The venerable and ancient city Varanasi is the religious center of the world for Hindus. It is one of the oldest living cities in the world. Varanasi was already old when Rome was founded. A magnificent city, with myriad attractions, both as an exalted place of pilgrimage and a microcosmic center of faith. Thousands of pilgrims visit the city from all parts of India and from across the world. A unique city where the past and present, eternity and continuity live side by side.
The city rises from the high northern bank on the outside curve of Ganga, the holiest of all Indian rivers, to form a magnificent panorama of buildings in many varieties of Indian architecture.
The unique relationship between the sacred river and the city is the essence of Varanasi -"the land of sacred light". The Ganga is believed to have flown from heaven to wash away the worldly sins of mankind. Thus, to be in Varanasi is an out of this world experience, an experience of self-discovery, a journey through the present and the past in search of immortality.
According to historians, the city was founded some ten centuries before the birth of Christ. Situated between the two tributaries of the Ganges - Varuna to the north and Asi to the south - it has attained immortality. The city is mentioned in holy scriptures like "Vamana Purana", Buddhist texts and in the epic "Mahabharata".
The life and activities in the city revolves around the holy river. Life on the banks of the Ganga begins before dawn when thousands of pilgrims - men, women and children, come down to the river to wait for the rising sun. Some come in groups, some alone, all absorbed in their intense thoughts of salvation, waiting for the moment when immersion in the sacred river will cleanse them of their mundane sufferings and wash their sins away. Gradually the sun rises, and the river mists slowly lift to reveal the magnificent buildings that have a solemnity unmatched by any city in the world. Soon after sunrise, the city's great amphitheater of ghats burst into activity. Under large umbrellas made of palm leaves the devotees take their places. In the charged holistic atmosphere of the morning venerable Brahmins (known as Pandas) recite passages from sacred texts, priests dispense holy ashes to pilgrims to mark their foreheads in veneration of the Gods.
Varanasi inspires one to reflect about life, to ponder about creation and the insignificance of temporal wealth in the face of death. Along the water's edge, there are the burning ghats. The most sacred one is Manikarnika, associated with the Goddess Parvati, Lord Shiva's wife. Every pious Hindu believes that to die in Kashi and to be cremated on banks of the Ganges is to attain release from the cycle of birth and death.
The major shrine is the Viswanath Temple, the abode of Lord Shiva - the most important of the trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara, the Lords of the universe. Around this temple evolved the spiritual identity of Varanasi and the inner city within the city - Kashi.
The city has always been associated with the inner lights - wisdom and philosophy. It was the ancient seat of learnings, the center for Sanskrit and philosophical studies. Banaras Hindu University carries on the tradition. The market lanes of Varanasi offer a unique experience. The crowded markets sell everything from objects to rituals, objects d'art, priceless Banarsi saris, jewellery, fragrant flowers and a whole assortment of foods. The evenings bring another charm in the city. From a boat or from the riverside the city looks mysterious. The skyline stands tall and silent, dotted with temple spires, terrace buildings and scattered lights.
Varanasi is not only the home of thousands of gods and goddesses; almost every day of the year is an occasion for celebration here. In fact, the city celebrates the very spirit of life, spiritual and temporal, in endless colors, smells and sounds.
ACCESS AND COMMUNICATION:
Air: The nearest airport is Babatpur, situated 22 km from the city. Varanasi is well connected with some important tourist centers, namely Delhi, Khajuraho, Agra, Kathmandu (Nepal), Lucknow and Mumbai by Indian Airlines and other private airlines as well. For travel reservations, contact:
Indian Airlines, 52 Yadunath Marg, Varanasi Cantt. City Office Tel: (0542) 45959; Airport Office Tel: (0542) 43742, 46272.
Sahara Airlines, City Office: Varanasi. Tel: (0542) 43094, 342355
U.P. Airways, City Office: Varanasi. Tel: (0542) 343124
Airport Transfers: Transfer to/from the airport is offered by Airport City Bus Service twice daily to the city office via Government of India Tourist Office. The ITDC also provides air-conditioned cars and coaches.
