Varanasi Tours
Varanasi Tours

Tonsured heads, chillum-smoking sadhus, the chanting of mantras and cremation grounds where the fire never dies down. This is Varanasi - the holiest of Indian cities and one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in the country. Also known as Kashi or the city of light, the abode of Lord Shiva where, according to Hindu religious legends, the first rays of light fell after creation. It is here, in Varanasi, that the Hindu world converges to partake in an endless cycle of birth and death, life and salvation. One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Varanasi is paralleled only by Damascus in terms of antiquity.

Many people refer to Varanasi as Benares, an anglicized corruption of its ancient name. Attracting over a million pilgrims every year, the city lives and breathes traditional Hindu religion and culture. Yet it has evolved through the amalgamation of the sacred and profane, the spiritual and the commercial. This is a city that buzzes with activity; a city that is not just a dead mound of history.

What Varanasi offers is life itself, in myriad hues like the changing face of its ghats (river landings) with shifting rays of light. The numerous ghats along the Ganga, the narrow alleys and streets with a mixture of rickshaws, cycles, auto rickshaws, pedestrians and even cattle and the religious shrines all form a bizarre circus. The devout come to die here, but it is also an amazingly lively place. Famed for its religious fervour as much as its thugs (tricksters), Varanasi is also the place that has evoked some of the most creative processes in philosophy, religion, the arts and craftsmanship.

Varanasi Tours

History of Varanasi

According to mythology, after marriage Lord Shiva came to reside in Varanasi along with his wife Parvati and other gods and goddesses. It is believed that he never left the city, thus making it an important Shaivite pilgrimage. Shiva, popularly known as the destroyer amongst the Hindu trinity, is the most venerated lord here. Death, an integral part of tantric tradition, is an integral part of the city’s life. That is why the last rites of the dead are performed openly and cremation grounds are in the heart of the city.

The antiquity of Varanasi claims to go back 2,500 years. The city has references in the great epics Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Buddhist Jataka tales. Buddha visited the city in 500 BC and delivered his first sermon after attaining enlightenment at Sarnath, on the outskirts of Varanasi. The Jains also revere the city as three of their Tirthankaras (disciples of Mahavira, the founder of Jainism) were born here. Situated on an important trade route, it was already a thriving city in the 7th century BC.

Varanasi was the focal point of the 15th century revivalist Hindu Bhakti (devotional) movement under saints like Ramananda and Kabir. Kabir, the son of a Muslim weaver, was venerated both by Muslims and Hindus. There is a story about the tussle between the two communities on his last rites. According to popular legend, his body turned into a heap of flowers, and was divided into two for burial by the Muslims and cremation by the Hindus. The poet-saint Tulsidas also lived here, and translated the epic Ramayana from Sanskrit to Hindi.

Due to its location and prosperity, Varanasi was raided over and over again by Muslim rulers. From Mahmud of Ghazni to Ghauri to the Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khilji and most of all, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. As a result, most of the ancient temples and other structures were destroyed. What now remains is mostly about 200 years old, and not many which are earlier than the 17th century. The history of Varanasi lives however, in the repository of old manuscripts, the folk traditions and most importantly, through its people.

Varanasi Tours

Sightseeing in Varanasi

Sightseeing in Varanasi revolves around its over one hundred Ghats (river landings). The River Ganga flows from north to south, and the city forms a circular shape from the Asi ghat in the south up to the confluence of the Varuna river with the Ganga. Thousands of pilgrims come to bathe and worship in the river at the first light of dawn. Boat rides down the river in the morning are a very popular excursion.

Most of the ancient temples and structures along the ghats have been destroyed. What remain are mainly 18th and 19th century buildings.

A very important pilgrimage for the devout is the Panchatirtha Yatra, a tour covering the 5 important ghats of Asi, Dashashwamedha, Adi Keshava, Panchganga and Manikarnika. The Panchkosi road, beginning from the Asi ghat and ending at the Manikarnika ghat denotes the sacred area of Kashi. A tour around this 58 km route takes about 6 days on foot. Each of the important ghats has a lingam.

