Varanasi, An Ancient Spiritual City By The Ganges

Built in the 11th Century, Varanasi, also known as Benaras and Kashi, is the spiritual capital of India, and also of Hinduism. Established on the banks of the holy river Ganga, it gained further cultural significance in the 16th Century under the Mughal King Akbar, who heavily patronised the city and built two large temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu. It is also an important city for Buddhism, as Buddha gave his first sermon at nearby Sarnath. Guru Nanak had visited this city as well.

Our trip to this ancient spiritual city was purely based on work, though it has always been on our wish list.  Being an ancient city, it has plenty to experience, including architecture, food, culture, textiles and music.

A visit to Benaras must begin with its ghats. Ghats are one of the notable things about Benaras. Stone steps leading to the river Ganga, the Ghats help pilgrims perform their spiritual rituals. In all there are 84 ghats in Benaras. Many of the ghats were constructed under the patronage of the Marathas : Holkars, Peshwas, Scindias, Bhonsles, Shindes etc. The prominent ghats worth visiting are Dahsashwamedh, Manikarnika, Darbhanga, Panchganga, Harishchandra etc.

The oldest of the ghats is Dashashwamedh, which it is believed, was created by Brahma to welcome Shiva, when a huge Yagna was held sacrificing 10 horses (hence the name : Das Ashwa). The Manikarnika Ghat is the primary ghat for Hindu cremation. It is said that if one dies in Varanasi, one attains salvation from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Respect local sentiments by not taking pictures here.

The Jain Ghat : Varanasi is believed to birthplace of Suparshvanatha (7th tirthankara) and Parshvanatha (23rd tirthankara). The Jain Ghat or Bachraj Ghat is a Jain Ghat and has three Jain Temples located on the banks of the River. It is believed that the Jain Maharajas used to own these ghats.Bachraj Ghat has three Jain temples near the river’s banks and one them is a very ancient temple of Tirthankara Suparswanath.(From Wikipedia).

Take a boat down the river at night to see the magnificent aarti at the Dashashwamedh Ghat every evening at 6:30 pm. Its a spectacular sight.

Apart from spending time in the Ghats, Varanasi has plenty of old lanes and bylanes, all leading to the ghats. These are very interesting in themselves, full of ancient temples, shops selling delicious chai and snacks.

A densely populated city, Varanasi needs some patience from the visitor and in return will reward well with experiences of a lifetime. One may come across many monkeys (Rhesus Macaques), the best known species of old world monkeys. One need not be scared of them, and one mustn’t engage with them. This city is also fabulous for food, especially Indian desserts. Various kinds of sweets originate from Varanasi, from where the famous Banarsi Sweet genre comes from. Ask for aloo poorie (potato curry with fried flour pan-cake like poories), or litti chokha (gram flour dough balls, baked, along with mashed spiced brinjal). Stop by a road side shop for chai. Benaras is famous for its chai and try it with the Samosas or Malai Toast. Look out for the various kinds of chaat this city is famous for.

Whatever you do, Benaras is best explored on foot.

The morning sun rises behind the Ganges in Varanasi
The morning sun rises behind the Ganges. View from our hotel room.
Morning at the Ghats in Benaras
A walk down the ghats in the morning is very rewarding…
Architecture at the Benaras Ghats
Plenty of heritage architecture at the Ghats ion Benaras
Riva Ghat in Benaras
Riva Ghat, one of the 84 ghats in Benaras. Early morning, when the light and mellow and the weather pleasant, a walk on the ghats is highly recommended.
Rituals by the Ganges at the Ghats of Benaras
Rituals by the Ganges are the main reason ghats were made…
Morning at the Ghats of Benaras
Or just sit and observe. And soak in the morning peace…
Chet Singh Ghat, Benaras
The Chet Singh Ghat in Benaras, built around the 1700s
Boats in Benaras
Its worth taking a boat ride by the river…
Chet Singh Ghat, Benaras
Another view of Chet Singh Ghat. I can’t get over spectacular Indian architecture and wonder why we don’t built such amazing structures any more.
Boats on Benaras.
Colourful boats lay tied to the ghats. Its faster to travel between ghats in a boat.
Graffiti in Benaras
In the middle of all this ancient culture, is modern graffiti. I love art, but I feel ancient monuments should not be defaced.
Steps in teh ghats of Benaras
There are plenty of tucked away cafes, restaurants, hotels and home stays around the ghats of Benaras.
Walking up the lanes of Benaras
And through the steps rising from the ghats, walk into the many criss cross lanes full of surprises…
A typical Benaras sweet shop.
A typical Benarasi sweets shop. Benaras is famous for its desserts, mostly milk based.
Bengali sweet shop, Benaras
An old, now non-functional Bengali sweets shop near the Kedar Ghat in Benaras.
Bazaar of Benaras
Walking the bazaars in the lanes near Kedar Ghat. Buy spices or plastic brooms. Or stop by for a chai.
Benaras lanes
Looking into the lanes of Benaras
Lanes of Kedar Ghat, Benaras
Kedar Cafe in the lanes next to Kedar Ghat. This place served South Indian snacks in the heart of Benaras. We didn’t eat here.
Lanes of Benaras
Old buildings, temples, goats, all thrive together in the lanes of Benaras
Old buildings of Benaras
These old buildings are worth preserving. Wish this entire area was architecturally restored.
Gorgeous old door in Benaras
Love that door. Benaras is full of architectural surprises.
The narrow lanes of Benaras
The lanes of Benaras are narrow, but they have space for everyone.
View of River Ganges in Benaras
The view into the river Ganges…
Temple in the lanes of Benaras.
Another beautiful old building in the narrow lanes of Benaras.This old charming city is best explored on foot.
Dirt on the streets of Benaras
Benaras is also amongst the untidiest cities we have been to in India.
Art on a green painted building in Benaras.
Amidst all the crowd and chaos, art thrives everywhere in Benaras.

How to reach: Varanasi has an airport, if you want to fly in. Plenty of trains stop at this city. If you wanted to drive in, it’s 12 hours by road from Delhi.

Where to stay in Benaras or Varanasi : Granny’s Inn seems to be the place we would stay in, though we haven’t been there. Brijrama Palace is. hotel right on the ghats of Benaras. Tad expensive though.

Best Time to visit: Like most places in India, the best time to visit Benaras is the winters. November till March is a good time weather wise. Else there are festivals happening in Varanasi all the time. Schedule your trip accordingly.

8 thoughts on “Varanasi, An Ancient Spiritual City By The Ganges”

  1. Varanasi, also called Benares in the Indonesian history textbooks, was one of the first places in India I learned about. Only after I started traveling in earnest ten years ago this ancient city came under my attention again as it seems to be among the most popular destinations for travelers who visit India. It’s nice to see other sides of the city (i.e. its alleys) through your photos, although I do agree with you about the murals.

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