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Uttar Pradesh
Varanasi: The Eternal City

Varanasi or Kashi was already old when Rome was founded, a flourishing trading centre in 500 B.C when Buddha came to Sarnath to preach his first sermon. An ancient city, its sense of the archaic is alive; it holds a millennium of civilisation. The outer facade has changed, but the city and its voice are authentic.

The antiquity of Varanasi is veiled in immortal time. An `eternal' city, it abounds with a rich and vibrant past. Varanasi has been the religious capital of Hinduism since times immemorial. It is one of the foremost `tirthas' (place of pilgrimage).

Varanasi, as the legend goes was created by Shiva, the cosmic Lord. It figures prominently in the epic Mahabharat. Written records of the Skanda Purana and the Mahabharta mention its existence as long as 3000 years ago.

Varanasi has been a great centre for learning and civilization and is sacred to the Hindus. It has an endearing universal mystique which has to be experienced to be understood.

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Kumaon Remembered

Varanasi's original name Kashi, is said to have been derived from the word `Kasha' meaning bright which defines its significance as the `city of light' or its spiritual luminance. The present name is believed to be a combination of Varuna and Asi, the two rivers on its northern and southern periphery. Banaras, as it is popularly known, is only a corruption of the name by an ever changing culture.

The wealth of Varanasi and its religious significance were also its bette-noir. Its past is replete with hoary tales of plunder and destruction by conquerors and religious zealots. But such is the invigorating strength of the holy waters of the Ganges, that Varanasi refused to die.

There is no Indian attraction like Varanasi. There are no architectural splendours, no exquisitely carved palaces or impregnable forts, and yet the city has an inherent charm. Situated on the west bank of the Ganges, it extends back from the riverbank ghats to a winding maze of picturesque alleys overlooking tall houses alongside, dotted with temples. It is a fascinating area to wander around.


Varanasi's principal attraction is a long string of bathing ghats which line the river. Pilgrims of all castes and creeds make their sin cleansing dip in atonement. The best time to visit the Ghats is at dawn, where pilgrims come for their early morning dip. The city comes alive with magical lights, the keen scent of spices, incence, aromatic oils and crushed flowers. The air reverberates with chanting of mantras and jangling bells alongwith cries of vendors.

Varanasi today, is also a centre of education, art and craft. The city has given birth to many academician, musicians and artists of world acclaim. As a centre of art and craft it has a vast repertoire, right from silver, brass, copper artifacts to perfumeries and trinkets.

However, Varanasi is most reputed for its silk brocade sarees and carpets. The Banarasi saree is more than a garment, it is sheer poetry in five yards of silk that comes to life with zari brocading in gold and silver and fine metal wires.



The Ghats :
Pilgrims flock the Ghats to have a ritual bath and perform puja to the rising sun, following centuries old tradition. The Dasashvamedh Ghat offers a splendid view of the river front. This is the ghat of the 10 (Das) horses (shva) sacrificed (medh). Legend has it that it was performed by Brahma to pave way for Shiva's return to Varanasi after a spell of banishment. A sight that has remained unchanged and unspoilt - by time, wars or even man himself.

Other special ghats are the Asi, Barnasangam, Panchganga and Manikarnika, Ghats.

Bhawan is one India's finest museums. It houses a superb collection of Indian miniatures, sculptures and terracotta.


Other places of Interest:
Kashi-Vishwanath Temple - The most sacred shrine of Shiva in India - Also the patron deity of Varanasi. Reconstructed in the 18th century, its gold plating on the `Shikharas' was a gift of the one eyed Sikh king.

Gyan Vapi Mosque - Constructed in the 17th century by Emperor Aurangazeb on the ruins of a temple.

Banaras Hindu University - Probably the largest residential university in Asia. Other places on interest Annapurna Temple, Manmandir, and Alamgir Mosque.

The great Buddha further enhanced the sanctity of Varanasi by choosing the environs of the city to preach his first sermon at Sarnath, (only 10 kms away) after attaining enlightenment.

