Benaras, the quintessential spiritual city of India, can be a shock to the first-time visitor. Crowded and noisy, slow traffic, beggars and vagabonds, meandering bulls and cows, overarching religiousness–you want to escape even before you have settled in. But then, it’s not easy to grab the essence of one of the world’s oldest living cities. As wrote Mark Twain in 1897, "Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together."
Hindu scriptures call the city Kashi, the abode of Lord Shiva. Located on the left bank of the Ganga, it has not just been a major centre of spirituality but also a cradle of learning, music and crafts. The city was raided several times by various conquering armies but always re-emerged recovered. Even the British, realising its significance, turned it into a state with Ramnagar as its headquarters. In 1949, it was incorporated into the state of Uttar Pradesh and gradually came to be known as Varanasi.
While some say even a lifetime is not enough to explore the city, there’s much that you can see and do in one day.
Pre-dawn to 8am
Benaras wakes up along its ghats with the first glimmer of light in the east. There are over 80 ghats, and it makes sense to start your day at one of these. The easiest way to get a feel of the river is to hire a boat and slowly cruise up the river, watching the ghats come alive. If possible, pre-book a boat with help from your hotel manager. Or, you can hire one at the ghats, and don’t forget to bargain. Make sure that you’re in the boat before sunrise.
The almost empty ghats are magically filled with a sea of people as the sun rises. To the locals, the holy river is like their personal pool, and the ghats their courtyard. They come to exercise or do yoga on the banks, take a bath in the river or offer their prayers before returning home. Then there are the constant stream of visitors who come to take a dip in the river, make flower offerings to the sun god and the river goddess before winding their way to the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple for the morning prayers. As boat-loads of camera-toting tourists cruise down the river, young children jump off high points on the ghats to be photographed and earn a few coins.
One of the striking features that you must take note of during the boat ride is the architectural layout of the old buildings overlooking the ghats. Although in various states of disrepair, they make for an arresting sight in the early morning light. Once upon a time, it was customary for royal families and wealthy people to build a gateway or a mansion by the river in Varanasi. Most of the modern ghats stretch are from the 18th century, and you’ll find that most had been built by a wealthy benefactor, who gave the ghats their name as well. Beyond the central Dashashwamedh Ghat, on the southern stretch (the river flows north in Benaras) lies Prayag Ghat, Ahilyabai Ghat (built by Queen Ahilybai of Indore), Darbhanga Palace and Ghat (built by the Darbhanga royal family of Bihar), Rana Mahal Ghat (built by a ruler of Udaipur), Chaushat Ghat (with temples dedicated to the 64 Yoginis), Mansarovar Ghat (built by Raja Man Singh of Jaipur) and Rajghat (built by the Marathi ruler Balaji Peshwa Rao, To the north of Dashashwamedh Ghat, lies Man Mandir Ghat (where Man Singh of Jaipur built an astronomical observatory), Mira Ghat (built by Rani Meerabai) and Lalita Ghat (named after a beautiful wooden temple built by a Newar family from the Kathmandu valley). The Becharaj Ghat has three Jain temples as it was built by the Jain community. On either end of the over 5km stretch of ghats, lies the two burning ghats: Manikarnika and Harishchandra. In between, there are innumerable ghats and temples, each with their own tale. There are ghats dedicated to poet Tulsidas and noted Hindi litterateur Munshi Premchand.
As the sun rises higher, it is time to draw an end to the cruise. But you can always break your journey at any of the ghats as all the alleys from the ghats lead back to the city. Remember to carry drinking water and some snacks for the boat ride. Washrooms are scarce and generally pathetic when available.
8am — 10am
If you are ending your ride at Dashashwamedh Ghat, then you will find yourself in one of the most crowded points of the city, Godhulia. Don’t be squeamish but dive into any of the local restaurants for a breakfast of hot spicy kachori and sweet jalebis. You can round it up with a plate of sweet rabri.
You can also visit the Kashi Viswanath Temple. The huge mosque built by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb is next door and is also worth a visit. On the way back to the riverfront, you can stop at the rows of stalls selling bangles, bric-a-bracs, chewing tobacco (zarda) and fragrant mouth fresheners.
It’s often forgotten that before the demise of Buddhism in India, Benaras was as important to Buddhists as it is today to the Hindus. Although no trace of this remains on the ghats, you get a sense of this when you head to Sarnath, about 10km from the city. One of the most visited Buddhist sites in India, Sarnath’s importance lies in its connection with the life of the Buddha Shakyamuni, and also because of its artistic traditions. After gaining enlightenment, Gautama Buddha arrived in Sarnath and delivered his first sermon to five disciples, an event immortalised as the First Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma. Later, the Mauryan emperor Ashoka built several stupas here, establishing the site as an important part of the Buddhist pilgrim trail. The gigantic Gupta-era Dhamekh Stupa marks the point where the first sermon was delivered. Other notable stupas include the Dharmrajika Stupa and the Chaukhandi Stupa. Do not miss the original Ashokan Pillar with an edict carved on it, near the site. The Mulagandhakuti Vihara Temple, built in 1931, contains a mural of the Buddha’s life depicted in frescoes by the Japanese artist Kosetsu Nosu.
Remember to carry drinking water and sun-protection gear. The sights are surrounded by beautiful landscaped gardens but there is no shade. You can break for lunch at the USTDC Tourist Bungalow at Sarnath.
You can head to your hotel for some rest before embarking on another round of the ghats or you can go for a quick tour of some of the other attractions of Benaras, such as the Benaras Hindu University, the Bharat Mata Temple inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi in 1936, where a relief map of India has replaced the statutory divine idol seen in temples or the Bhairav Nath Temple. Alternately, take a taxi across the river and visit the grand palace of Ramnagar, the erstwhile residence of the king of Benaras. Keep your visit to the Durga Temple near Assi Ghat for the last, and bring the day to an end by watching the evening arati at Assi Ghat at sundown.
As the sun sets, a round of prayers is offered to the river goddess, with flaming lamps and songs. People gather at the ghats to float tiny leaf platters (or paper ones) containing a burning wick-lamp and some flowers. You can watch the proceedings at several ghats, including at Dashashwamedha with its ostentatious display or at Assi. The latter is a personal favourite as you can break for tea and snacks at the Pizzeria Restaurant and watch the arati below. On the way back from the ghats, a halt at Godhulia or at Madanpura becomes necessary if you want to buy the renowned handwoven silk Banarasi saris.
Benaras is well accessed by air, rail and road. The nearest airport is at Babatpur, 22km away. Benaras has its own railway station, but it’s also well connected by rail through Mughalserai Railway Junction, about 20km away.
Where To Stay
There is no dearth of hotels to suit every pocket. The Uttar Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation runs the Rahi Tourist Bungalow (doubles from Rs1500; uptourism.gov.in/). Some of the top end hotels include Clarks Varanasi (clarkshotels.com), HHI Varanasi (hhihotels.com), Taj Nadesar Palace and The Gateway Hotel Ganges (gateway.tajhotels.com).
When To Go
November to March is the best time to visit Benaras. Winters are cold and expect foggy mornings. UP Tourism conducts the Ganga Mahotsav and Dev Deepavali festival, usually in November (Nov 14, 2016).