Varanasi-Banaras Tour - Mahendra India Travel
The city of Varanasi (also known as Banaras or to the devout as Kashi) is situated along the west bank of the Ganges in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and is an important pilgrimage centre for Hindus.
One of the ancient seats of learning in India, it is said to be a compound of the names of two streams, the Varuna and the Assi, which still flow through the city's surrounds. This name seems to have been corrupted, in medieval times to Banaras, which was in use till May 24, 1956 when it was changed to Varanasi, by an order of the Government of India.
The city finds mention in the great epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana. It was a flourishing trade centre when Buddha came to Sarnath, (about 10km from the city proper), to preach his first sermon in 500 BC. The renowned American novelist Mark Twain once wrote, "Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together." and so it is still to this day. Chillum smoking sadhus, the chanting of mantras and fascinating religious ceremonies, Varanasi is said to be the holiest of Indian cities. Attracting over a million pilgrims every year, it lives and breathes traditional Hindu religion and culture. What Varanasi offers is life itself, in myriad hues like the changing face of its ghats (river landings) with shifting rays of light and the narrow alleys bustling with life and thronging masses. It's a true city of discovery. Famed for its religious fervour Varanasi is a place that evokes some of the most creative processes in philosophy- religion, the arts and craftsmanship.
Temples form the major source of tourism here and the banks of the Ganges, the centre of much of the religious activity that occurs in the city; are the other attraction. One of the best ways to assimilate life on the ghats is to mingle with the crowds and let all of one's senses experience it. This mode however has its limitations, especially, if one has limited time or if one desires a panoramic view of the activity. An alternative is to cruise past on a boat which is a perfect option to a wonderful Veranasi experience.
Apart from its religious significance, it is the hub of many traditional industries and is world famous for its silks. The town does a roaring trade in tourism and its infrastructure, hotels, transport and other visitor requirements are well catered for. If you only plan on visiting one city in India and are looking for a true "Indian experience" Veranasi is it!
A.B.C. Art Gallery Prabhu Astha (Opp. Tulsi Manas Temple), Durgakund. Holds exhibitions of contemporary art, mainly paintings, open only during the winter season i.e. October to March. Opening times: 3.00-7.00 p.m. Tel : 310434, 310967. Entry Free.
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 worth seeing.
Annapurna Temple, located next to the Vishwanath temple was built in the 18th century by Peshwa Baji Rao I. The idol of Annapurna Bhavani (the provider of food), a benevolent form of Shakti, made in solid gold and carrying a cooking pot is housed here. There is also a striking silver-faced image of Shani (Saturn) within the temple. Shani is feared for his destructive powers and is propitiated to prevent any ill befalling the devout.
Archaeological Museum located in Sarnath. The main attraction at this excellent archaeological museum is the superb Ashokan pillar. It has the Ashokan symbol of four back-to-back lions which has been adopted as the state symbol of modern India. Other finds from the site include many figures and sculptures from the various periods of Saranath - Mauryan, Kushana, Gupta and later. Among them is the earliest Buddha image found at Sarnath, Buddha figures in various positions dating back to the 5th and 6th centuries, and many images of Hindu gods such as Saraswati, Ganesh and Vishnu from the 9th to 12th centuries. The museum is open from 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. daily, closed on Fridays.
Archaeological Musuem, Sampurnanand Sanskrit University open 10 am to 5 pm. Closed on Sundays and university holidays.
Benares Hindu University was founded by the great nationalist Pandit Malaviya in 1917 as a centre for education in Indian art, music, culture and philosophy, and for the study of Sanskrit and attracts students both from India and abroad. The five sq km campus houses the Bharat Kala Bhavan which has a fine collection miniature paintings and sculptures from the 1st to 15th centuries and old photographs of Varanasi. It's open from 11 am to 4.30 pm (7.30 am to 12.30 pm in May and June) but is closed on Sunday.
Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum lies within the sprawling grounds of Banaras Hindu University. Its outstanding collection of sculpture, painting and textiles began with the private collection of the enlightened Rai Krishnadasa. Ancient terracotta varing from ritual icons to toys to utilitarian objects date to the Indus Valley Civilisation, Mauryan, Sunga and Gupta periods. Among the stone sculptures are red sandstone reliefs from the 2nd century B.C, a Buddhist stupa at Bharhut and rare images and statues from well known schools like Gandhara, which saw the synthesis of Greek and Indian styles and Mathura, a powerful art centre during the Kushana period. The large and impressive collection of textiles contain precious example of Banaras silk and brocades, embroidered shawls from Kashmir and the rare Chamba rumals, once used to wrap ceremonial gifts and offering were richly embroidered pieces with designs and stories from the life of Krishna.
Bharat Mata Temple Dedicated to 'Mother India', this unadorned temple has a marble relief map of India instead of usual images of gods and goddesses. The map is said to be perfectly in scale, both vertically and horizontally and the place was opened by Mahatma Gandhi.
Carpet Weaving Centre Near Banaras is the famous carpet weaving centre at Bhadoi where handmade carpets are produced by skilled craftsmen who have acquired their rich repertoire of designs and techniques from their ancestral traditions. Banaras is also famous for its silk weaving cottage industry. Banarasi silk brocades have small, often minute , motifs made of gold or silver thread. Each motif has to be created individually using tiny shuttles. In the old days the gold thread was authentic, but today artificial fibres are used. For more shopping ideas please take a look through our Dining and Shopping pages.
Chhinmastica Temple is 16km from the railway station and is believed to be a tantric centre and houses a headless statue of the deity Jagadamba.
Dharmarajika Stupa The 110ft tall Damekh Stupa marks the place where Buddha preached first sermon. Sarnath has been a premier centre for Buddhism.It is a rich collection of ancient Buddhist relics and antiques comprising numerous Buddha and Bodhisatva images on display at the Archaeological Museum.
Durga Temple is one of the most important temples in Varanasi and is built in the 8th century, by Bengali Maharani and is stained red with ochre. This temple is built in north Indian Nagara style with a multi-tiered shikhara (spire). The shikhara of the temple is formed by many small spires which are built one on top of the other. Durga is the 'terrible' form of Shiva's consort Parvati, so at festivals there are often sacrifices of goats. Non-Hindus can enter the courtyard but not the inner sanctum. It is commonly known as Monkey Temple due to many frisky monkeys that have made it their home.
Golden Temple see information on the Kashi-Vishwanath Temple.
Government Museum Mathura The rich treasure of antiquarian values unearthed by Cunnigham, Growse, Fuhrer and others formed the nucleus of this museum. The museum was founded by the collector, F.S. Growse in 1874. The collections were shifted to the present building in 1930. Regional in character its scope was limited primarily to the archeological finds from the Mathura region. The vast collection includes stone sculptures, bas reliefs, architectural fragments, inscriptions of various faiths and creeds, coins, terracotta, inscribed bricks, pottery pieces, clay seals, bronze objects and paintings. The museum has the richest and by far the most important collection of the Mathura School of Sculptures of 3rd century B.C - 12th century A.D.
Great Mosque of Aurangzeb The mosque has minarets towering 71m above the Ganges and was constructed using columns from the Bineswar temple razed by Aurangzeb worth seeing.
Gyanvapi Mosque 4.8km 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.
Jantar Mantar The ruler of Jaisingh built an observatory in Varanasi in line with those built in Delhi, Mathura, Ujjain and Jaipur observatories. The Varanasi observatory has all the instruments which were required to record the motion, speed and properties of various stars and planets and other cosmic objects. The observatory was built in 1600 and still the instruments give the exact measurements which can match any modern instrument today.