Later, Ashoka, the great Mauryan Emperor erected magnificent stupas and other buildings alongwith his mighty stone pillar, Dharmarajika Stupa. The 110 ft. tall Damekh Stupa marks the place where Buddha preached first sermon. Closeby Jain Temple was built in the honour of Sriyansanth. Malgandhu Kuti Vihar is another famous place to visit.

Sarnath has been a premier centre for Buddhism, second only in importance to Bodh Gaya.

It has a rich collection of ancient Buddhist relics and antiques comprising numerous Buddha and Bodhisatva images on display at the Archaeological Museum (1000 hrs to 1700 hrs. Open all days except Friday).


Buddh Purnima - Sarnath:
This festival is celebrated in May to mark the birth of Lord Buddha. An occasion of gaiety and rare abandon, on this day a large fair is held at Sarnath and relics of the Buddha are taken out in a procession.

Bharat Milap:
At Nati Imli, Ram's reunion with his brother Bharat is celebrated on the day following Dussehra. A major event at Varanasi, this festival is attended by the Maharaja of Kashi in all his regal finery.

The Ramlila :
This Ramlila, acclaimed worldwide is totally based on Ramcharitmanas by Tulsidas and is a month long festival. You can see ancient rituals being performed during this time. The season is October - November and the venue is Ramnagar.


At Chetganj, another episode from the Ramayana is performed annually. The stage play revolves around Surpanakha-Ravan's sister who sets out to seduce Ram and then Lakshman. But Lakshman chops off her nose and she goes back to her brother Ravana, crying and vows to take revenge.

Hanumat Jayanthi :
Based on the Saraswati, Ram and Krishnalila and Hanuman Charitra, stage plays are enacted to mark the Janmotsav (birth celebrations) of Lord Hanuman. The festivities continue for 5 days at the Sankat Mochan temple.

Dhrupad Mela :
This is one of the leading attractions of the city. Held in March, the 5-day musical festival of Dhrupad is performed by renowned artists, from across the country, at Tulsi Ghat.

Mahashivratri :
Though celebrated all over India as a major Hindu festival, Mahashivratri has a special attraction of its own at Varanasi. Especially worth mentioning is the marriage procession of Lord Shiva is taken out beginning from Maha-mritunjaya temple, Daranagar to Kashi Vishwanath temple.


Panch Koshi Parikrama:
So named, because the parikrama passes through 5 places, Kardmeshwar, Bhimchandi, Rameshwar, Shivpur and Kapildhara.

Shopper's Delight:
Varanasi is a shopper's delight, with its exquisite silk saris, handicrafts, carpets, rugs and dhurries. Look around and you might be able to pick up nice ethnic jewellery and crafted pieces at competitive rates. You can even carry home some musical instrument for which Varanasi is quite famous. Besides ivory ware, brassware, copper ware and much more is readily available. You only have to explore a bit to discover it.

Main Shopping Centres:
The Chowk, Vishwanath Gali, Gyanvapi, Thatheri Bazar, Lahurabir, Godoulia, Dasashvamedh and Goldhar. Plus shop at Government Emporia or souvenir shops approved by U.P. Tourism.

Getting There:

Air: Indian Airlines flies to Babatpur Airport which is 22 kms. from Varanasi and 30 kms. from Sarnath. There is a direct, daily flight connection between Varanasi and New Delhi. Varanasi is also connected by air to Agra, Khajuraho, Calcutta, Bombay, Lucknow and Bhubaneshwar.
Rail: Varanasi is an important and major rail junction. The city is linked by trains with all metros and major cities across the country - New Delhi (760 Kms.), Bombay (1509 Kms.), Calcutta (735 Kms.), Madras (1970 Kms.), Lucknow (286 Kms.).
Road : Varanasi is connected with Calcutta (677 Kms.), Delhi (765 Kms.), Madras (1901 Kms.), Bangalore (1763 Kms.) and to the rest of the country by good motorable, all-weather roads.

Best Season

The best season to visit Varanasi is undoubtedly September end - November. This is chiefly on two accounts. Firstly, the weather during these months is rather mellow and secondly, this is the festive season in India, especially the northern plains. So tourists at this time can enjoy the gaiety and splendour that these festivals offer.

Information: Courtesy Government of India

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Editor: Romola Butalia       (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.