Varanasi, or Benaras, (also known as Kashi) is one of the oldest living cities in the world. Varanasi`s prominence in Hindu mythology is virtually unrevealed. Mark Twain, the English author, who was enthralled by the legend and sanctity of Benaras, once wrote: "Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together".
According to the ‘Vamana Purana’, the Varuna and the Assi rivers originated from the body of the primordial Person at the beginning of time itself. The tract of land lying between them is believed to be ‘Varanasi’, the holiest of all pilgrimages. The word ‘Kashi’ originated from the word ‘Kas’ which means to shine. Steeped in tradition and mythological legacy, Kashi is the ‘original ground ‘created by Shiva and Parvati, upon which they stood at the beginning of time.
Varanasi is the microcosm of Hinduism, a city of traditional classical culture, glorified by myth and legend and sanctified by religion; it has always attracted a large number of pilgrims and worshippers from time immemorial. To be in Varanasi is an experience in itself an experience in self–discover an eternal oneness of the body and soul.
To every visitor; Varanasi offers a breathtaking experience. The rays of the dawn shimmering across the Ganges, the high-banks, the temples and shrines along the banks bathed in a golden hue soul stirring hymns and mantras alongwith the fragrance of incense filling the air and the refreshing dip in the holy waters gently splashing at the Ghats.
Varanasi – the land where experience and discovery reach the ultimate bliss. Varanasi is also renowned for its rich tapestry of music, arts, crafts and education. Some of the world renowned exponents India has produced in these fields were schooled in Varanasi’s cultural ethos. Luminaries apart, Varanasi abounds in the art of silk weaving, an exotic work of art which manifests itself in precious Banarasi Silk Sarees and Silk brocades which are cherished as collector’s items across the world today.
Places to visit
Being the oldest city of the world and an important Hindu pilgrimage center, Varanasi attracts a large number of people from all over the world. For centuries, Varanasi has been famous for spiritualism, mysticism, Indian philosophy and Hinduism. All these are reflected in numerous sects, temples, Ashrams and Ghats. Varanasi is associated not only with Hinduism but also with Buddhism and Jainism. Besides numerous temples, Varanasi also boasts of Buddhist Stupas and Jain temples. Varanasi is also a mirror of the age-old Indian civilization. The archaeological museum at Sarnath houses numerous remains of the past, including the National emblem of India, the Ashoka pillar.
Since Varanasi is mainly associated with Hinduism, temples form the main attraction. The Ganga Ghats (river fronts) are the main center of religious activities and rituals and also form one of the main attractions of Varanasi. The Alamgir Mosque, blend of the Hindu and Mughal styles of the architecture, is another important attraction of Varanasi. Some of the most important temples of Varanasi are Durga temple, Vishwanath temple, Sankat Mochan temple, Tulsi Manas temple and the Bharat Mata temple. The Bharat Mata Temple houses a huge relief map of the whole of Indian subcontinent and Tibetan plateau. Other attractions of Varanasi are the Benaras Hindu University (BHU), the Archaeological Museum, Sarnath, Bharat Kala Bhavan and the Buddhist Stupas and temples at Sarnath.
Varanasi is the most popular pilgrimage place for the Hindus. The rich cultural heritage and tradition of Varanasi makes it the cultural capital of India. For ages, Varanasi has been a center of learning of Indian philosophy, spiritualism, mysticism and other branches of education. Varanasi is essentially a melting pot of Indian culture. In Hindu religion, it is believed that one, who dies and is cremated at Varanasi, gets an instant gateway to liberation from the cycle of births and re-births. Being associated with Hindu traditions and religion, Varanasi is home to numerous temples, muths and Ashrams.
By virtue of its religious and cultural importance, Varanasi is abuzz with fairs and festivals all round the year. Almost every month, some important festival is celebrated in Varanasi. Besides festivals and holidays, many "Melas" or fairs are also held at Varanasi. At Varanasi, fairs and festivals are celebrated with traditional gaiety and fervor and are symbolic of celebration of life at its best. The festive atmosphere never seems to end in Varanasi. It's not important to make an itinerary according to the dates and months as one can come and enjoy the festive season of Varanasi anytime of the year!
Varanasi or Kashi is older than tradition. Varanasi presents a unique combination of physical, metaphysical and supernatural elements. According to the Hindu mythology, Varanasi liberates the soul from human body to the ultimate. It is the Ganga Ghats of Varanasi that complement the concept of divinity. Ghats of Ganga are perhaps the holiest spots of Varanasi. The Ganga Ghats at Varanasi are full of pilgrims who flock to the place to take a dip in the holy Ganges, which is believed to absolve one from all sins.
There are number of temples on the bank of the Ganga river in Varanasi. It is believed that people are cleansed physically, mentally and spiritually at Ganga Ghats. It is at the Ganga Ghats where we see life and death together. For thousands of years people have been thronging these Ghats to offer their morning prayers to the rising sun. There are more than 100 ghats along side Ganga in Varanasi. Some of the prominent and popular Ghats at Varanasi are the Dasaswamedh Ghat, Manikarnika Ghat, Harischandra Ghat, Kabir Ghat and Assi Ghat.