Jateshwar Mahadev This temple in Karnaghata, houses a black stone statue of Shiva and has tantric overtones. Locals believe that a devotee must offer his prayers here, before going to Vishwanath Temple.
Kaal Bhairav Temple Situated in Visheswarganj, Bhairaon Nath this temple is 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.
Kashi-Vishwanath Temple Situated 3.8km from the railway station, near the ghats, the 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. Non Hindus are not allowed inside the temple.
Man Mandir (Manmandir) Palace The archeological survey of India (ASI) has rediscovered the art behind the science of Man Mandir, the third observatory by the creator of Jantar Mantar, hidden for decades under a coat of crude lime plaster. The palace was built by Raja (King) Man Singh of Amber (Rajasthan) and the observatory houses five astronomical instruments for the study of the heavenly bodies.
Maha Mritunjaya Temple in Dara Nagar, is devoted to the God of Death. Devotees are not allowed to touch the Shivalinga here. A fair is held here in June-July.
Nandeshwari Kothi, designed by James Prinsep is a typical building of the early 19th century in Benaras.
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'.
Pandit Malaviya Temple Pandit Malaviya wished to see Hinduism revived without its caste distinctions and prejudices - accordingly, unlike many temples in Varanasi, this temple is open to all, irrespective of caste or religion. The interior has a Siva lingam and verses from Hindu scriptures inscribed on the walls and is supposed to be a replica of the earlier Vishwanath Temple destroyed by Aurangazeb. It's open between 4 am and noon, and 1 and 9 pm.
Ram Nagar Fort and Museum This 17th century fort is the home of the former Maharaja of Benaras. It looks most impressive from the river, though the decrepit planking of the pontoon bridge you cross to reach it is somewhat of a distraction. During the monsoon access is by ferry. The interesting museum here contains old silver and brocade palanquins for the ladies of the court, gold-plated elephant howdahs, an astrological clock, macabre elephant traps and an armoury of swords and old guns.
River Fronts The most fascinating aspect of Varanasi is the life on the river ghats at dawn. As the first rays of the sun set the gently flowing Ganga afire, people flock here in large numbers every day to take bath and worship in the temples built beside the river bank. The centuries old tradition of offering puja to the rising sun is still maintained.
Sarnath About 10km from Varanasi, is Sarnath, where lord Buddha gave his first sermon after enlightenment or as the Buddhist say set the 'wheel of dharma' or law rolling. Today Sarnath is considered as one of the best places to buy antiques from the Ashoka period to the 12th century. The Dharmarajika stupa here was built by Ashoka and is surmounted by a pillar. This pillar with four lions today forms the national emblem of India. Sarnath has many ruins of monasteries and stupas worth seeing and an extremely rich collection of Buddhist statues kept in the Archaeological Museum of Sarnath
Tulsi Manas Temple A short walk south of the Durga Temple is the modern marble sikhara-style Tulsi Manas Temple, built in 1964. Its walls are engraved with verses and scenes from the Ram Charit Manas, the Hindi version of the Ramayana. Its author, poet Tulsi Das, lived here while writing it. You can watch figures performing scenes from Hindu mythology on the 2nd floor for a small fee. The temple is open from 5.30 am to noon and 3.30 to 9 pm daily.
(New) Viswanath Temple This temple is situated in the premises of the university and has 'Geeta' engraved in its marble walls. It's about a 30 minute walk from the gates of the university to the New Vishwanath Temple. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, this temple is the most sacred shrine in Varanasi. The original temple was destroyed by the Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb which was later restored by Rani Ahilyabai of Indore in the 18th century. The Gold plating of the dome was done during the 19th century by Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab. The original temple is said to have been over 1000 years old. The Gyan Vapi tank enclosed in a hall is said to contain the original shivalingam. Pilgrims offer prayers here before embarking on the Panchatirtha. Note: The temple is closed to non-Hindus, but can be viewed from shops across the road.
