the banks of the holy river Ganga is significantly important being the city of moksha or salvation. It is important from a religious perspective and is a seat of art, culture and business. Words don’t do justice enough to capture the real spirit of the ancient city.
Varanasi is important to the Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs. Adi Shankaracharya, one of the greatest Hindu sages, identified Varanasi as one of India’s most sacred cities in the 8th century. Varanasi is popular among Sikhs as Guru Nanak visited on Maha Shivratri in 1507. The city and the Vishwanath Temple have seen their revival in the 16th century under the patronage of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. The city is a religious hub yet not confined to stringent religious practices. Foreign tourists flock around Varanasi for the city’s amazing vibes.
The Cultural Vibes
Varanasi is rich in culture and art. From Tulsidas’ epic poem Ramcharit Manas to modern day shehnai maestro Bismilla Khan and Girija Devi, the iconic thumri singer, originated from Varanasi. The remarkable figures like Kabir, Surdas, Meera and Ravidas from the Bhakti Movement were from Varanasi. The city is etched in the hearts and works of people from the creative and art world. From the renowned sitar maestro, Pandit Ravi Shankar, to the world famous film director, Satyajit Ray, all had Varanasi on top of their minds. Hindustani Classical music has a genre called the ‘Benaras Gharana’. It is one of UNESCO’s Cities of Music.
Things To Do in Varanasi
Visit the Ghats or Embankments
The picture of Varanasi etched in our minds is those of the ghats. The common scene being saffron-clad sadhus (hermits), and people bathing in the river, boats and umbrellas. The ghats have regal Havelis (ancient palatial building) and temples. There are rising tall and elegant steps going down to the wide Ganga. The Observatory (Jantar Mantar) is present near the Dashashwamedh Ghat.
A boat ride for Assi Ghat (80 embankments) trip on the Ganga River is one of the most romantic things to do in Varanasi. The important ghats are – Dashashwamedh Ghat, Munshi Ghat and Manikarnika Ghat. Manikarnika Ghat is a crematorium. It is believed the end rituals performed here enables the attainment of salvation. The best time to take the boat ride is at dawn. You can see how the city starts revolving around its numerous ghats.
Do not Miss the Ganga Aarti
Ganga Aarti at the Dashashwamedh Ghat in the evening is spectacular. It is performed to worship the holy river Ganga. The sound of the conch shells, the temple bells and the rhythmic chants take one to a transcendental stage. The Priests perform the aarti with multi-tiered brass lamps lit up with camphor, synchronizing elegantly with the chants or mantras. This ritual touches the spiritual chord. Visitors can watch this from the steps of the banks/ ghats or from boats on the Ganges. Attending this event tops the chart of the numerous things to do in Varanasi.
Visit the Temples
As per ancient mythologies, Hindus have 33 crores of Gods. All of them are present at Kashi. There are around 23000 temples in Varanasi. The most popular one is the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Lord Shiva is the main deity of the temple. There are two other extremely popular temples. The Durga/ Annapurna Temple, the temple dedicated to Shiva’s consort. The Sankatmochan Temple, dedicated to Hanuman, the greatest devotee of Lord Rama.
The Vishwanath Temple is a vintage temple. It has been rebuilt numerous times and, is the centre of attraction. The Shivling or the shrine is one of the 12 Jyotirlingas in India. It is one of the holiest Hindu pilgrimage circuits of India. The temple’s magnificent 15.5-meter high edifice is gold plated. Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab had donated the gold plates in 1835. To the north of the temple complex is the holy well of wisdom, Gyanvapi. The key attraction of the temple is the 7-foot high stone statue of Nandi, Shiva’s bull, stationed at the eastern side of the temple. Vishwanath Lane is the narrow lively street leading to the temple, full of shops selling sweets and bangles.
Spend some time at the Ramnagar Fort
Ramnagar Fort is fascinating with its Mughal style of architecture. It has large arched balconies and delicate stone carvings. The elaborate temples and the amazing museum with intriguing collections and exhibits are the key attractions. The royal portraits, American vintage cars, elaborate palanquins or palkis, silver elephant saddles, weapons, hookahs and other items from the daily regal life attract tourist attention. The bejewelled thrones and other furniture of wood and ivory work, and ornate silk costumes are popular exhibits. The most interesting piece is an astronomical clock showing the time, a detailed calendar and planetary positions of the earth with respect to the sun and the moon.
Visit the Banaras Hindu University (BHU)
BHU, a public university, is the seat of modern day education in Varanasi. Strolling around in the wide streets inside the university campus is one of those things to do in Varanasi, you can’t miss. Sprawling around 1300 acres of land, with beautiful gardens, libraries and elaborate sculptures, the campus is an oasis of calm amidst the chaotic city. With over 30000 students residing on the campus, it is Asia’s largest residential University. Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya established BHU in 1916 with assistance from Annie Besant.
Try out Street Food
Food can be a path to moksha, you can’t miss out on the street foods at Varanasi. The busy streets and the lanes and the by-lanes of the city bombard one with gastronomic euphoria. Milk products – lassi, rabdi, Kesar doodh (saffron milk), milk soufflé (eggless) are ravishing. People with sweet tooth, don’t miss the sweets and Indian desserts like halwa (sone halwa, gajar or carrot halwa), labang-latika and jalebi. A plate of a plethora of colours and a riot of tastes is what an awesome chaat is.
Edible cannabis, Bhang, a tasty drink, is something that one should try (from government registered shops). Some of the popular joints for street food are Kashi Chaat Bhandar for chaats and Blue Lassi shop for lassis and thandais. Sweet paan (betel leaf) with rose petals is a delicacy from the streets of Banaras. For international dishes try out hot apple pie with a cool breeze from the Ganga at Vatika Café, by the Ganga. They specialize in Indian, Italian and Chinese. Visit Monalisa Café for Iranian dishes and Raga Café for Korean food. Food trail is definitely one of the major things to do in Varanasi.
Lord Buddha attained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya and gave His first sermon to his first five disciples at Sarnath, 10 kilometers from Varanasi. It is one of the most sacred places for Buddhists all around the world. The iconic Dhamek Stupa, built by Emperor Ashoka is the chief attraction. It is massive with 28 meters diameter and 43.5 meter height. The intriguing ruins and relics, deer park and the new Thai Buddha temple with sprawling gardens and the 80 feet high statue of Buddha are amazing. It is the tallest Buddha statue in India.
Indulge in Shopping
Indulging in shopping from Varanasi is one of the best things to do in Varanasi. Varanasi is famous for its silks, muslins and brocades from time immemorial. It is an industrial hub of silk fabrics. Lucknow Chikan (hand embroidery of Lucknow) are available too. Silver and stone trinkets, attar (Indian perfumes) and sculptures are what tourists buy as souvenirs. Shopping options of all kinds- with nominal means to sheer splurging, are all available.
Drive to Chunar
Half an hour’s drive from Varanasi to Chunar, teleports you to a different world all together. Set on the banks of River Ganga, stands this massive 11th century red sandstone fort. Far from the madding crowd, this is a romantic and historical spot. Definitely some time spent here, looking at the wide river from the terrace of the fort is wonderful.
Varanasi, with its chaotic charm, woos you, irrespective of a spiritual or religious experience. From food to silks, from music to literature, from the Ganga and the ghats to the massive forts, Varanasi has it all, for a cool compact holiday.
A versatile writer and travel freak, discovering the world in her own casual way. Loves to immerse into the core of Mother Nature and extract her inherent beauty.