Of all the people I have met who have been to Varanasi, there’s one common thing that I have heard – ‘It’s Special’. That’s the best I could describe it as well
Varanasi is strange, chaotic yet peaceful. There’s the madness of a thousand people and ten thousand vehicles (it does feel like ten thousand) on narrow streets on one side and then there’s the serene Ganga flowing through this ancient town on the other side.
Varanasi which was earlier known as Banaras/ Kashi is an ancient town located at the banks of River Ganga. It’s not difficult to notice that as soon as one enters the narrow bylanes of Varanasi. The old buildings spell magic and one gets sucked into it with each step
I often walked around smiling to myself. There were streets with layers of cow dung, some streets with barely any place for two people to pass, yet it has a pull like no other place I have been to recently. There’s not much to do but I was very content just going to the ghats every single day and walking along the river and choosing a different ghat to sit every day.
For the ones, who do not have the luxury of time, this is what I would recommend doing in 24 hours:
Assi Ghat Aarti and Boating:
Aarti at Assi ghat (which translates to 80th ghat) starts around 5:45 a.m. in winters. Now, it’s obviously no fun to leave the comfort of your blanket to walk in the dark and in the freezing cold weather, but it sure is worth it. I walked all the way from Dushashwamedh ghat but I would recommend getting a place near Assi ghat for a day to make it easier.
People are expected to take their respective places before aarti begins, shoes are not allowed on the carpet, and photography only from the left side is permitted. The announcements happen but because it’s only in Hindi, it often leaves Non-Hindi speakers confused.
The aarti lasts about 30 minutes where 7 pundits dressed in orange satin clothes participate in the pooja in unison. Aarti to me was a small but powerful window into the faith that brings people together in this mammoth of a country in so many ways.
The sun starts to rise as the aarti comes to an end and it is one of the most spectacular and soothing sights to witness. The colours of the dawn reflect on the water and paint the whole place in soft hues.
Morning is also the perfect time to try boating as the river is not flooded with other tourists. There
Kashi Vishwanath Temple:
Also known as Golden temple in the town, Kashi Vishwanath temple is one of the 12 jyotirlinga temples making it a major attraction. Mondays are busy as the locals and tourists throng the temple offering prayers to Lord Shiva.
There’s a separate entrance for other country nationals. It was like a maze to find the entrance but there was an umpteen number of people along the way to ask for directions.
Not much is allowed inside so I just carried my wallet and left my bag at a shoe-stand.
Note: There are a lot of people visiting the temple every day and offering the same things. Please give your offerings a thought. Is it
Sarnath is one of the four most holy places related to Buddhism. This is where Lord Buddha preached his first sermon after attaining enlightenment at Bodhgaya.
There are multiple antiquities on display that were discovered during various excavations by different archaeologists including Ashoka pillar.
It’s not uncommon to see people meditating in the lawn as the massive area allows one to find quiet corners in spite of all the crowd that throngs this place everyday.
The place is about 9 km from Varanasi town and there are shared auto rickshas that one can take to reach Sarnath. It usually takes about 3 autos to reach and about Rs. 50 one way.
Dashaswamedh Ghat Aarti:
It is so convenient to see this aarti as it happens in the evening that there’s really no reason to not see it.
It’s beautiful and the energy around the place is infectious. At least a hundred times more people make it to evening aarti compared to the morning one.
People start finding comfortable spots much before the pundits take their places. I managed to find a place to sit and see the aarti in peace without having to squeeze myself into the standing crowd. A lot of people choose to sit on boats to be able to see the aarti with a front view, almost like watching television.
Local Food of Varanasi:
There’s so much food in Varanasi that I dedicated days to just walking around and eating. The massive range of street food ensured I didn’t burn a hole in my wallet in the process. Most places by the street sell Samosas, poori sabzi, and jalebi (an Indian sweet).
My breakfast usually entailed, kachori-sabzi, jalebi, with chai. It’s easy to find and being freshly made in the morning which I found too enticing. Apart from this there are a lot of lassi shops that are tempting and I gave in to the temptation more than once (miserably failing at turning vegan).
In one of the smaller streets while walking towards the golden temple, I noticed a guy making dosa being bulldozed by people so I had to try it and it was definitely one of the best dosas I had in months. There are many such gems in Varanasi hiding in plain sight.
One thing that cannot be missed is – Malaiyo: A seasonal dessert that’s made only in winters. It’s melt-in-your-mouth milk froth that’s flavoured with cardamom and saffron generally and should not be missed at any cost.
Do go exploring these hidden gems and let us know what treasures you find.