Varanasi – How to survive and thrive in the spiritual Capital of India

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Top things to do in Varanasi - Visit Manikarnika Ghat

In this post you’ll read about the top things that to-do in Varanasi as per the locals.

Varanasi is sacred, soulful, scrumptious and spectacular but most importantly, it is the spiritual capital of India. What Mecca is to Islam and Jerusalem to Christianity, Varanasi is to Hinduism. Lord Shiva’s city has been known by many names such as Banaras, Kashi, Avimukha, Anandavana, Rudravasa, and Mahashmashana. The current name Varanasi comes from Varuna and Assi, the two tributaries of the Ganges that come together in the heart of the holy city. Here pilgrims come to wash away their sins in the sacred Ganges waters, to cremate their loved ones, or simply to die here in a hope to attain moksha (liberation from the endless cycle of rebirth and union with the divine).

Varanasi is the spiritual capital of India
Varanasi is the spiritual capital of India

Varanasi is mystical and one of the most visited cities in India. However, it is definitely not for the faint-hearted. At first glance, it will enthral you with its intensity, colours and chaos. But once you get past the initial culture shock and dig deeper, you’ll see an immensely exhilarating and captivating side of the city. Here is how not only to survive but thrive in the spiritual Capital of India

Here’s a vlog about my experience of exploring Varanasi with the locals:

WHAT TO EXPECT

As one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Varanasi appears to be crumbling, whimsical, and eccentric. The maze of pedestrian alleys or ‘galis’ can feel claustrophobic and crowded. But this is where the heart of the city lives. Very little has changed in these tightly woven streets since the medieval ages. They have been home to more than a hundred cultures, traces of many of which can be found in the labyrinth of little lanes occupied by 3.5 million locals who call this bustling city their home. The city might not serve you the upmarket creative cocktails, however, it might teach you a few things about the cycle of life and death.

Varanasi is the spiritual capital of India
Humans of Varanasi, India

Besides the ghats, one must relish the food, architecture and weaving industry of Banaras. And, how can you forget the Banarasi paan? Here are the top things to do in Varanasi.

WHAT TO DO IN VARANASI

There is no dearth of things to do in Varanasi. From doing temple trips, attending yoga classes to witnessing prayer ceremonies on the riverbank, there’s always something or the other happening in the city. Here are the top ten things to do in Varanasi

1) Stroll around the ghats

The heart of Varanasi lies along the river, on ghats — a series of steps leading to the river’s edge—each staircase divided by history, religion, livelihood, and legends. A linear walk through the ghats is the best way to see the city’s multi-cultural fabric. From early morning till late night, the ghats are flooded by devotees, sadhus (holy men), fortune-tellers, yoga practitioners, beggars, boat operators, trinket vendors, snack-sellers, and visitors. The ghats are most atmospheric at dawn, when pilgrims gather at the riverbank for morning Puja (prayers), offering water from the sacred Ganges to the rising sun and taking a dip in the river to cleanse their souls of sins. Start walking from Assi Ghat, via Dashashwamedh and Manikarnika to Scindia Ghat, where an ancient stone Shiva temple is slowly slipping into the mire, and Panchganga Ghat, crowned by a stone mosque built by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. Despite the crowds, the smell of spirituality is all-encompassing. While clicking of pictures is allowed almost everywhere, show respect to devotees and avoid taking photos of funerals.

Assi Ghat at dawn, Varanasi, India
Top things to do in Varanasi – visit Assi Ghat at dawn

2) Attend the Prayer ceremony

Every evening a mesmerising aarti ceremony takes place at Dashashwamedh Ghat and the air is filled with prayers, chanting, music and incense. Bells ring, drums bang, cymbals crash, oil lamps are thrust skywards and floating lights are cast into the Ganges. A festival-style atmosphere pervades and the ghat is chock-o-blocked by pilgrims and sightseers. It is the best time to capture the spiritual essence of the city. Taking a boat ride on the Ganges often provides a better vantage point. Make sure to reach early to get a better place to see the prayer ceremony.

Attend a mesmerising evening aarti ceremony at Dashashwamedh Ghat, Varanasi
Attend a mesmerising evening aarti ceremony at Dashashwamedh Ghat, Varanasi

3) Take a boat ride

Whether you love photography or not, a dawn boat ride on the Ganges is highly recommended. It will give you an unmatched view of the ghats and temples from a more serene vantage point than observing from crowded land. Watching the morning bathing rituals is a very surreal experience and provides a lot of good photo opportunities. Witnessing cremations taking place at Manikarnika Ghat is a poignant experience that is not everyone’s cup of tea. An evening ride for uninterrupted views of the aarti ceremony at Dashashwamedh is a must-do. And, you don’t have to go hunting for a boatman. Walk along the embankment anywhere in Varanasi and a boatman will be sure to find you. You can also ask your hotel to arrange a boat trip.

Top things to do in Varanasi - take a boat ride
Top things to do in Varanasi – take a boat ride

4) Get lost in the galis

Varanasi’s twisting, turning maze of alleyways can be perplexing, but getting lost is all part of the authentic Varanasi experience, and you only need to find the nearest ghat to get your bearings. The alleys are lined with shops, food stalls, tucked-away shrines, candlelit deities in alcoves and homes painted in vivid colours, plus you’ll definitely see the revered cows jostling for space in cramped lanes. Prepare yourself for the galis’ pungent smell of incense, spicy food, cow dung, and waste – it will certainly awaken all your senses.

