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The Holy City

  Ghats of Varanasi

Varanasi is one of the oldest living cities in the world. Many names have been given to Varanasi, though its recently revived official appellation is mentioned in the Mahabharata and in the Jataka tales of Buddhism.


Varanasi was founded by the god Shiva. The Pandavas, the heroes of the Hindu epic Mahabharata are also stated to have visited the city in search of Shiva to atone for their sins of fratricide and Brâhmanahatya that they had committed during the climactic Kurukshetra war. It is regarded as one of seven holy cities which can provide Moksha.The earliest known archaeological evidence suggests that settlement around Varanasi in the Ganga valley (the seat of Aryan religion and philosophy) began in the 11th or 12th century BC, placing it among the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities.These archaeological remains suggest that the Varanasi area was populated by Vedic people.However, the Atharvaveda (the oldest known text referencing the city), which dates to approximately the same period, suggests that the area was populated by indigenous tribes. It is possible that archaeological evidence of these previous inhabitants has yet to be discovered.

Varanasi was also home to Parshva, the 23rd Jain Tirthankara and the earliest Tirthankara accepted as a historical figure in the 8th century after Moksha. Varanasi grew as an important industrial centre, famous for its muslin and silk fabrics, perfumes, ivory works, and sculpture. During the time of Gautama Buddha (born circa 567 BC), Varanasi was the capital of the Kingdom of Kashi. Buddha is believed to have founded Buddhism here around 528 BC when he gave his first sermon, “Turning the Wheel of Law”, at nearby Sarnath.The celebrated Chinese traveler Xuanzang, who visited the city around 635 AD, attested that the city was a centre of religious and artistic activities, and that it extended for about 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) along the western bank of the Ganges. Hiuen Tsiang also visited Varanasi in the 7th century; he named it “Polonisse” and wrote that the city had some 30 temples with about 30 monks.The city’s religious importance continued to grow in the 8th century, when Adi Shankara established the worship of Shiva as an official sect of Varanasi.

  Priests doing Ganga Aarti in the evening

Places to see Varanasi’s “Old City”, the quarter near the banks of the Ganges, has crowded narrow winding lanes flanked by road-side shops and scores of Hindu temples. As atmospheric as it is confusing, Varanasi’s labyrinthine Old City has a rich culture, attracting many travelers and tourists. Varanasi include Jantar Mantar, Sarnath Museum, Bharat Kala Bhawan and RamnagarFort.

Jantar Mantar

  Jantar Mantar, Varanasi

The Jantar Mantar observatory (1737) is located above the ghats on the Ganges, much above the high water level in the Ganges next to the Manmandir Ghat, near to Dasaswamedh Ghat and adjoining the palace of Raja Jai Singh of Jaipur. Compared to the observatories at Jaipur and Delhi, it is less well equipped but has a unique equatorial sundial which is functional and allows measurements to be monitored and recorded by one person.

Ramnagar Fort

  Ramnagar Fort, Varanasi

The Ramnagar Fort located near the Ganges River on its eastern bank, opposite to the Tulsi Ghat, was built in the 18th century by Kashi Naresh Raja Balwant Singh with creamy chunar sandstone. It is in a typically Mughal style of architecture with carved balconies, open courtyards, and scenic pavilions. In addition, manuscripts, especially religious writings, are housed in the Saraswati Bhawan. Also included is a precious handwritten manuscript by Goswami Tulsidas. Many books illustrated in the Mughal miniature style, with beautifully designed covers are also part of the collections.Because of its scenic location on the banks of the Ganges, it is frequently used as an outdoor shooting location for films. The film titled Banaras is one of the popular movies shot here. However, only a part of the fort is open for public viewing as the rest of the area is the residence of the Kashi Naresh and his family. Ghats in Varanasi Ghats are embankments made in steps of stone slabs along the river bank where pilgrims perform ritual ablutions. Ghats in Varanasi are an integral compliment to the concept of divinity represented in physical, metaphysical and supernatural elements. All the ghats are locations on “the divine cosmic road”, indicative of “its manifest transcendental dimension”. Varanasi has at least 84 ghats. Steps in the ghats lead to the banks of River Ganges, including the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the Manikarnika Ghat, the Panchganga Ghat and the Harishchandra Ghat. Many ghats are associated with legends and several are now privately owned. Many of the ghats were built when the city was under Maratha control. Marathas, Shindes (Scindias), Holkars, Bhonsles, and Peshwas stand out as patrons of present-day Varanasi. Most of the ghats are bathing ghats,. Morning boat ride on the Ganges across the ghats is a popular visitor attraction.