Silk weaving is perhaps the most popular art of Varanasi and Banarasi silk sarees form an indispensable part of an Indian bride's trousseau. The world-famous gold and silver brocades and richly worked saris are known to have passed on from generations to generations much like family jewels without loosing their charm. Besides Banarasi saris and brocades, you may look for wonderful pieces of brassware, copperware, wooden and clay toys and antique designs of heavy gold jewellery in Varanasi.
Other shopping attractions of Varanasi include the hand-knotted carpets of Mirzapur, musical instruments, the 'khatta-meetha' (sweet 'n' sour) 'Langda Aam', a popular variety of mangoes available during summer season and the famous betel leaf that is considered a specialty of the place. Benarasi people can be seen chewing betel leaves as a part of their cultural upbringing and they even welcome their guests by offering them the famous betel leaves.
The shopping hotspots in Varanasi are Chowk, Gyan Vapi, Vishwanath Gali, Thatheri Bazar, Lahurabir, Godoulia or Dashswamedh Gali and Golghar. Besides the illustrious and fine silks and brocaded fabrics, one can also buy shawls, carpets, wall hangings, Zari work; stone inlay work, glass beads and bangles, masks of Hindu and Buddhist deities and lampshades. However, one has to be on watch while buying silk saris and beware of the imitations that are much cheaper than the real silk ones but are not so easy to distinguish.
One can also buy 'kamandalam' or brass water pot from Varanasi, which is often used by saints to carry water. People buy bottled 'Ganga jal' or jerrycans from the riverbank too for religious purposes or to be used as Holy Water in various rituals. Besides, people can also take water of Ganges themselves from the river.
Art & Culture
The art and culture of Varanasi is unique. It is the rich cultural tradition of Varanasi that makes it the cultural capital of India. A combination of archaeology, mythology, geography, art and history makes Varanasi a great center of Indian culture. Though Varanasi is associated mainly with Hinduism and Buddhism but one can find glimpses of many religious beliefs, types of worship and religious institutions at Varanasi. It is amazing to see the primitive worship cults being practiced at Varanasi.
Varanasi presents a complete museum of Indian art and culture. At Varanasi one can feel the changing patterns and movements in course of history. It has a rich and unique style of art forms and folk art. For centuries, Varanasi has produced master craftsmen and earned name and fame for its beautiful Sarees, handicrafts, textiles, toys, ornaments, metal work, clay and woodwork and other crafts.
Since ancient times, Varanasi has been the Capital of all knowledge (sarva Vidya ki Rajdhani). Varanasi has produced numerous famous scholars and intellectuals, who have left their mark in respective fields of activity. Varanasi is home to numerous universities, colleges, schools, Madarsas and Pathshalas and the Guru Shishya tradition still continue in many institutions. The literary tradition of languages, dialects, newspapers, magazines and libraries continue even today.
Varanasi presents a unique social and cultural fabric. Cultural and linguist pluralism and various ethnic groups are so very eternal to the holy city, Varanasi. At Varanasi one gets to explore the city of affluence, intellectuals, oral traditions, castes and customs, personalities, professions and communal harmony. There is another interesting facet to Varanasi, where one gets to enjoy Benarasi pans, Thandai, Gamcha, Bahri Alang and Mauj Masti.
Music, drama and entertainment are all synonymous with Varanasi. Benaras has long been famous for its music, both vocal and instrumental and has its own dance traditions. Add to this, Varanasi has a very rich stock of folk music and drama (esp. Ramlila), fairs and festival and the rich tradition of akharas, games and sports. All these combine together to give a distinct look to the city of moksha, Varanasi.
Shree Kashi Vishwanath Temple and Gyanvapi Mosque:
Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the temple has earned the name of Golden Temple due to the gold plating done using one ton of gold donated by Maharaja Ranjit Singh on its 15.5-m high spire. Invaders destroyed the original temple and Rani Ahilyabai of Indore rebuilt it only in in 1776. Again, the fanatic Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb destroyed the Vishvanath temple to replace it with the Gaynvapi Mosque. However, one can still see the remnants of the temple in the intricate and fine artwork of the western wall of the mosque. Today, the Kashi Vishwanath Temple and the Gyanvapi mosque lie adjacent to each other.
St. Mary's Church:
Situated in the cantonment area of Varanasi, the architectural peculiarity that distinguishes St. Mary's Church from others are its louvered doors and hooded ventilation. It has a low tower, spire and projecting portico. The church looks beautiful with its plain timber canopy protecting the rectangular fanlight above each doorway and also impresses a major architectural impact.
The 8th century Durga temple is built in Nagara Style and is one of the most important temples of the city. The 'shikhara' of the temple consists of several small spires layered one on top of the other.
Bharat Mata Temple:
Dedicated to Mother India, it is situated in Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth. It was built by Babu Shiv Prasad Gupt and inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi in 1936. The statue marble of Mother India shows undivided India with mountains, plains and oceans in exact proportions.
Tulsi Manas Temple:
Dedicated to Lord Rama, this temple is said to be built on the site where Goswami Tulsidas wrote the epic 'Ramacharitramanas'. It was built in 1964 by a philanthropist family.
Built in Nepali style by the King of Nepal on Lalita Ghat, it is also known as the Kathwala temple because of the magnificent woodwork. Tourist attraction for visitors from all over the world, it is said to be incomparable to any other temple in India. It is said that the workers and the wood was imported from Nepal to build this temple and the its specialty is that termites do not eat the wood used to construct it.