The Asi River meets the Ganga at Asi Ghat. There is a lingam under a peepul tree and a marble temple to Asisangameshwara (lord of the confluence of Asi). An ancient tank dedicated to sun worship, the Lolarka Kund (pool) lies 15 metres below the ground and is approached by a steep flight of steps. The Tulsi ghat, dedicated to the 16th century poet saint Tulsidas is crumbling now. Further north is the Harishchandra ghat, one of the two important cremation grounds in Varanasi. Named after the king Harishchandra, it is considered the most sacred cremation ground.

The Kedar ghat has links with the Kedarnath shrine located in the upper reaches of the Himalayas. The Dhobi ghat is a washerman’s area, while the Chausathi (64) ghat has a shrine dedicated to Chausath Yoginis, the multiple manifestations of the female force Durga.

Other sightseeing options are Dashashwamedha ghat is the busiest bathing ghat in Varanasi. The ancient king Divodasa was said to have performed the Dashashwamedha Yagya (Ten horse sacrifice) here. This pleased Brahma, the Creator, so much that he established the Brahmeshwara lingam. Boats can be hired at this ghat for a tour of the riverfront. It is also the most popular site for Hindus to perform ancestor worship rituals, and the entire ghat is lined with umbrella covered stalls where Brahmin priests perform pujas.

The Man Mandir ghat, built in 1600 by Maharaja Man Singh of Amer has a very interesting observatory. Built in 1710 by the king of Jaipur, it is similar to the ones in Jaipur and Delhi. There are numerous instruments used for astronomical calculations. The observatory is open to visitors from 09:30 am to 05:30 pm. The Dom Raja’s house is next door, with painted tigers flanking the terrace. Doms, who handle the corpses at cremation grounds, are untouchables. Though the Doms belong to a lower caste, their services are invaluable for the dead to be released from their physical bounds and so the leader of the doms is bestowed with the honorific title of Raja or king.

The Mir Ghat has a shrine to Vishalakshi (the wide-eyed goddess). It is one of the 52 pithas (pilgrimages) where the body parts of Shakti landed after a distraught Shiva performed his dance of destruction or tandava.

Varanasi Tours The Lalita Ghat is well known for its Nepali style temple with an idol of Pashupateshwara. This ghat also has a temple dedicated to the Ganga. The Manikarnika Ghat is perhaps the most well known cremation ground in the country. Since Shiva, the lord of Destruction, is said to have resided in Varanasi, the entire holy area is considered Mahashmashana (the great cremation ground). It is said that the funeral fires never die out at the Manikarnika ghat. The Manikarnika kund (tank) is said to predate the arrival of the River Ganga, who descended from the heavens to purify the earth.

The Alamgir mosque, popularly known as Beni-madhav-ka-dera dominates the Panchganga Ghat and is a popular sightseeing option amongst tourists. The mosque stands on the ruins of the Bindu Madhava temple, dedicated to Vishnu, which was destroyed by Aurangzeb. The Adi Keshava ghat on the outskirts of the city is the point where the river Varuna meets the Ganga. The ghat is completely submerged during rains. This is the original site of the city, where Vishnu is believed to have landed as an emissary of Lord Shiva.

The old city, from Dashashwamedha Ghat and Godaulia in the south to the Manikarnika Ghat in the North, is known as the Vishwanatha Khanda. It is a maze of narrow lanes and bylanes.

Visit the Vishwanath temple, one of India’s most important Shaivite shrines. The original temple is said to have been over 1000 years old. The Gyan Vapi tank enclosed in a hall is said to contain the original shivalingam. Pilgrims offer prayers here before embarking on the Panchatirtha.

One of the very wellknown sightseeing option is the Gyan Vapi mosque adjoining the temple complex is a controversial structure, which has been targeted by Hindu fundamentalist organisations for demolition. The mosque has 71 metres high minarets and stands on the foundations of a Hindu temple.

Next to the Vishwanath temple is the Annapurna temple, built in the 18th century by Peshwa Baji Rao I. The idol of Annapurna Bhavani (the provider of food), a benevolent form of Shakti is made in solid gold and carries a cooking pot. There is also a striking silver-faced image of Shani (Saturn) within the temple. Shani is feared for his destructive powers and is worshipped to prevent any ill from befalling the devout.

