Varanasi has close to 90 ghats. Photo by author
Varanasi, also called Banaras and Kashi (the city of lights), has a spiritual history connected with Hinduism that dates back to over 3,000 years, and is rightly referred to as one of the oldest cities in the world. A mix of spirituality, tradition, culture and more, it has something that will appeal to everyone...
The perfect start
It's 5.30 am. The air is crisp at the Assi Ghat. I'm there for the Ganga arati. It is quite dark but I see seven priests with a paraphernalia of prayer items getting ready to start the prayers. They start with offering fire to the holiest river. The synchronised ritual is a stunning spectacle that inspires awe and spirituality at one shot. Steeped in devotion, the 45-minute ritual is accompanied with music, and the best part is that, young children are encouraged to sing here. It is a lovely showcase of young talent in music as part of the subah-e-banaras or 'morning in Banaras'.
Over there, colours change as the sun creeps out of the clouds, and one can see shades of the whole ritual playing out against the placid river waters.
After this, we decide to take a boat ride on the river and witness life unfold on the ghats (series of steps that lead you down to a river) here. There are 87 ghats along a close-to-seven-kilometre stretch that are primarily used for bathing, puja (prayers) and cremation.
Along the boat ride, witness a magnificent sunrise on one end and see how people fill up the ghats with rituals, and soak in the atmosphere. Vendors try to sell locally made handicrafts in adjoining boats. The best way to understand the experience would be to be in the company of a local guide who knows the ghats' history.
After the boat ride, I visit a local wrestling arena called akhada and understand how wrestling is practised traditionally. I checked out the Guru Gaya Seth Akhada where I see wrestlers training hard in a setup of soft mud (not carpets), and also engaging in rope climbing to build their core strength.
Circle of life
The lifeline of Varanasi, however, is on its ghats, and if you want to experience the pulse of the city, walk around the narrow alleys of the ghats. In fact, there are guided heritage walks through Varanasi's ghats that were built under the patronage of the Maratha empire.
Stroll through the atmospheric Vishwanath Gali and Dal Mandi, a former red-light area, now a bustling wholesale market. The main ghats are the Dashashwamedh Ghat, where you can witness the evening Ganga aarti, and the Manikarnika Ghat, a traditional cremation ghat where performing last rites is believed to give the departed soul a ticket to heaven. And to respect their grief, photography is not allowed here. My guide, however, rightly pointed out that although cremation-related ceremonies are on, people performing them have almost beatific expressions. Perhaps it is their way of connecting with the divine and also a stark reminder of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
I suggest you do not miss the Scindia Ghat and its beautiful sunken temple.
Varanasi is a city where there is a temple at every turn. It is said that the city has several thousand temples, but the one you must not miss is the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.
This is by far the most revered temple in Varanasi, and if you are not deterred by queues, you must go here. There is heavy security around this place and electronic devices are not allowed inside.
In fact, there are lots of stores with 'locker facility'. This is one of the 12 jyotirlingas of Lord Shiva, and is thronged by devotees, and the shrine is set in a large complex. There are several smaller shrines all around the sanctum sanctorum. While you are here, do visit the Banaras Hindu University, one of the country's most storied educational institutions.
Varanasi is well known for its wooden lacquerware toy industry and you can check the craftsmen at work in the narrow by-lanes behind the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.
Walking through the arts and crafts heritage, you will meet sari and carpet weavers working on the traditional gulabi meenakari work.
Also, head to traditional weaving units to see how master craftsmen work on handlooms to create the world-famous Banarasi silk saris, scarves and home-decor items. With the hustle and bustle at one end, and the serenity on the other, it does seem like life does come full circle here.
Chunar Fort, only a part of which is open to the public, is a great place to see the sunrise, and the Ganga flows through this place, making it perfect for photography.
The Ramnagar Fort offers great sunset views before the Ganga, and the city and has a museum as well.
Sarnath, the place where Buddha gave his first sermon, and the archaeological museum adjoining the site, are just 10 km away from the main city of Varanasi.