Rail: Varanasi is a focal point for the Northern and North Eastern Railways and is connected to all major cities and towns in India, such as Delhi, Agra, Lucknow, Patna, Calcutta, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Tirupati, Cochin, Jammu and Chennai.
Varanasi Cantt. Railway Station is located in the heart of the city. For Enquiry, Tel: 1331. For Reservations, Tel: (0542) 348031, 348231. The station has facilities such as left-luggage, post office, bank and phone booths for making national as well as international telephone calls.
Road: Varanasi is situated at the junction of three national highways - NH 2 from Calcutta to Delhi; NH 7 - to Kanyakumari and NH 29 to Gorakhpur. Some important distances are: Agra: 606 km; Allahabad: 125 km; Lucknow: 320 km; Patna: 210 km; Bodhgaya: 234 km; Kanpur: 320 km; Khajuraho: 406 km; Lumbini (Nepal): 386 km; Delhi: 765 km and Calcutta: 677 km. Sarnath is only 8 km ways.
Bus: The UPSRTC bus stand is on Sher Shah Suri Marg, Varanasi Cantt. Tel: (0542) 43476. No advance reservations are required. UPSRTC and MPSRTC connect Varanasi to important nearby centers. Private operators also ply buses to various destinations from opposite the Railway Station.
Non-metered auto-rickshaws are available. Prices are negotiable. On a hourly basis, cars and auto-rickshaws can be hired at fixed tariffs. Tempos run on fixed routes in the city. There are no yellow-top taxis available. Cycle-rick-shaws and horse-drawn tongas are popular modes of transport. The city bus service covers most areas in Varanasi and is inexpensive. An unusual and interesting way of viewing river-life in Varanasi is by boat, available from the Ghats.
The Kashi-Vishwanath Temple: Situated 3.8 km from the railway station, near the ghats, is the most sacred of the shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva, the patron deity of Varanasi. (Originally constructed by Rani Ahillya Bai Holkar in 1776, it was reconstructed in the 18th century and its gold plating on the 'shikharas' was a gift of the one-eyed Sikh King, Maharaja Ranjit Singh). It is also popularly known as the Golden Temple.
The River Front: Located 38 km from the airport, is one of the most fascinating aspects of life in Varanasi. The Ghats are used in the morning for ablutions and salutation to the Sun.
Bharat Mata Mandir: Inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi, is a unique temple dedicated to Mother India. It houses a relief map of India carved out of marble.
Alamgir Mosque: Popularly known as Beni Madhav Ka Darera, was originally a Vishnu temple, and is now a mix of Hindu and Mughal styles of architecture.
Gyanvapi Mosque: 4.8 km from the railway station, this Mosque was constructed by Emperor Aurangzeb on the ruins of an ancient temple. Rare specimens of ancient temple art are still evident in the foundation and at the rear of the mosque.
Banaras Hindu University: 10 Km from the railway station, this is probably the largest residential university in Asia, covering an area of approximately 2,000 acres, gifted by the former Maharaja of Varanasi who was a scholar of Sanskrit and Hindu philosophy. Being a center of Sanskrit, Indian art, culture and music, it attracts students, both from India and abroad. It also has an art gallery.
New Vishwanath Temple: Situated in the premises of the university, is a modern structure founded by the late Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, which has the whole Geeta engraved on its marble wall.
Durga Temple: 7 km from the railway station, this is one of the important temples dedicated to Goddess Durga. Constructed in the 18th century in the Nagara style of architecture, it has five shikharas or spires, which start from the bottom and converge on the top. It is locally known as the 'Monkey Temple' because of the large number of monkeys who inhabit the place.
Tulsi Manas Mandir: 7 km from the railway station, constructed in 1964, this temple is devoted to Lord Rama. It is believed to be situated where the great Indian saint and poet, Tulsi Das, lived and wrote the epic "Ram Charit Manas". An exquisite structure of white marble, it has the text of Ram Charit Manas engraved on its walls.
Ramnagar Fort: 16 km from the railway station and situated across the Ganges, is the palace of the former Maharaja of Banaras. Of special interest here are the Durbar Hall (public audience room) and the Royal museum, which houses an antique collection of palanquins, elephant saddles, arms, costumes, etc. The festival of Dussehra is celebrated here and is an interesting spectacle.