The extensive stretches of ghats enhance the river front with a multitude of shrines, temples and palaces built “tier on tier above the water’s edge”. The Dashashwamedh Ghat is the main and probably the oldest ghat of Varansi located on the Ganges, close to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. It is believed that Brahma created it to welcome Shiva and sacrificed ten horses during the Dasa -Ashwamedha yajna performed here. Above the ghat and close to it, there are also temples dedicated to Sulatankesvara, Brahmesvara, Varahesvara, Abhaya Vinayaka, Ganga , and Bandi Devi which are part of important pilgrimage journeys. A group of priests perform “Agni Pooja” (Worship to Fire) daily in the evening at this ghat as a dedication to Shiva, Ganga, Surya (Sun), Agni (Fire), and the whole universe. Special aartis are held on Tuesdays and on religious festivals.

The Manikarnika Ghat is the Mahasmasana (meaning: “great cremation ground”) and is the primary site for Hindu cremation in the city. Adjoining the ghat, there are raised platforms that are used for death anniversary rituals. It is said that an ear-ring (Manikarnika) of Shiva or his wife Sati fell here. According to a myth related to the Tarakesvara Temple, a Shiva temple at the ghat, Shiva whispers the Taraka mantra (“Prayer of the crossing”) in the ear of the dead. Fourth-century Gupta period inscriptions mention this ghat. However, the current ghat as a permanent riverside embankment was built in 1302 and has been renovated at least three times.

Hindu temples in Varanasi

Among the estimated 23,000 temples in Varanasi, the most worshiped are: the Kashi Vishwanath Temple of Shiva; the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple; and the Durga Temple known for the band of monkeys that reside in the large trees nearby.

Kashi Vishwanath Temple

  (L-R) Tourist taking picture at Kareri lake; Tourist taking picture at Dharamkot

Kashi Vishwanath temple is the most important temple in Varanasi.Located on the outskirts of the Ganges, the Kashi Vishwanath Temple – dedicated to Varanasi’s presiding deity Shiva (Vishwanath – “Lord of the world”) – is an important Hindu temple and one of the 12 Jyotirlinga Shiva temples.It is believed that a single view of Vishwanath Jyotirlinga is worth more than that of other jyotirlingas. The temple has been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times. The Gyanvapi Mosque, which is adjacent to the temple, is the original site of the temple.The temple, as it exists now, also called Golden Temple,was built in 1780 by Queen Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore.

The two pinnacles of the temple are covered in gold, donated in 1839 by Ranjit Singh, the ruler of the Punjab and the remaining dome is also planned to be gold plated by the Ministry of Culture & Religious Affairs of Uttar Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple The Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple is one of the sacred temples of the Hindu god Hanuman situated by the Assi River, on the way to the Durga and New Vishwanath temples within the Banaras Hindu University campus.

The present temple structure was built in early 1900s by the educationist and freedom fighter, Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, the founder of Banaras Hindu University. It is believed the temple was built on the very spot where the medieval Hindu saint Tulsidas had a vision of Hanuman. Thousands flock to the temple on Tuesdays and Saturdays, weekdays associated with Hanuman.

  (L-R) The Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple; Durga Temple

Durga Mandir

There are two temples named “Durga” in Varanasi, Durga Mandir (built about 500 years ago), and Durga Kund (built in the 18th century). Thousands of Hindu devotees visit Durga Kund during Navratri to worship the goddess Durga. The temple, built in Nagara architectural style, has multitiered spires and is stained red with ochre, representing the red colour of Durga.

Annapurna Temple

While the Annapurna Temple, located close to the Kashi Vishwanath temple, is dedicated to Annapurna, the goddess of food,the Sankatha Temple close to the Sindhia Ghat is dedicated to Sankatha, the goddess of remedy. The Sankatha temple has a large sculpture of a lion and a nine temple cluster dedicated to the nine planets.

