Things You Must Do When Visiting Varanasi.

We’ve written many general articles about the holy city Varanasi and the life along the Ganges river. But people keep asking us what our personal Varanasi highlights are, therefore, we’d now like to share our 7 must do’s when visiting this great city (we left out typical sights like the famous Kashi Vishwanath Temple because we like going off the beaten path):

Must Do In Varanasi: A Boat Ride Along The Ganges River.

A boat ride along the Ganges river is one of the absolute musts when visiting Varanasi. You have to negotiate the price a little bit because boats are in high demand and many tourists spoil the rates.
Start upriver; this means you walk upstream as far as the University complex and negotiate a boat ride from there. Don’t mind any dead body floating by … this is nothing special in Varanasi, since lots of Hindus come here for their last days to die along the holy Ganges river.

boat-ride-ganges-river-varanasi-indiaA boat ride along the Ganges river is essential for a real Varanasi experience.

boats-ganges-varanasi-india-1Hindus believe that they have three mothers: the mother who has given them birth, Mother India and Mother Ganga. Therefore, a ride along this majestic river is an absolute must when visiting Varanasi.

Must Do In Varanasi: The Area Around Malviya Bridge.

Now you’ve already seen the Varanasi skyline from a boat view, but to be near the action, a stroll along the Ganges downstream all the way to Malviya Bridge is a great experience.
The bridge is a double decker bridge, that carries rail track on lower deck and road on the upper deck. It’s interesting to watch all the different vehicles & trains cross and see the people living underneath the bridge and its corners, where they are protected from sun and rain. Malviya Bridge is the “end” of the inner holy area of Varanasi. This means if one dies in this inner circle, he will reach eternity immediately and this is also the reason why lots of “homeless” people call this bridge their home.
Walk across it and start strolling back in the direction of the city. It’s an impressive sight to see trains cross and hear the honking of the cars as you stand on the riverbank. Eventually a boatman will come along and row you back…

malviya-bridge-varanasi-india-ulli-maierMalviya Bridge in Varanasi, which was inaugurated in 1887 (originally called The Dufferin Bridge), is a double decker bridge over the Ganges river. It carries rail track on lower deck and road on the upper deck.

Must Do In Varanasi: A stroll Along The Ghats.

Every Ghat has its own meaning and use. Some Ghats are “reserved” for washing clothes and doing laundry. For example Assi Ghat is a prominent bathing Ghat, while others are dedicated to worshipping, and some are for cremation like Manikarnika Ghat, downstream from the Dashashwamedh (main) Ghat. Bathing near Tulsi Ghat is believed to get rid of leprosy. So as you can see, there’s not only lots to see, but also lots to learn about each Ghat along the Ganges river.

drying-cloths-ghats-ganges-river-varanasi-indiaTaking a stroll along the Ghats in Varanasi is a must for every visitor.

kids-jumping-into-ganges-ghats-varanasi-indiaKids jumping into the Ganges river while walking along the Ghats in Varanasi.

varanasi-skyline-ghats-ganges-indiaThe skyline of Varanasi is one you will never forget.

Must Do In Varanasi: Varanasi From Above.

There are many hotels with roof terraces – either with a restaurant, or a private balcony adjoining the room. We suggest to have lunch at one of these places to see Varanasi from above. Good places are: Alka Hotel, Ganpati guest house and Temple Hotel – especially for views of the (burning) ghats. Alka hotel and Ganpati guest house are good options for your entire stay in Varanasi.
Again, you’ll most probably see the occasional body floating by, which is about as normal as breakfast, lunch and dinner.

view-alka-hotel-varanasi-india-featuredThe water of the Ganges river is holy and many visitors bring is back home in carafes.

ghats-from-above-varanasi-india

Must Do In Varanasi: Exploring The Winding Side Streets.

The old town is dotted with small alleys, so just leave the main road, turn left or right and you will come to see some unusual places. Don’t worry about getting lost, because sooner or later you’ll end up either in front of the river or on a main street. A compass is a good choice not to lose direction.
Out intention was to find the place where the bodies arrive in the city. We asked our way through some stores, until one guy finally told us that we should stroll around the area near town hall. We sat down in a hardware store at the corner and the owner was very keen to explain all the things surrounding a body’s arrival…

street-scene-varanasi-indiaThe old city of Varanasi extends about two kilometres back from the river and is a maze of alleyways and streets.

side-street-varanasi-indiaThere is something new and colourful to explore around every corner in Varanasi.

Must Do In Varanasi: Experiencing Varanasi During A Festival.

Hundreds, or better thousands of people all dressed in orange hurdled in every little street corner during festivals in Varanasi. The police forces are relentless, worshippers have to line up and obey all the rules that are enforced on such festival occasions. Police will not hesitate to use their bamboo sticks to keep things in order. It’s a security measurement to keep such big hordes under control. Try to get somewhere on top so that you can watch the crowds from above.

krishna-festival-varanasi-india-0

Must Do In Varanasi: Getting A Haircut of beard Trim At A Local Barber.

