Varanasi is a window into the soul of India. Situated by the banks of the river Ganga, this ancient city is nothing short of exhilarating. From its narrow lanes to the bazaars, the ghats and the evening crowds for the majestic Ganga aarti, the city can be a rollercoaster ride for the senses. Formerly known as Kashi, colloquially Banaras and officially Varanasi, this city is often deemed as the spiritual capital of India. This is where people come to attain moksha or salvation from their sins and to break the vicious circle of rebirth, thereby uniting with the divine. If you, on the other hand, are here for only 24 hours, here is what you should not miss:
Start before the crack of dawn
The sanctity of the Ganga is best experienced pre-dawn, before the crowds starts making their way to the holy river. Take a boat ride to witness the warmth of the rising sun, and allow the early morning breeze to do its magic.
Head out for some street-style breakfast
Nothing like a boat ride to give you an appetite. Time for breakfast! In Varanasi, the narrow lanes come to life early, with shops serving kadak chai and lip-smacking snacks like samosas and kachoris. The market leading up to the ghats has a number of shops selling breakfast plates with more or less similar options.
Varanasi is characterised by its temples and their stories. Do a temple trail, you will run out of time but not options. Shri Tilbhandeshwar Mahadev Mandir is one of the oldest. We also suggest striking up a conversation with some meditating sadhus (usually identifiable by their striking hair-do, ash-clad forehead and loose orange robes) and locals, as they often have engaging stories to share. Varanasi is also home to 19 historical sites, as identified by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and a very famous museum, Bharat Kala Bhavan, inside the Banaras Hindu University campus. The museum is an integral showcase of India’s art and culture over the centuries. You can also visit the Ramgarh Fort and Museum and travel back in time browsing their collection of ancient manuscripts.
Engage with art and culture
Apart from being the spiritual capital, the city has plenty to offer when it comes to artists and cultural capacity. The craft of Indian weavers can be traced back to the Mughal era. Varanasi has a very active community of weavers, who are famed for hand-crafting the famed Benarasi silk, generally used to make the six-yard wonder—a sari. These weavers can be found residing in villages on the outskirts of the city. However, you can view the weavers at work on traditional looms in Madanpura, Jaitpura and Mubarakpur, all within city limits. Apart from that, Varanasi also has several old-school rug-making areas. Bhadohi, a hub for handwoven rugs, is easily accessible, being just an hour’s drive from the main city. The craft of handwoven rugs was brought to Bhadohi in the 16th century by Iranian travellers and is a widely celebrated talent today.
After this, we suggest you get a wholesome lunch back in the market. Filled with multiple eateries in tiny nooks and corners, simplicity is what best describes the meals here. We also recommend a full serving of lassi from the Blue Lassi. They have a variety of flavours you can choose from. The locals here depend on lassi for beating the afternoon heat and for inducing the much-needed afternoon nap. And we suggest you follow their lead. If you are in the mood for adventure, try some bhaang on the side with the lassi.
Slow down time
Begin your evening by snacking on local chaat items. Post this, head to the ghats, and spend time on the descending steps leading to the river. There are 88 of them, the most famous ones being Manikarnika ghat—where Hindus perform the last rites of the deceased—and the Dashashwamedh ghat—where the Ganga aarti takes place. Before heading for the aarti, we suggest taking a stroll through the ghats to witness the continual cycle of life and death or to simply gaze into the vast expanses of the holy river. Often spotted at the ghats are devotees, sadhus, trinket vendors as well as yoga practitioners.
As soon as dusk approaches, make your way to the Dashashwamedh ghat to witness the Ganga aarti. It lasts for about 45 minutes and ends with countless diyas floating in the river, a sight to behold.
For dinner, our pick would be a rooftop cafe, with the pious city for a backdrop below. You will find many such cafes, take your pick according to your mood and enjoy your meal overlooking the city.