Dubbed the City of Lights or Kashi, Varanasi is a holy town situated on the west bank of the River Ganga. Call it the land of Shiva or simply a historic city that has several mysteries concealed deep within; this holy city has a spiritual legacy that dates back to more than 3000 years. Varanasi has stayed an important pilgrimage centre in India and for those visiting from outside the country it reflects authentic India. Today, Varanasi is a busy hub, where all winding roads look similar, ghats are always crowded and the fragrance of incense and the smell of burnt firewood dissolve in the air. The aartis and the floating of earthern lamps over the water of Ganga in the evening is also an important element of the identity of Varanasi. Apart from this, the sacred city is also the reflection of different architecture, from the Kings of Bengal to the Maharajas of Rajasthan; all have contributed in making Varanasi an epitome of rich Indian culture and faith.
This post takes you on a journey of the holy city of Varanasi and suggests you some of the best places to see here:
Situated in the premises of Banaras Hindu University (BHU), New Vishwanath Temple is definitely a must visit in Varanasi. The temple was constructed by the famed Birla family and hence is also known as Birla Temple. In fact, it is a temple complex which consists of 7 temples. The Shiva temple is situated on the ground floor, whereas Durga temple and Lakshmi Narayan temple are located on the first floor. The architecture of the temple is inspired by the old Vishwanath Temple and the structure is made of white marbles. The walls of the temple are adorned with the text of Gita, which certainly catches the eyes of the visitors here.
This temple is famous for its exquisite architecture and wood work. It is believed that the temple was built by King of Nepal and thus, this shrine is also called Nepali Temple. It is situated in the Lalita Ghat and catches the attention of many visitors in Varanasi. The intricate wood carving is what attracts visitors the most; the temple reflects the refined taste for good architecture taste of the rulers of Nepal.
Kashi Vishwanath Temple is the most important place to see in Varanasi. The history of this sacred shrine can be traced back to 3500 years. The temple is one of the 12th Jyotirlingas, which are considered the holiest Shiva temples. The Linga is the presiding deity here and the temple is quadrangle, surrounded by temples of other gods. The temple once had a golden spire and domes; hence it was also called the Golden Temple.
This temple is yet another important shrine in Varanasi. Dedicated to Lord Rama, Tulsi Manas Temple is situated next to another famed shrine called Durga Temple. It is a white-marble temple that has its walls covered with the text from Tulsi Das written Ramcharitramanas. It is believed that the temple is located at a place where Tulsi Das wrote this famous Indian epic.
Also known as Durga Temple, Monkey Temple is yet another popular temple in Varanasi. The temple is dedicated to Goddess Durga but is recognized as a Monkey Temple, due to excessive population of monkeys around it. It is believed the presiding deity was not man-made but appeared on its own. The temple is built by a Bengali Maharani in a Nagara style of architecture. Non-Hindus are allowed to enter the courtyard of the shrine but not the inner sanctum.
This temple is one of its kinds as instead of being dedicated to any god or goddess, the temple is dedicated to Bharat Mata or India (assumed as Mother). The temple is situated in Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth Campus. Inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi in 1936, the temple was an inspiration for those who were fighting the war of independence. The statue in the shrine denotes mountain, plain and ocean and the major highlight of the temple is the relief map of India carved on a marble.
Alamgir mosque is famed for its exquisite architecture and enviable location. The mosque is situated on the edge of River Ganga and enjoys a picturesque scene. Said to be built by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb who is believed to have demolished the old Kashivishwanath Temple and constructed this mosque in its place; Alamgir mosque is a fine piece of architecture. The mosque is also known as Gyanvapi mosque due to the well of the same name situated close to it. One can notice the influence of North Indian or Hindu architecture in this mosque; however most of the mosque is done in Islam architecture.
Reckoned to be the oldest ghat in Varanasi, Dasaswamendha Ghat is where all the action takes place. The ghat is situated near the Vishwanath temple and is famous for its evening aarti. Often crowded with sadhus, sanayasis, beggars and devotees, this ghat is an important landmark of Varanasi city. During the evening aarti, devotees leave earthern lamps in the water to float creating a beautiful scene which is unmatched.
This sacred ghat is situated on the confluence of the River Ganga and Assi. The devotees bathe here prior to paying homage to a huge Shivalingam placed under a tree in close proximity to this ghat. The ghat is situated at the south of the city and therefore is less crowded. However, it doesn’t by any means indicate that the ghat holds any less importance than other ghats.
Manikarnika is the main cremation ghat and is also reckoned to be one of the oldest ghats in Varanasi. It is also known by the name of Burning Ghat as the dead bodies are burnt here regularly. According to Hindu mythology, Manikarnika Ghat is believed to be the place where the ornament worn by Sati on her ear fell down when Lord Shiva was carrying her to the Himalaya. It is a popular belief here that those who are cremated here get Moksha.
Manmandir Ghat is situated north of Dasaswamedha ghat in Varanasi. The ghat is reckoned to have been built in 1600s by Maharaja Man Singh. To the northern corner of the ghat is a fine stone balcony. There are a few famous temples such as Sthuladanta Vinayaka, Rameshwara and Someshwara temples located near this ghat.