If you’re travelling through India, you’ll notice that the hairdressers you’ll pass along the streets are barbers for men only. Lady hairdressers are mostly hidden behind closed doors or curtains. If you insist enough though, even a local barber will give you a nice wash and blow dry … and if you’re really lucky (and you’re up for it) even a haircut. Don’t worry, hair grows again… after all, no risk, no fun. Plus it’s quite relaxing when you’re out all day in a crowded city like Varanasi.

barber-ghats-varanasi-indiaA typical barber shop along the Ghats in Varanasi.

Must Do In Varanasi: Kashi Vishwanath Temple

Kashi Vishwanath Temple is one of the most famous Hindu temples and is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The temple stands on the western bank of the holy river Ganga, and is one of the twelve Jyotirlingas, the holiest of Shiva temples. The main deity is known by the name Vishvanatha or Vishweshwara meaning Ruler of The Universe. The Varanasi city is also called Kashi, and hence the temple is popularly called Kashi Vishwanath Temple.

The Temple has been referred to in Hindu Scriptures for a very long time and as a central part of worship in the Shaiva philosophy. It has been destroyed and re-constructed a number of times in the history. The last structure was demolished by Aurangzeb, the sixth Mughal emperor who constructed the Gyanvapi Mosque on its site. The current structure was built on an adjacent site by the Maratha monarch, Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore in 1780.

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First Impression of Banaras

Banaras or Kashi is every traveller’s dream. One of the oldest inhabited cities of the world where a river is revered to the extent that many seek death at its banks, where Shiva is ubiquitous and where Hindus and Muslims live in perfect harmony, each religion colouring the city in its unique grandeur.

It was my first visit to the city. There were food trails done, bazaars were thronged, temples were visited, the quintessential boat ride was done and the grand Ganga Aarti was witnessed.

Here is my initial experiences in this Holy City.

Gallis and Chaos

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The narrow lanes near Thateri Galli

One word that describes my first encounter with a Banarasi market: Chaos

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Gowdolia Chowk

Honking. Two wheelers almost killing you. If you survive, you battle with the rickshaws. Bravo! You’re alive. Almost. But not before the din wrecks your ears.  Standing in the epicentre of all the action, I gape at the ruthless two wheelers barging in and out of narrow gallis. In the background a calm ensues. At every nook, a paan Waala’s chunna stained fingers, dish out a Banarasi paan every minute. People savour their paan over conversations amidst all the din. Not too far away is piping, hot jalebi being made and kullad wali chai being served.

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Just like paan, even Lord shiva is ubiquitous. Found at almost every bend is a shiv ling or a Shiva Graffiti, proof of the fact that Kashi Vishwanath is indeed the ruler and protector of this holy city.

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Shiva on the walls. Shiva at every bend

Stand in the Chowk area and let the city wash itself upon you. A melange of incessant ringing of bells, the evening Azaan from the nearby mosque and bodies being carried to the cremation ghats. It’s a normal phenomena, treating death to be as routine a thing as sitting at the Chowk and drinking chai in a kullad.

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The markets are abuzz with activity, selling anything and everything from mouth freshers to jewellery to local itars.

Glimpses from the Bazaars and Gallis:

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The gallis are narrower than you can think and turn faster than you can imagine.

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There is no time to stand and stare as a two wheeler honks in your ears and you jump over piles of cow dung. Each galli looks just the same and unless you have a local with you, you will end up landing where you started.

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Do not forget to engage in a conversation with a Banarasi. Be it a policeman or a rickshaw wala, they absolutely love to talk and converse!

Ghats and activities

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So if you thought the ghats were only for poojas, Pandits, aghori sadhus and cremations, then you might consider rethinking. Ghats are buzzing activity grounds.

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Home to the Banaras cricket league, which has its own interesting set of rules. (Throw the ball in the water and you’re out). Masseurs give demos of their massages by shaking your hands and easing your muscles and if you’re game they make you lie down and give you a body massage( men only!)

A stroll on the ghats and one can witness the essence of the city.

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Boatmen almost chasing tourists for boat rides, locals washing clothes, teenagers playing cricket, men in huddled discussing politics, some playing chess.

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There are 87 ghats in Varanasi  (Named after kings and rulers ) and each has a unique story to it. Each has a distinct architecture and design.

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Bhonsale Ghat

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While witnessing these from the boat is a great option for photographers, people watching at the ghats can be a great option too.

Shimmering diyas and the evening Aarti

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It’s 6.45 pm and crowds have started to pour in. Everyone wants a good spot to see the famed Ganga Arti at the Dashashwamedh ghat. Boatmen will offer VIP seats in their chair seater boats. While local priests will not let you sit on their wooden panels unless you pay 25rs per person. Young girls hover in and out of crowds selling diyas and flowers to devotees to float in the Ganga as an offering.

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7 priests dressed in finery walk up to the Arti spot and take their positions. At the sound of conches, the Ganga Aarti commences, as all these priests worship the revered river.

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The priests in unison.

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With shimmering lamps, conches, flowers, peacock feathers, and smoke blowing out of cauldrons.

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Drums, bells and the holy smoke leaves the hundreds of devotees in awe as they move in perfect unison. Completely in sync.

Devotees sit wherever there is space. Even boats are completely packed. After about an hour, there is complete silence. While majority of the crowds leave as soon as the Arti ends, a few walk down the steps of the ghats to float shimmering diyas nestled in flowers. I watch hundreds of these bobbling up and down, little bundles of prayers floating away, their destination unknown.

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The journey continues…..