  (L-R) Annapurna Devi Mandir; Devotees worshipping in Kalabhairav Temple

Kalabhairav Temple

Kalabhairav Temple, an ancient temple located near the Head Post Office at Visheshar Ganj, is dedicated to Kala-Bhairava, the guardian (Kotwal) of Varanasi.The Mrithyunjay Mahadev Temple, dedicated to Shiva, is situated on the way to Daranagar to Kalbhairav temple.

Vishwanath Temple

The New Vishwanath Temple located in the campus of Banaras Hindu University is a modern temple which was planned by Pandit Malviya and built by the Birlas. The Tulsi Manas Temple, nearby the Durga Temple, is a modern temple dedicated to the god Rama.

Bharat Mata Temple

  The Bharat Mata temple

The Bharat Mata Temple, dedicated to the national personification of India, was inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi in 1936. It has relief maps of India carved in marble.


  Gyanvapi Mosque

In the order of their importance the mosques in Varanasi are the Gyanvapi Mosque, the Alamgiri Mosque, the Ganj-e-Shaheedan Mosque and the Chaukhamba Mosque which cater to the prayer needs of 25% of the Muslim population out of total population of about a 1 million.

Religious Festivals

On Mahashivaratri which is dedicated to Shiva – a procession of Shiva proceeds from the Mahamrityunjaya Temple to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Dhrupad Mela is a five-day musical festival devoted to dhrupad style held at Tulsi Ghat in February–March. The Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple celebrates Hanuman Jayanti (March–April), the birthday of Hanuman with great fervour. A special puja, aarti, and a public procession is organized. Starting in 1923, the temple organizes a five-day classical music and dance concert festival titled Sankat Mochan Sangeet Samaroh in this period, when iconic artists from all parts of India are invited to perform.

  The Ramleela performance

The Ramlila of Ramnagar is a dramatic enactment of Rama’s legend, as told in Ramacharitamanasa. The plays, sponsored by Kashi Naresh, are performed in Ramnagar every evening for 31 days.On the last day; the festivities reach a crescendo as Rama vanquishes the demon king Ravana.

Bharat Milap celebrates the meeting of Rama and his younger brother Bharata after the return of the former after 14 years of exile. Ganga Mahotsav is a five-day music festival organized by the Uttar Pradesh Tourism Department, held in November–December culminating a day before Kartik Poornima (Dev Deepawali). On Kartik Poornima also called the Ganges festival, the Ganges is venerated by arti offered by thousands of pilgrims who release lighted lamps to float in the river from the ghats.


Varanasi can surprise with a wide array of mouth-watering delicacies.Kachori Sabzi is the most popular breakfast food all around Varanasi. For breakfast, ditch the usual bread and omelette and dive into the culinary pleasure of having the rounded, fluffy Kachoris served with hot sabzi. Kachoris are basically puris stuffed lentils served with a flavourful gravy made of potatoes. The kachoris are fried right before your eyes and served hot. Tamatar Chat in Varanasi is pure delight. Made from tomatoes, potatoes mixed with the right amount of spices, hing (asafetida) and garnished with the right amount of sweet chutney, dhaniya leaves and dollop of desi ghee and you have a perfect dish. The Tamatar Chat of Kashi Chat Bhandar is said to be the best one. Chooda Matar is another of our favourite street foods in Varanasi. This is actually Poha with a Varanasi twist. Flattened rice is soaked in Desi Ghee and then stir-fried with fresh green peas and various spices. The dish is quite filling and it serves as a great evening snack. Malai toast is also unique to Varanasi. If you do not want to have Kachori sabzi for breakfast, then try the Malai Toast or Safed Makkhan toast. Here, thick local bread is toasted over a coal oven and then a generous amount of white butter or the regular yellow butter is applied on it, depending on your preference. You can also add sugar or a little salt and pepper to the toast. Another food is Baati Choka. Baati is a type of Indian bread and choka is a mixture of mashed potatoes, tomatoes, baked brinjals with various spices.

(For full stories read SAFARI INDIA)