An exalted pilgrimage centre and one whose place in Hindu mythology is unparalleled, Benaras (also spelt Banaras) in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh is a city quite like none other. Chaotic yet colourful, frenzied yet high spirited — eclectic city. Often referred to as the spiritual capital of India, Varanasi as the city is now called, is located at the point of the confluence of rivers Varuna and Asi which join the Ganga on the northern and southern borders of the city. Also called Kashi (the city of lights), this ancient city attracts hordes of pilgrims throughout the year who come to pay obeisance to the Ganges as well as the revered Kashi Vishwanath temple which is the soul of the city.
Come November and it is time for Varanasi to light up, quite literally, once again with the festivities of the Ganga Mahotsav and Dev Deepawali. The celebrations that are a spiritual and cultural extravaganza on the city’s 80-plus ghats are a spectacle to behold. With thousands of lamps lit on the ghats and floated onto the holy river, Dev Deepawali which is also known as the festival of the Gods offers a mystical sight that is nothing short of magical. And while here, there is a lot more that you can experience as the city offers engaging sights that span history, art, architecture and of course gastronomy.
Soak in the spiritual vibes
Varanasi is a city replete with temples, kunds (tanks or reservoirs), ghats and gallis (narrow streets). Take a walk along the bustling ghats where you can witness the atmospheric vibes as pilgrims and tourists jostle for space with saffron-clad sadhus, trinket sellers, fortune tellers and tea and snack vendors. Watching the day unfold here from dawn to dusk is indeed a fascinating experience. Some of the best ghats to witness this include the Dashashwamedh Ghat and the Assi Ghat.
An early morning boat ride on the Ganges just in time to catch the spectacular sunrise is another great idea to savour the ambience and the activity of the ghats. For a quintessential Varanasi experience, take a walk along the narrow alleys and labyrinth of streets that lead to the main temple. Here tiny shops sit cheek by jowl and these hole-in-the wall establishments vigorously sell everything right from holy beads, fresh flowers, vermilion to snacks and souvenirs. They even offer locker services for keeping your valuables safe as you visit the main temple.
If temple hopping is of your interest, there are several less-visited places like the Nepali temple crafted in the Pagoda style of architecture. Also called the Shri Samrajeswar Pashupatinath Mahadev Mandir, this 19th century temple has been constructed in wood, terracotta and stone and is the replica of the famous Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu. On Mir Ghat is the Vishalakshi Mata temple which is known to be a Shakti Peeth and considered highly auspicious.
Beyond temples, Varanasi offers a multitude of interesting places and the Man Singh observatory next to the Dashashwamedh Ghat is one of them. Built in the Mughal-Rajput architecture style, this 18th century masonry structure reflects the brilliance of the ancient Indian astronomers and houses several important instruments related to the study of heavenly bodies and the calculation of time.
The complex also houses the virtual experiential museum which traces the history, evolution and significance of Varanasi through several interactive displays. Varanasi is incidentally the birthplace of warrior queen Jhansi ki Rani Lakshmi Bai and the memorial dedicated to her near Assi Ghat forms for an engaging visit. There are displays all around the statue which capture the history of her illustrious life.
The city is also home to one of the most illustrious universities of the country — the Banaras Hindu University founded by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya. The sprawling campus is home to colleges and learning centres that teach everything right from fine arts to yoga and music to medicine. Do not miss the Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum inside the campus which houses one of the finest collections of miniature paintings. The Ramnagar Fort and museum offer glimpses of the glorious past of the kings of Benaras. Known to be the home of the Maharajas of Benaras, the complex also has a museum where you can view vintage cars, weapons, palanquins, antique furniture, clocks etc.
Art, architecture and food
With several heritage buildings, architecture in Benaras is something that you must watch out for. The narrow lanes that surround the ghats are home to many vintage structures that reflect the days of yesteryears. Keep an eye for colourful street art that has been creatively done, reflecting the cultural vibrance and ethos of the city. One of the lesser-known heritage structures is the Dalmia Bhavan that was built between 1835 and 1845 by the illustrious Goswami family of Serampore in West Bengal. An example of Indo-Saracenic architecture with neo-classical elements, this property currently owned by Kunal Dalmia, is slated to be converted to a luxury property in a few years. When in Varanasi, you must check out the delectable array of local food right from kachori sabzi, baati chokha, choora matar, dahi chutney golgappe to desserts like malaiyyo and rabri jalebi.
Do not miss the famed Banarasi paan and malai lassi as well.
If you are in a mood to explore beyond the city, head to Sarnath about 15km from Varanasi where Buddha delivered his first discourse after attaining enlightenment. The Dhamekh Stupa, Chaukhandi Stupa and the Sarnath Museum are a must visit while here. The Chunar fort about 40km from Varanasi built by Maharaja Vikramaditya who was the king of Ujjain, makes for a compelling visit.
Steeped in history and legends, the fort had been under the rule of several dynasties including the Mughals and then, the British. With a mix of Hindu and Islamic architectural elements, one can witness secret dungeons, prisons, wells, mandaps, a hanging place and graves in the fort complex. Also, in Chunar is the tomb of Iftikhar Khan, which is a great example of Mughal architecture. The Ghanta Ghar in Mirzapur town which is about an hour from Chunar is something you should not miss. This ornately carved clock tower stands out for its spectacular architecture and is known to be the place from where the IST (Indian Standard Time) is calculated. This is due to the fact that the 82.5°E longitude, which is the Standard Meridian of India, passes through Mirzapur.