Shivala Ghat is amongst the finest ghats in Varanasi that very well reflects the historic era. The ghat is famed for its Shiva Temple that was built in the 19th century by a Nepalese King called Sanjay Vikram Shah. The temple is known for its architectural grandeur and fine craftsmanship. The ghat is quite popular amidst the devotees who come here to take a dip in the holy water.
This ghat is named after the mythological character Raja Harishchandra, who once worked at this ghat. Now, this king is believed to be righteous and truthful and gods were pleased with his humble behavior and thus retrieved his lost kingdom and his dead son to him. Harishchandra Ghat is one of the two ghats used for cremation in Varanasi and it is reckoned that whoever is cremated here attains Moksha or Salvation.
This ghat is named after the great poet Tulsidas, who is believed to be the author of the Hindu epic Ramcharitramanas. It is believed Tulsidas sat on this ghat of the river and wrote a large part of Ramcharitramanas here. It is also reckoned that the first ever Ramlila (the story of Lord Rama’s life) was staged at this ghat. There is a big temple here that is dedicated to Lord Rama on this ghat. At Tulsi ghat many cultural activities also take place and the most popular one is the Krishnalila that takes place in the month of Kartika (Oct/Nov).
Situated within close proximity of Dasaswamedha ghat, Darbhanga ghat is used for performing the rites and rituals that are related to the demise of a loved one. The ghat has a grand building from where one can see the rituals being performed here.
Scindia ghat, which is also known as Shinde ghat in Varanasi, is famed for the large number of places of worship found here. The Shiva temple at the ghat is a major attraction due to its partial submergence in the water. According to Hindu mythology, this ghat is known as the place from where Agni (Fire) originated. Thus, it is revered as a holy place and many devotees like to visit here.
Ahilyabai ghat was earlier known as Kevalgiri ghat but in 1778, the famous Queen Ahilyabai Holkar ordered its renovation and converted it into a ghat that was made of concrete. The ghat is famous for the fact that it is believed to be the first ghat in Varanasi that has been named after a person. The best time of the day to visit here is in the morning hours, when the Hindu devotees throng the ghat to take a dip to get cleansed from their sin.
One of the most venerated ghats in Varanasi, Lalita Ghat is known for its wooden temple of Keshava. The temple was built by King of Nepal in typical Nepalese architecture. The carvings on the wall depict sceneries and often attract the art lovers. The ghat is dedicated to Lalita Devi who is reckoned to be the personification of Goddess Durga. Devotees who come to this ghat believe that bathing at this ghat will earn them blessing of the Goddess and prosperity will seep into their lives.
This ghat was constructed by Raja Rana Jagat Singh, who came to Varanasi as a pilgrim. There is a palace near the ghat, which is believed to be the place where the Maharaja stayed during his pilgrimage. The palace boasts of its rich Rajputana architecture and attracts lots of tourists.
Causatthi Ghat is known for its beautiful palace built by King Digbatiya of Champaran, Bihar. The ghat is also known as the shelter of famous Sanskrit scholar Madhusudan Sarasvati. There is temple complex at the ghat as well, where old images of Kali, folk goddesses, Shiva, Ganesha, and Kartikeya can be seen. On the 12th dark-half of Chaitra (March-April) many pilgrims pay a visit to the Yogini temple and take ritual baths at this ghat. Another occasion of attraction is Holi, on the eve of the festival devotees come to pay homage and perform rituals at the ghat.
Adjacent to the Vishwanathan Temple lays the ancient Gyan Vapi Well (Well of Wisdom). It is believed that the water of this well contains the linga from the original Vishwanath Temple, which was vandalized by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in the 17th century. The Gyan Vapi mosque was built by Aurangzeb in the place where this temple was situated.
To the south of the Vishwanath Temple is Benaras Hindu University, which was founded by Sanskrit scholar, Madan Mohan Malviya. Within the campus of the university is the famed Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum, which is renowned for its rich collection of Indian paintings. The paintings date back to between 11th century and 20th century and are about 12000 in number. The Mughal miniatures, the sculpture of marriage of Shiva and Parvati and the 11th century statue of Vishnu and the Gandhara sculpture are the major attractions here.
Ramnagar Fort is situated across the river beyond the Asi ghat. Built in the 17th century, this fort has been the home to royals of Varanasi for over 400 years. Although almost in ruins today, the palace still retains its charm. One can still witness the ornamented swords, photographs of tiger shoots and visits by the King and Queen of Belgium can be seen decorated on the wall. The Durbar Hall of the fort is converted into a museum, where several objects like palanquins and elephant howdahs are on display.
This ghat is reckoned to be the mythical meeting place of five sacred rivers. There are numerous images of the five river goddess, namely, Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Dhutpapa and Kirana. Many devotees throng this ghat in hopes of attaining blessings from these five goddesses. There are five idols presiding here and each is of black stone. From the ghat one can see the Alamgir Mosque, which is believed to have been constructed by Aurangzeb.
