The northern Indian city that lies in the state of Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi, has claimed its spot as the spiritual capital of the country. This ancient city, also known as Kashi or Benaras, dates back to approximately the 11th century B.C. It is considered to be one of the holiest places for many Hindu pilgrims. Varanasi, according to the devotes, is a place where one can break free from the cycle of birth and death, ultimately achieving Moksha or salvation.
Many tourists from around India and other countries flock in numbers to experience Varanasi’s spirituality. Whether it is the vibrant atmosphere, the majestic Ganges River, or the twisting alleyways waiting to be explored, there’s a lot to see and do here. To make sure you enjoy the city to the fullest, here are the top ten things that you should experience in Varanasi:
Boat ride in Ganges River
The Ganges River, named after the Hindu Goddess Ganga, is one of the holiest rivers in the world. Here, the sights of pilgrims bathing for purification are the most common. Further, there are several other rituals performed along the ghats of the Ganges River such as burning of the funeral pyres and scattering the ashes of the deceased in the river’s water, depicting the ephemeral course of life.
In the Ganges River, rowing boat rides during dusk or dawn is one of the best ways to observe the city. The ride makes its way through various ghats, passing by temples, and former palaces, all the while offering a panoramic view of the Ganges. One can rise early to catch the sunrise amidst the peaceful and mystical atmosphere while taking a boat ride. To witness the hustle and bustle in the evening, boat rides during sunsets are exhilarating wherein lotus flower candles are set to drift the waters. Overall, opting for a boat ride in the Ganges River provides a closer look at the Hindu religious significance.
Walk along the ghats
The ghats in Varanasi are incredibly interesting to stroll around and explore. They are riverfront steps that lead to the banks of the Ganges River. There are around 88 ghats in the city, most divided into bathing ghats while others oversee puja or ceremonies. Some ghats are also exclusively used as cremation sites.
One of the most popular among all is the Dashashwamedh Ghat which has a euphoric ambiance. It is a huge tourist attraction, swamped with flower vendors, boat operators, sadhus, and pilgrims. This ghat serves as a prime location for most of the festivals celebrated in Varanasi. The enchanting Dashashwamedh Ghat is associated with famous Hindu mythologies. One of them narrates that the ghat was created by Lord Brahma in order to welcome Lord Shiva. Another tale suggests that Lord Brahma sacrificed ten horses during Yajna which is any ritual in Hinduism performed in front of the fire. The Ganga Aarti takes place at this ghat in the evening and proves to be an extravagant sight.
The Assi Ghat, although less crowded, is an equally prominent ghat at the southernmost end. Its main attraction remains a Shiva Lingam which is found under a fig tree and attracts hundreds of pilgrims looking to worship Lord Shiva. In contrast, funeral rituals are seen in Manikarnika Ghat. It is believed to be an auspicious place where the departed can attain moksha.
Witness the magnificent Ganga Aarti
The evening Aarti ceremony is one of the most grandiose events, a sight cherished undoubtedly for the longest time. The aarti ceremony is best seen from the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the main ghat in Varanasi. This spiritual gathering is a Hindu religious ritual that is performed to make offerings to deities.
The aarti makes use of brass lamps that are huge and weigh around 4.5 kgs. But as soon as these lamps are lit, they radiate spectacular images. Moreover, the chants, smell of incense and flowers make this ceremony authentic and memorable. Make sure to reach the ghat at least one hour early to witness the ultimate grandiosity of the evening aarti ceremony.
Take a dip at the Ganges River
The sacred water of the Ganges River is believed to purify a person and wash away the sins. It is known for offering spiritual charms and devotees chant to gratify and take the blessing of Goddesses Ganga.
No matter the age, pilgrims from all around the world bathe or take a dip at the river to relive their sins and attain moksha. Any of the ghats in Varanasi can be easily accessed and used for taking a bath or a dip in the Ganges River.
Visit the temples of Varanasi
Along with the ghats, the temples of Varanasi hold the city’s history and culture. There are temples found on every corner of the street. Each temple is known for its religious significance and Hindu mythologies.
The most notable and sacred temple is the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, lying on the western banks of the Ganges River. This impressive structure has three domes plated with around 800 kgs of pure gold, giving it another name – the Golden Temple. The architecture of this temple has inspired several other temples around India.
Among the 12 Jyotirlingas or the holiest Shiva Temples around the globe, Kashi Vishwanath is among one them. Devotees wait in long queues to touch the sin absolving Jyotirlinga of Shiva at the silver alter.
Embark on a tour to Sarnath
Situated just a few kilometers away from Varanasi is the calm village of Sarnath. Although Varanasi is a hub for Hindu religious activities, Sarnath is a Buddhist center. It is regarded for its Buddhist monuments and considered to be holy as Gautama Buddha first preached the Dharma after his enlightenment.
Sarnath also has various pillars erected by Emperor Ashoka to spread Buddhism. The stupas teach about Indian history, the development of Buddhism as a religion, and various other relics. The massive Dhamek Stupa is a well-known Stupa built more than 100 years ago. The stupa has elegant carvings all over its walls, displaying flowers, birds, and people. Other attractions in Sarnath include the Lion Capital of Ashoka, Chaukhandi Stupa, and the Tibetan Temple.
Visit the Ramnagar fort
Built by Raja Balwant Singh in 1750, the Ramnagar Fort lies on the eastern bank of the River Ganges, opposite the Tulsi Ghat. It is constructed using pure sandstones, containing balconies, pavilions, beautiful courtyards and mirrors the Mughal architecture.
This sandstone fort and palace was previously used as a defensive structure but today houses a unique museum. Items found in the museum include vintage automobiles, antique weapons, an astronomical clock believed to be more than 100 years old, ivory works, an impressive armory hall, and much more. The fort also has a temple that honors various Hindu epics.
Look for the weaver’s village
Weavers of Varanasi are noted for creating beautiful works and masterpieces. The Sarai Mohana village in the city is known for silk weaving as the villagers have inherited this skill from their ancestors.
The famous Varanasi sarees are intricately crafted by the villagers of Sarai Mohana. The Banarsi or Varanasi sarees are one of the finest, decked in gold and silver embroidery work and worn mostly by Indian brides. One can visit the Sarai Mohana village to learn more about the weavers and their craftsmanship.
Shop from local markets
The local shops and markets of Varanasi are known to sell clothes, accessories, handicrafts, sculptures, and much more. The Thateri Bazaar is a famous spot, popular for its religious artifacts, antiques, silk and wooden products as well as home décor items.
The Vishwanath Lane displays various items such as bangles, sarees, fabrics, and carefully crafted wooden toys. Other places to shop in Varanasi are Golghar, Dal Mandi Market, Rajan silk market, and Vishwanath Galli.
Relish on street food
Finally, a trip to Varanasi is truly incomplete without having a taste of the street or local food of the city. The endless variety of street food includes crispy kachoris, aloo puri, kachori sabzi, and baati chokha.
For snacking, gol gappe and choora maatar are available in various areas while Nimish is offered as a dessert in the winter season. The most recommended place to try out lassi in Varanasi is Blue Lassi Café which offers various flavors.
The beautiful city of Varanasi has become a fine tourist destination in India. As the city has a lot to offer, make sure to include the above-listed experiences in your itinerary when you visit Varanasi the next time.
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