Annapurna Temple: Annapura Temple is a temple devoted to the Goddess Annapurna - the Goddess of food. Situated near the Vishwanath temple, it houses a golden statue of the deity.
Kaal Bhairav: Situated in Visheswarganj, Bhairaon Nath, is a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. There are nine other Bhairav temples in the city. Some important ones include Chandi Bhairav, near Durga Temple; Batuk Bhairav, Kamachha and Rucha Bhairav, near Hanuman Ghat.
Nepali Temple: Situated on Lalita Ghat, was constructed by the late King of Nepal. Made of wood brought from Nepal, the walls have exquisite and lively carvings. Also known locally as 'mini Khajuraho'.
The Fort of Chunar: 39 kms away and situated in Mirzapur district is famous for its close association with the Afghan ruler Sher Shah Suri who dethroned Humayan in the 16th century.
Jaunpur: 58 kms, was once an important Muslim center where art and architecture found patronage. Today, it is known for its perfumes and incense.
Chandraprabha: 70 km, is a beautiful picnic spot with dense forests and the Rajdari and Deodari waterfalls.
Accommodation: Forest Rest House and Inspection Bungalow.
Tanda Falls: 88 km, is another scenic spot, with dense forests and a waterfall.
Wyndham Falls: 90 km, is a popular picnic spot, situated amid wild surroundings.
TOURS: Local sightseeing as well as excursion tours are operated by the ITDC (Ashok Travel & Tours), Hotel Varanasi Ashok, The Mall. Tel: (0542) 46020, 46030, 46032. Fax: (0542) 42141.
Taj Trade & Transport Company: (Hotel Taj Ganges) Cantt. Tel: (0542) 345100, also offers local tours.
Varanasi has been a center of handicrafts, specially silk weaving. Other attractions include brassware, ivoryware, gold jewellery, woodcraft, wall hangings and lamp shades, carpets, masks of various Hindu/Buddhist gods, goddesses and saints. The main shopping areas are Chowk, Godowlia, Vishwanath Lane and Thatheri bazar.
UPICA, Nadesar, Cantt.
UP Handlooms, Lahurabir and Bula Nala
Tantuja (Bengal Emporium), Dasaswamedh Road
Mahatex (Maharashtra Emporium) Godowlia
Gandhi Ashram, Godowlia, Bula Nela, Chowk and Sigra
MUSEUMS & ART GALLERIES:
Fort Museum: Ramnagar Fort. Tel: 332322. Timings: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed on Fridays.
Bharat Kala Bhawan, BHU, Lanka. Tel: 310045. Timings: 10.30 a.m. to 4.00 p.m. Closed on Sundays.
A.B.C. Art Gallery: Prabhu Astha, opposite Tulsi Manas Mandir. Tel: 310434. Exhibition of contemporary paintings. Timings: 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Buddha Poornima: in May, celebrates the birth of the Lord Buddha. A large fair is held at Sarnath and the relics of the founder of the religion are taken out in a procession. The relics are on public view only on this day.
Chetganj Nakkataiya: in November, is held to recount an episode of the Ram Charit Manas in which the younger brother of Lord Ram, Laxman, cut off the nose of the demoness, Surpanakha.
Naganathaiya: in November, celebrated on Tulsi Ghat, recounts the story of Lord Krishna in which he jumped into the river Yamuna, to conquer the serpent king, Kalia.
Bharat Milap: in October-November, celebrated at Nati Imli, a day after Dussehra. Recounts the return of Rama to Ayodhya after 14 years of exile, and his reunion with his brother, Bharat. The former Maharaja of Varanasi, seated on an elephant, also attends the annual event.
Panchkrosi Pilgrimage: held in January-February. Thousands of devotees participate in the pilgrimage - a trip around Kashi - as specified in the Puranas.
Rathyatra: held in June-July, to coincide with its famous counterpart held in Puri, Orissa. A large fair is organized where all take part in the celebrations.
Shivratri: held in February-March, is a day of worship of Lord Shiva, the patron deity of Varanasi. People keep fast and a fair is also organized.
Ganga Dussehra: celebrates the anniversary of the day the waters of the river Ganga reached Haridwar. It is observed as a day of fasting.