It is said that Varanasi was the first city to be founded in this universe, founded by the union of the god Shiva with his wife. As one of the most historied cities in India, it has had many names: by the British definition, Banaras was the colonial name for Varanasi, but in ancient times of legend, it was called Kashi, the navel of the universe. It is one of the most holy cities to Hindus, who believe that if they die in Varanasi and are cremated in a pyre along the sacred river Ganga, their souls will escape earthly existence. Life and death mingle in the atmosphere of the old city along the river; the flames of the pyres are never extinguished, and funeral workers endlessly hurdle palanquins with corpses through the narrow alleyways of the city. One can find joy and peace in strolling along the Banaras ghats—the steps along the river. There are two types of ghats, burning ghats, where the flames of funeral pyres are never extinguished, and public bathing ghats, where continuously are seen pious men and Indian women bathing at ghats, taking ceremonial dips in the holy river. The city is quite well traveled both by Indian pilgrims and international travelers and backpackers—you’ll find delectable German bakeries and backpacker’s restaurants alongside traditional sweet shops and sellers of religious paraphernalia. You’ll meet travelers from around the world. Varanasi is also a city of liberated livestock; buffalo, cattle, goats and dogs roam the streets and alleys at will, often demanding more than their fair share of the street. If you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to go to Varanasi, do not miss it; you will find a unique face of India that is one of the most honest manifestations of thousands of years of tradition and spiritual inquest.
Things to do in
Varanasi is not a city to be rushed. It is not overly large in terms of distance, but it is best appreciated through a series of meanderings and relaxed explorations. First, walk up and down the ghats along the riverside to Assi Ghat, the northernmost ghat, where the tea is sweetest. If you have the opportunity to stroll along the river in the early morning, you will see one of the most picaresque sunrises of your life; the city is absolutely confined to one side of the river, so the sun rises over untouched land. The old city—a jumbled maze that snakes up the riverbank—is comprised of hundreds of kilometers of snaking narrow alleyways that yield an unforgettable picture of traditional life in the city. Lose yourself in the maze, knowing that if you ever get lost, enough right turns (if you’ve departed from Assi) will always bring you back to the river and the most direct route home. The central temple is the Golden Temple, with a lingum (the phallic form of Shiva) made of gold. In a city of over ten thousand temples, you can go temple hopping for months on end, but only if you are sustained by frequent sweetshops and tea. If you are up for a more far-ranging sightseeing tour, take a rickshaw to Banaras Hindu University, one of the most reputable seats of learning in the land, founded by Jawaharlal Nehru himself. From there it is only a short ride to Sankheit Mochin Mandir, a temple sacred to Hanumaun very popular among the locals, and Durga Kund, a temple and pond sacred to the goddess Durga.
While you are in town, you should also take a day trip to Sarnath, located just outside the city—a hundred rupee ($2) rickshaw ride away. Sarnath is where the Buddha gave his sermon in The Deer Park, the first time he addressed the public after he reached enlightenment. The site is one of the most holy to Buddhists, and many different Buddhist nations and communities from around the world have built their own temples near the giant stupa that marks the site of the historic sermon, not to mention the very impressive collection at the Archeological Museum, Sarnath. And yes, there are still deer on site—and a zoo full of various caged beasts. Don’t overlook the small but ornate Jain temple in Sarnath.
Sahi River View Guest House—This is a lovely and well maintained example of Banarsi house architecture, with an inner courtyard.
Tewari Lodge—in Assi Ghat. Raju Tewari is a family man and upstanding Banarsi who runs a clean, large, and easygoing lodge in Assi; a crossroads of the world.
Hotel Ganga View—Beautifully restored traditional hotel that overlooks Assi Ghat. The venue of some of the finest classical musicians in the city.
Hotel Haifa—a Varanasi staple, with clean rooms and middle eastern food
Palace on Ganges
—in the restored Varanasi palace of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, an authentic and enjoyable experience.