Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, and is called by many names, including Banaras, Kashi (City of Light), Mahasmashana (The Great Cremation Ground), Anandvan (Forest of Bliss) and Avimukta (Never Forsaken). It is celebrated for its silk saris, milk sweets and Hindustani classical music and dance, and is a sacred city for many religions. Hindus believe that a dip in the river Ganga will wash away sins, and that dying and being cremated in Varanasi will grant liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Sadly, one of India’s holiest rivers is also one of the world’s most polluted, despite efforts over the years to clean it up.
Most Indian cities have flights that operate to Varanasi; you can also catch a connecting flight from Delhi. The city is also well-connected to the rest of the country by rail at Varanasi Junction, also called Varanasi Cantonment. Prepaid taxis are available to the city from the airport and from the railway station, which also has a prepaid auto stand.
The airport and the railway station are in Cantonment; if your hotel is in the Old City, remember that vehicles are allowed up to a point near the ghats (steps leading to the river); check if you may have to walk some of the way. You can also take a cycle rickshaw or auto rickshaw to access the lanes along the 84 ghats (stairways to the river), from Raj Ghat in the north to Assi Ghat in the south.
The ghats are easiest explored on foot, or viewed from a boat on the Ganga; Adi Keshav Ghat in the north and Samne Ghat in the south mark the ends of the riverfront, and are the only ones to retain the natural (and slippery!) clay banks instead of stone steps.
The best time to visit is between November and March; expect a little rain around late Jan and early Feb. Summer is very hot (Apr to mid-June). During and just after the monsoons (mid-June to Sept), the Ganga rises high up the ghats.
There’s nearly always a festival on in the city, the most famous being Makar Sankranti (Jan 14), Mahashivratri (Feb-Mar), Holi (Mar-Apr), Buddha Purnima (Apr-May), Ganga Dashahara (May-June), Lolarka Chhatha Mela (Aug-Sept), Durga Puja Dashahara (Sept-Oct), Ramlila (Sept-Oct), Surya Shashthi (Chhath Puja) (Oct-Nov) and Dev Deepavali (Oct-Nov). The theatrical narration of Ramlila over 31 days in September-October is most famous at Ramnagar, where it is supported and attended by the Maharaja.
Music constantly fills the streets, from stereos, pujas, music classes and impromptu jam sessions. Music concerts are held regularly, in halls and on the ghats. Check with Hotel Ganges View and the International Music Centre Ashram for upcoming gigs; a few famous festivals are the Dhrupad Mela (Feb), Gulab Bari (Mar-Apr), Sankat Mochan Music Festival (Apr-May) and Ganga Mahotsav (Nov). See here for more on classical music concerts and classes.
For our full feature on Varanasi, also read Sacred Geography: Why You Should Travel To India’s City of Light.
You may prefer to dress modestly as Varanasi is a conservative city. Taxis, cycle rickshaws and autos are usually negotiated with for the price. A cycle rickshaw from Cantonment to Godowlia Chowk is around ₹60; an auto is around ₹150.
A boat ride for an hour for two people is around ₹300; you can also pay ₹100 per person and join a large boat. You can negotiate for a boat with touts at the ghat; try arranging for one the previous day to get a slight advantage on the price.
Most hotels are in the Cantonment area, which also houses the U.P. Tourism office which helps arrange guides and vehicles. Sarnath, with its fine museum and important Buddhist sites, lies to the north-east of Varanasi; take an auto or taxi for a day trip. In case you want to spend the night, a viable option is the Tibetan monastery run by the Lhaden Chotrul Monlam Chenmo Trust (0542-2595002; firstname.lastname@example.org).
The ghats are in the Old City; the main Dashashwamedh Ghat can be accessed from Godowlia Chowk. Banaras Hindu University and the excellent exhibits at its expansive Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum lie near the southernmost Assi Ghat. The Maharaja’s Ramnagar Fort and Museum lies across Tulsi Ghat, and can be accessed via boat or a pontoon bridge.
Most hotels have travel desks that will help arrange guides, boats and motor vehicles. Some also host classical music concerts and cooking classes. Staying at the ghats can be noisy – Cantonment is far quieter as it is a half-hour ride away – but the riverside offers a chance to feel the thrumming vibe of the Old City.
