A Guide to the ancient city of Varanasi, India – taleof2backpackers
Mark Twain had said Varanasi to be older than history, older than legend. The city is said to be older than history itself. And that is how the city is known to the world – as one of the oldest inhabited city and the holy city situated on the banks of the holy river Ganges. Varanasi hass also been called the city of life and death. Because the Hindus believe that if they breathe their last at Varanasi, they would definitely attain moksha and be released from the cycle of birth and death. Such is the importance of Varanasi or Kashi in India.
A first time visit to Varanasi can be quite overwhelming. You will be greeted by chaos, confusion and crowd. The streets and road are dirty, you will see cowdung more than you have perhaps seen in your entire life. You will encounter people who will try to pull you into the maze of perplexity. You will also encounter the smartest and savviest conmen in Varanasi.
So am I discouraging you to visit Varanasi? Absolutely not! If you have not visited Varanasi, you have missed a major part of your experience in India.
Even with all its faults, Varanasi is a wonderful city to visit. It is the cultural hub of India. You need to spend some time at Varanasi, because the city gradually grows in you. To understand the culture, spirituality and life of mainstream India, then a visit to Varanasi is must. You will get some unforgettable sights and moments while you are at the city. Varanasi will definitely leave an impression in your mind.
Things to do at Varanasi
There are a lot of things to do at Varanasi. The best way to experience Varanasi is to take a walk along the ghats and explore the chaotic and colourful atmosphere of the city. Here are a list of things that you can possibly do at Varanasi.
Take a stroll at the Ghats
Ghats are the river fronts where a number of stairs are found leading to the river. There are a number of ghats at Varanasi and most of the spiritual activities takes place along these Ghats. The Dashashwamedh Ghat is the main ghat of Varanasi and is the most crowded and busiest one. The place is bustling with activity. Assi Ghat at the southern most end of Varanasi should also be on your list as this is comparatively peaceful and less crowded.
A special mention about Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat: These are the two ghats where cremation takes place at any time of the day. Witnessing a burning body can be quite emotional sight though.
Take a boat ride on the Ganges River
Take a boat ride along the River Ganges at sunrise and experience the different colours of sky. The boatman will take you along the different ghats nd you can see the life rituals at the ghats. You can easily arrange for a boat ride by yourself. Many boatmen will approach you. Do not forget to haggle with them.
Attend the Ganga Arti
Every evening after sunset, Ganga Arti is held at Dashashwamedh Ghat. Ganga Arti is actually offering a prayer to the River Ganges while chanting prayers and leading a ceremony with fire. It is definitely a spectacle to watch. The evening arti are usually a crowded affair. But you can also attend the morning Arti at Assi Ghat which is a less crowded affair.
Visit the Ramnagar Fort and Museum
On the other side of the river, there is an impressive fort and palace known as the Ramnagar Fort and Palace. It is a 17th century fort and was the ancestral home of the Maharaja of Benaras (another name for Varanasi). Today the palace has a museum of antique items.
Take a day trip to Sarnath
Sarnath is one of the important destinations in Buddhist circuit. It is the place where Buddha gave his first sermon after attaining enlightenment. There are several ruins of stupas and ancient monasteries. The ruins of Dhamekh Stupa is the place where Lord Buddha gave his first sermon. It will be a quite a different experience at Sarnath.
Go for a culinary trail
Varanasi is a place of culinary delight. The street food of Varanasi is simply superb. And there are lot of options for vegetarians as well. The Varanasi Chaats are quite famous and so are the mouth-watering desserts. Try the lassi, rabri and sweets at Varanasi. There are a number of quaint cafes near the ghats where you can simply sit and have a bite. And do visit the Blue Lassi shop for lip smacking Lassi (a drink made with curd and different fruits).
Where to stay at Varanasi
There are a number of hostels, hotels and guest houses of various budget at Varanasi. For the backpackers and budget travellers, Gostops and Zostels are good options. There are a few homestays also. I would recommend Aashray Homestay and Granny’s Inn near Assi Ghat. If you want to avoid the crowd, then stay near Assi Ghat. If you want to stay right in middle of the action, then stay near the Dashashwamedh Ghat. There are a number of heritage and boutique hotels too in case you want to stay in luxury.
How to reach Varanasi
Varanasi is well connected with flights from New Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai. It is also well connected by trains from all the major Indian cities. Mughal Sarai Junction is about 20 km from Varanasi city and is well connected by trains from all over India.
You can take an e-rickshaw or auto to get around Varanasi. Infact, you can take an auto rickshaw for a day trip to Sarnath and Ramnagar Fort. But before you hire any
vehicle, talk to them about the places you intend to visit and decide on the amount. The best thing to do is walk around the city.
A few Tips before visiting Varanasi:
* Varanasi is a fascinating place, but can be quite overwhelming too. The ghats are fraught with scams and touts. Do not listen and talk unnecessarily with people approaching you for any help. Do not listen to the people who would come to you and start telling you stories about Varanasi. Be wary of touts who would approach you to pay for wood towards cremation. They are potential scammers.
* If you are taking pictures of any sadhu or hermit, please take permission from them.
* Usually, you are not allowed to take pictures of cremation.
* Do not fall into the trap of shopkeepers calling you to see their merchandise or asking you to keep your bags before visiting the temples.
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