The Bharat Mata temple north-west of Godaulia is a modern shrine, inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi. It has a huge relief map of the Indian sub-continent showing all its rivers, mountains and pilgrimages. The 19th century Durga temple 4 kms from Godaulia is also popularly known as the ‘monkey temple’ because of an overwhelming simian presence. The idol of Durga, a manifestation of Shakti is dressed in red and rides a tiger with the trident, the discus and a sword in her hands. The temple courtyard has a forked stake for sacrificing goats, and non-Hindus are allowed only up to this point.

Varanasi Tours The Tulsi Manas temple, though, is open to all communities. Its white marble walls have the verses of Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas inscribed on them. The Benares Hindu University, which was founded by Pandit Madan Malviya at the turn of the century, also has a new Vishwanath temple. The temple, built by the Birlas, a rich industrialist family, is meant for a caste-less, egalitarian society.

The Bharat Kala Bhavan museum inside the Benares Hindu University campus is an excellent sightseeing option and is open from Monday till Saturday. It has a valuable collection of miniature paintings, sculptures and bronzes. A special gallery has a 19th century map of the Raj Ghat excavations and old etchings of the city. Besides Hindu, Islamic and Buddhist artifacts, the works of contemporary artists like Jamini Roy, Nicholas Roerich and Alice Boner are displayed here.

Ramnagar, the fort palace of the Kashi Naresh (king of Kashi) is on the eastern bank of the Ganga, south of Asi Ghat. The best way to reach the fort is over the pontoon bridge south of BHU. In the monsoons however, this bridge is dismantled. You can also cross over by boat hired from the Dashashwamedha Ghat. The palace has a museum with memorabilia such as horse-drawn carriages, motor cars, silver howdahs (elephant seats), palanquins, silk and brocade costumes, and various artifacts and trophies. An open ground across the courtyard is the stage for Ram Lila performances during Dussehra. At the end of the celebrations, the king rides through the town in full regalia on elephant-back.



Where to Stay in Varanasi

Varanasi has hotels to suit all budgets as you will find a wide variety of places to stay ranging from heritage and deluxe hotels to mid-rung and budget accommodations. The upper-bracket hotels are mostly situated around the cantonment area and budget hotels are in old city area. Varanasi boasts a heritage hotel, Nadesar Palace that features all modern amenities with an assured memorable stay.

The deluxe hotel category in Varanasi includes hotels like Ramada Plaza JHV, India Hotel, Hindustan International Hotel, Gateway Hotel Ganges, Radisson Hotel Varanasi and Hotel Clarks. These hotels have well-equipped rooms with modern facilities.

If you are looking for mid-rung accommodation options then try Palace on Ganges, Shiv Ganga Resort, Hotel Meraden Grand, Hotel New Temples Town, Surya, Hotel, Ganges View or Pallavi International Hotel. The budget hotels with basic amenities and low prices include Hotel Vaibhav, Hotel Sandeep or Hotel Aaraam.





How to Reach:

Air:
Varanasi is connected by air with major cities like Delhi, Agra, Khajuraho, Calcutta, Mumbai, Lucknow and Bhubaneshwar. The Babatpur airport at a distance of 22 kms from the city is linked by a shuttle bus service that takes passenger's upto the Cantonment. Alternatively, you can hire a taxi to take you into the city.

Rail:
The main railway station is the junction station near the cantonment area. It is about 3 kms from the old city centre and can be accessed on auto rickshaws and cycle rickshaws.

The other major rail station is at Mughalsarai, 16 kms from Varanasi. Some of the major trains connecting to Calcutta, Guwahati and other places stop at Mughal Sarai. It is easy to find transportation from here to reach Varanasi. There are buses and taxis that ply to Varanasi.

Road:
Most buses terminate a short distance from the junction station, and some at the cantonment bus station. Buses connect to Gorakhpur, Gaya, Allahabad, Lucknow, Delhi, Khajuraho and places in Nepal.

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