Sarnath is to Buddhists what Varanasi is to Hindus. This city was once the greatest learning centre in India and had also been visited by Chinese travellers Fa-Hien and Huien Tsang. The Deer Park is a major attraction in Sarnath; it is believed it is the place where Buddha visited in 528 BC to preach Dharmachakra or the Wheel of Law (his first major sermon after gaining enlightment). Deer Park is a complex now and the central monument here is Dhamekh Stupa, which is believed to be erected at place, where Buddha delivered his first sermon to five disciples. There is another stupa that catches the attention and it is called Dharmarajika Stupa (built by emperor Ashoka). The complex is dotted with small monasteries and temples. The Bodhi Tree is also planted here in the year 1931. In Sarnath, one can also visit the Archaeological Museum that displays a wonderful collection of Buddhist artifacts. The major attraction here is the Ashokan Lion Capital in polished sandstone.
The sacred location at the confluence of three rivers is what makes Allahabad a special place near Varanasi. The confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati River has offered Allahabad cultural and political importance for nearly 3000 years now. Allahabad, also known as Prayag, became a major centre of the Independence Movement. Today, Allahabad is a prosperous province and its tree-line avenues and the congested old city offers a commendable contrast. There are a number of places that catches the attention of visitors in Allahabad. Allahabad Fort built in 1583 has a famed Ashokan pillar that was brought from Kaushambi. The eastern side of the fort is famed for the ‘Undying Banyan Tree’ called Akshaivata. Khusro Bagh, Anand Bhavan (ancestral home of India’s premier political dynasty, the Nehru-Gandhi family), Allahabad Museum, All Saint’s Cathedrala and the Kumbh Mela are the major highlights of Allahabad.
Situated about 63kms from Allahabad, Kaushambi is a place that takes one back in history. According to local legends, the city was built by the Pandavas from Mahabharata. However, excavation revealed that Buddhist community flourished here between 600BC and 600AD. At Kaushambi, one can see paved brick road, small houses, ceramic drains, and the stump of an Ashokan Pillar (3rd century BC). The city is surrounded by green fields and has a river in the background. It is indeed an ideal place nearby that one can visit from Varanasi.
Located on the bank of Sarayu River, Ayodhya is reckoned to be the birthplace of Lord Rama. At Ayodhya, one can find a large number of temples that commemorate the birth of Rama. This sacred town remains inextricably linked to the legend of Rama and thus holds a lot of importance. After the Babri Masjid incident, a makeshift temple has been built, which attracts a large number of devotees especially on the full moon night of Kartik Purnima. Hanuman Garhi is yet another temple that is of utmost importance in Ayodhya. At a short distance from Ayodhya is a city called Faizabad, which is also known as the twin city. Here one has the opportunity to visit Jama Masjid, tomb of Bahu Begum (wife of Shuja-ud-Daula) and a rose garden.
Situated at a distance of about 290kms from Varanasi, Betla National Park is situated on the Chhota Nagpur Plateau in Jharkhand. Boasting of rich variety of flora and fauna, this national park was initially known as Palamau Wildlife Sanctuary. The park is dotted with bamboo and sal groves; towering mahua (local alcohol is prepared from the flowers of this tree) also covers a major part of the forest. Betla is home to elephants, leopards, tigers and several species of birds. There are many watch towers and hides that are meticulously deployed around the water holes for offering better opportunity to spot animals here. The park also has a two 16th century forts, few hot springs and tribal villages inside its premises.
The sacred most sites for Buddhists, Bodhgaya is situated about 255kms from Varanasi. It is reckoned to be the place where Buddha attained enlightment. The Mahabodhi Temple is the major attraction of Bodhgaya; this temple is recognized by its soaring pyramidal spire. In the temple, the image of Bodhi Tree can also be seen. The tree is believed to be the one under which Buddha meditated before attaining enlightment. In Bodhgaya, there are a number of temples and monasteries that are worth seeing; the Thai Temple, Japanese Temple, Bhutanese and Tibetan Monasteries are established here by devotees from China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Bhutan and Nepal. The Archaeological Museum in Bodhgaya is also worth seeing. The museum has beautiful 3rd century BC temple railings, bronze and stone images that dates back to 8th-12th century.
Nalanda was once reckoned to be the most prestigious centre of learning in India. Situated at a distance of 355kms from Varanasi, Nalanda in Bihar definitely deserves a visit. The Buddhist University established here in Nalanda is believed to had been established around 5th century AD and had 5000 students both domestic and foreign. There were over nine million manuscripts in its library. It is also believed that Buddha visited and stayed here in Nalanda quite often. Despite its vandalization by Turkish invader Bakhtiar Khalji, this university still conveys a distinct impression of the serene and disciplined life of contemplation and learning that once prevailed here. Nalanda’s temple; Votive Stupas (they have several images of standing Boddhisattavas and seated Buddha); Monk’s cells, monasteries and Dado panel from Temple 2 are the major attractions here.