The Ghats of Veranasi
Ghats consist of steps leading down to the river and the best time to visit is at dawn, when pilgrims take their morning dip. There are over 100 ghats in all and one of the better ways in which to really experience them is to catch a boat and go for a cruise along the river. One can see the women bathing discreetly in their saris, young men doing yoga exercises, priests offering blessings and on the slightly gory side, for those interested, you will come across a number of burning ghats where bodies are cremated of which Manikarnika and Harishchandra are the main centres. Each of the important ghats have a lingam (phallic symbol of lord Shiva) which is venerated by the devout. We mention not all but only the most well known or popular ones below. Unfortunately little information has been found on a number of these other than the fact that they are worth seeing, therefore of any visitors have anything to add, please send us the information so that we can share it with future travellers.
Adi Keshava Ghat on the outskirts of the city is the point where the river Varuna meets the Ganga. The ghat is completely submerged during the rainy season. This is the original site of the city, where Vishnu is believed to have landed as an emissary of lord Shiva.
Ahalya Bai's Ghat is named after the Maratha woman ruler.
Assi Ghat This is one of the five special ghats which pilgrims are supposed to bathe at in sequence during the ritual route called Panchatirthi Yatra. There is a lingam under a peepal tree and a marble temple of Asisangameshwara (lord of the confluence of Asi). An ancient tank dedicated to sun worship, the Lolarka Kund (pool) lies 15 metres below the ground and is approached by a steep flight of steps worth seeing.
Bachraj Ghat is Jain and there are three riverbank Jain Temples here. Many ghats are owned by Maharajas or other princely rulers, such as the very fine Shivala Ghat owned by the maharaja of Varanasi.
Barnasangam Ghat is another popular 'burning ghat' on the Ganges River worth seeing. Bharat Mata Temple Dedicated to "Mother India" this temple found to the north-west of Godaulia is a modern shrine, inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi. It has a huge relief map of the Indian sub-continent showing all its rivers, mountains and pilgrimages and is one of the few open to non Hindus.
Chauki Ghat to Chaumsathi Ghat Northwards along the river, Chauki Ghat is distinguished by an enormous tree that shelters small stones shrines to the nagas, water-snake deities, while at the unmistakable Dhobi (Laundrymen's) Ghat clothes are still rhythmically pulverized in the pursuit of purity. Past smaller ghats such as Mansarovar Ghat, named after the holy lake in Tibet, and Narada Ghat, honouring the divine musician and sage, lies Chaumsathi Ghat, where impressive stone steps lead up to the small temple of the Chaumsathi (64) Yoginis. Images of Kali and Durga in its inner sanctum represent a stage in the emergence of the great goddess as a single representation of a number of female divinities. Overlooking the ghats here is Peshwa Amrit Rao's majestic sandstone haveli (mansion), built in 1807 and currently used for religious ceremonies and occasionally, as an auditorium for concerts.
Chausathi Ghat has a shrine dedicated to Chausath Yoginis, the multiple manifestations of the female force Durga.
Dandi Ghat is the ghat of ascetics also known as Dandi Panths. The spartan Hanuman ghat is used by wrestlers and body builders for whom Bajrangbali (Hanuman) is the patron God.
Dasaswamedh (Dashashwamedha) Ghat offers a splendid view of the river front. The name indicates that Brahma sacrificed (medh) 10 (das) horses (aswa) here. Conveniently central it's one of the most important and busiest ghats and therefore is a good place to linger and soak up the atmosphere. Note its status and the shrine of Sitala, goddess of smallpox. Boats can be hired at this ghat for a tour of the riverfront. It is also the most popular site for Hindus to perform ancestor worship rituals, and the entire ghat is lined with umbrella covered stalls where Brahmin priests undertake pujas (worship).
Dattatreya Ghat bears the footprint of a Brahmin saint of the same name in a small temple nearby.
Dhobi Ghat is used purely for the washing of clothing and could be called the local laundry.
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