Top things to do in Varanasi - explore its galis
Top things to do in Varanasi – explore its galis

5) Go on a temple trail

Although it’s not possible to visit all the hundreds of temples in the holy city, make sure to visit the gilded Vishwanath Temple. With its gold-plated spires, Vishwanath is one of India’s most revered temples. Other temples are scattered through the streets of the old city. Every few metres you’ll see the tiny shrines venerating orange boulders, worshipped as Hanuman.

Top things to do in Varanasi - go on a temple run
Top things to do in Varanasi – go on a temple run

6) Escape to Sarnath

Varanasi is not just limited to Hinduism. The city has been a Buddhist city for almost as long as it has been a Hindu city. Take a rickshaw 6km north through Varanasi’s busy streets to an island of calm at sacred Sarnath, where the Buddha preached his first sermon after achieving enlightenment. It’s a welcome change from the crowded streets of Varanasi. Once the centre of a huge monastic community, today the ruins of 2000-year-old religious buildings sprawl across a peaceful park, rising to the 34m-high Dhamekh Stupa.

Top things to do in Varanasi - escape to Sarnath
Top things to do in Varanasi – escape to Sarnath

Here’s a short video about what to see in Sarnath.

7) Plug into Indian culture

If you are a culturephile, Varanasi is a great place to learn about Indian culture as it is one of India’s most important centres of learning. Take a visit to the learned precincts of the Benares Hindu University, join a yoga class on the riverbank, or enrol on a course in Carnatic classical music at the International Music Centre Ashram. There can’t be a better place to learn Indian classical music than here since Varanasi is the home town of sitar-maestro Ravi Shankar.

Top things to do in Varanasi - plug into indian culture, especially classical music
Top things to do in Varanasi – plug into Indian culture, especially classical music

8) Savour the street food:

There are a number of street foods in India that are famous, but nothing can beat the hot and crispy kachoris and samosas from Varanasi. The city will turn you into a foodie even if you aren’t one! Little shops line little streets with sweets of all shapes and sizes. And, there are free samples too. Varanasi is not big on sit-down restaurants. You will find those, but they are dull and ordinary in comparison to street stalls. Stick to the streets and eat like a local. The city is a paradise for vegetarians. Most delicacies are prepared in desi ghee and mustard oil, be it sweet or savoury. Walk the streets and you will find kachori sabzi—fried, flaky bread with steamy curries, tikki ke chaat—fried potato cutlets with chutneys and yoghurt, and other kinds of chaat: quick street food, usually sweet and sour concoctions of various deep fried snacks topped with onions and tomatoes. Other must-try snacks are Chena Dahi Vada, Makhan Malaiyyo or Nimish, Choora Matar, Dahi Chutney Wale Gol Gappe, Laaiya Chana, Baati Chokha, and Tamatar Chaat among others. Gulp down all these lip-smacking snacks with a glass of Banarasi Thandai or Lassi. The desserts this city offers are sinful. Some of the most delicious ones are lavang-latika, rabdi and kesar doodh (saffron flavoured milk). And, don’t forget to round off the meal with a Banarasi paan. The interesting secret that most non-paan eaters don’t know is the fact that the Banarasi paan, iconised by Amitabh Bachchan in 1978 through “khaike paan banaras Wala” song in the movie Don is not from Banaras at all. But that shouldn’t stop you from trying it. Banaras holds the highest variety of Paans and there is no gali where you couldn’t find one. Paan is a Hindi word for Betel leaves laced with areca nut and Pickling Lime. A pan can cost anywhere between INR 5 to INR 5000, depending upon the ingredients and making of paan

Top things to do in Varanasi - savour the street food
Top things to do in Varanasi – savour the street food

9) Splurge on Banarasi silk

A trip to Varanasi is incomplete without roaming the streets of the old city to find that perfect Banarasi sari. Gold and silver brocade work and intricate designs are handwoven on pure silk, organza, georgette and other fine quality materials. Don’t forget to ask for the quintessential ‘ring test’ to affirm the quality of silk, where a whole sari is passed through a small ring. Also, look out for hand-knotted carpets and shawls from Mirzapur. The rhythmic sound of looms fill the tapered streets of Gowdowliya, Lalapura and Madanpura in Varanasi. It draws you into cosy shops, tucked into snug floors of weathered buildings. For quality products, head to Jaharlall & Pannalall, one of the oldest establishments in the busy Gowdowliya market. Other places worth checking are Pandey Sari Industries near Manikarnika Ghat, Baba Black Sheep in Bhelupura Crossing and U.P. Cottage Emporium run by Nawal Kishore in Tripura Bhairawi. The city is also a great place to buy musical instruments and brassware.

Top things to do in Varanasi - splurge on Banarasi silk
Top things to do in Varanasi – splurge on Banarasi silk

10) Marvel Varanasi’s architecture

The architecture of Kashi reflects diversity in construction and detailing. Ancient buildings falling to ruins, traditional balconies, red brickwork, sturdy pillars, connected congested lanes, indiscreet modern buildings, soot-covered temples and carpets of ash are what you’ll see when you explore the Land of Spirituality. The course of the River Ganges has lent itself to the step-like constructions of the Ghats. Some ghats consist of buildings from the Rajput era – large Havelis with big domes. Some are tall buildings from the Vijayanagara Empire. Sometimes modern glass structures can be found standing next to ancient monoliths. Unlike other ancient cities, Varanasi is not preserved or UNESCO-guarded, so buildings are built on top of others, and sometimes inside other buildings.

Visiting Varanasi is no ordinary tour. It is a spiritual journey of time, emotion and transcendence. As the Beatles say: “Roll up!”

Top things to do in Varanasi - marvel the city's architecture
Top things to do in Varanasi – marvel the city’s architecture

WHEN TO GO

The best time to visit is between November and March.

HOW TO GO

You can travel either by plane, train or bus to Varanasi.

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