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Varanasi – India’s religious capital

"Varanasi is one of the most ancient cities of learning. This was a place where hundreds of enlightened beings lived at a time. In every street, you had an enlightened being to meet." - Sadhguru


The city of Varanasi is full of colours. Religious spirits run high and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pictures are everywhere. Well it is his own constituency.

The city is famous for its colourful Ganga ghats, chaotic but fascinating streets where people from all over the world visit for tourism, religious and personal reasons. Varanasi, also known as Kashi and Benaras continues to be one of Hinduism’s holy cities. Pilgrims come from all over the world to the ghats hoping to wash away the sins of their lifetime. The city also offers moksha to those who die here and hence Varanasi is considered an auspicious place to die.

The two ghats – Harishchandra and Manikarnika are the cremation ghats. According to Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva along with Parvati came to Kashi before Vishnu to grant him his wish. Vishnu dug a kund (well) on the bank of Ganga for the bath of the couple. When Lord Shiva was bathing a Mani (Jewel) from his earring fell into the kund, hence the name Manikarnika (Mani:Beads Karnam:Ear Angad: Ornament).

While the city has many colourful views, these two ghats are not for the faint-hearted. Cremations taken place in public throughout the day. Constant attention from the touts as you approach these ghats can be overwhelming. A number of bloggers and foreign tourists have written about the commercialisation of these ghats. Touts pose as volunteers and offer to explain the whole cremation process to you, they then ask you to pay for some wood to burn the body of someone who can’t afford it. By doing this, they get a small commissions from the wood seller. But don’t get put off by this, this is just one part of what the city offers.

Varanasi is full of history and stories from the Hindu mythology. And these are very patiently narrated to you by the “majhi” or the boatman during your ride on the Ganga River. It is the city of Tulsi Das. According to the mythology, Tulsidas came to Varanasi and recited the Ramcharitmanas to Shiva (Vishwanath) and Parvati at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.

The city has been getting a lot of attention ever since India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi became a Member of Parliament (MP) from Varanasi. A big improvement can be seen in general cleanliness of the ghats and the Ganga River. However, the streets are still very dirty and the pollution levels are definitely quite high. You see people spitting tobacco on the road, throwing litter out of their car and so on. There is not much the government can do on this, except for stringent fines on those who do this.

A must watch is the sunrise from the boat and the Ganga arti at Dashashwamedh Ghat. Hundreds of people gather every evening at 6PM to see the Ganga arti. The ghat has become more popular ever since PM Narendra Modi performed Ganga arti here.

The entire atmosphere is filled with religious mantras and there is a unique solace that you find here. All the boats are parked next to each other and tied to a rope so that they don’t get swayed away in the river. You can find young people jumping from one boat to the other selling tea in earthen pots and diyas for visitors to light and leave in Ganga river. There will always be touts looking to sell things to you, trying to offer their guided tour services but don’t get put off by that. It is always a playful exchange of words and they would never chase you if you tell them you are not interested.

Varanasi is also extremely popular for food. From Pehalwan Lassi to Keshav’s Paan, from Kheer Kadam sweets to Puri Sabzi and from hot milky chai to aam papad on the streets. It is also home to Kashi Vishwanath temple, where thousands of devotees come to offer prayers. Special mention to the police forces for maintaining law and order while devotees line up to visit the temple. It is not easy to get so many people follow a process, especially when they are so religiously driven.

While the city is best known for its temples and ghats, it is also home to the prestigious Banaras Hindu University (BHU) that has a beautiful sprawling campus over 1,300 acres of land.

The city has something for everyone. For me, it was a trip down the memory lane. A trip to witness the start of a beautiful journey for my parents – from their first house together to their local hangout places. That galiwaala pan ka dukaan, the local lassi shop, a mandir next door, those innumerable chais at Ganga ghat, an old movie theatre and so many more memories. It is here that they started their lives, it is here that I took my first steps and it is here that I saw them fall in love all over again.

In Mark Twains words, Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.

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