The first five-star hotel in Varanasi, the Taj Ganges has two properties here, the older of which is the more affordable Gateway Hotel, where we stayed by invitation. Its attractions include the Banarasi satvik thali at their Varuna restaurant, and the comfort and the efficient, friendly service that the Taj is known for. The more recently acquired Nadesar Palace took seven years to restore. The 10 Palace suites are named after the dignitaries who stayed there, including Lord Mountbatten and Queen Elizabeth II; the mirrors and glassware are from the Maharaja’s collection manufactured on the now-disused glass factory on the grounds.
It is a luxurious experience that includes a free ride around the estate in the Maharaja’s vintage horse-carriage driven by the warm Naseem Mohammed, whose family has driven the Maharaja’s horses for three generations. Naseem has lovely stories – the greenhouse was once an enclosure for tigers captured by officers of the British Raj, the first owners of Nadesar Palace before it was bought by the Maharaja. You can dine like royalty in the baradari (pavillion with 12 doors) brought over from Ramnagar Fort; the Maharajas of Banaras are known for not dining in front of anyone except their queen. There’s an organic vegetable garden beside which you can take a cooking class with the chef. Be warned, guests receive a grand welcome with conches blowing and priests chanting mantras and sprinkling Ganga water. You can take a virtual tour here. The Taj travel desk offers tours to the Ganga, and in and around Varanasi.
The Old City offers a variety of stays; remember to ask if your room is river-facing if the hotel is by a ghat. The best value for money is Zostel in Luxa Thana, a months-old enterprise from the Zostel chain of hostels in India. Dorms are available for ₹350 a head, and a basic AC doubles room for ₹1,000. Service is cheerful and prompt, and the hostel offers a great chance to mingle with travellers in the funky common room. Breakfast is available for ₹50, and the hostel also arranges for boats and cooking classes.
Ganpati Guest House has run for 15 years, and is cherished for its warm service. The budget hotel has 18 rooms, and a rooftop restaurant with a view of the Ganga. May 1-July 31, 10 per cent discount.
Book in advance for a room at the excellent Hotel Ganges View, a gorgeous, elegant, colonial-style building with a restaurant for guests and 14 rooms; choose one of the upper rooms for a quiet though partial view of the Ganga. Even if you don’t get a room at this mid-range hotel, drop by to ask about classical music concerts during your stay; the owner, Shashank, also occasionally hosts a concert at the hotel. April-August, 10 per cent discount.
There are a variety of shops in Varanasi where you can purchase a Banarasi silk sari; be aware that guides often get a commission for taking you into a store, and that a Banarasi silk bought at bargain price is likely to be of lesser quality. Find your way to Baba Black Sheep in Bhelupura Crossing and U.P. Cottage Emporium run by Nawal Kishore in Tripura Bhairawi.
Varanasi is also known for its wooden toys. Stop by New Agrawal Toys Emporium at Assi Ghat for a veritable Pandora’s box of toys, jewellery, clothes, furnishings and everything in-between crammed in three floors; the genial owner told us, “Look long enough and you’ll find everything”.
There are a plethora of bookshops that sell esoteric books as well as books on Varanasi often at marked-down prices; we particularly liked Kashi Annapurna Book House and Harmony bookstore on Assi Ghat.
Also on Assi Ghat is Suneeta Jewellers, ask the owner to show you his collection of jewellery with sacred symbols – it’s a treasure chest to tantalise any lover of the esoteric.
Shop for metal work and jewellery in Thatheri Bazaar. For incense and oils, visit Sri Guru Perfumes in Bengali Tola Lane.
You can also drive to Chunar for ceramics, and to Bhadohi for carpets.
Varanasi’s restaurants offer a wide range of cuisines from Malayali (Kerala Cafe) to Japanese (I:Ba). The recommendations below are by no means exhaustive.
Head to Kachauri (or Khoya) Gali for an early breakfast of kachauri-sabzi (fried bread with vegetables) and jalebi at the street stalls. Stop for mithai at Shree Rajbandhu, one of the oldest sweet shops in Varanasi. Have the strawberry pomegranate lassi at the Blue Lassi Shop, which is named after its walls, and is currently run by the grandson of the shop’s founder, Pannalal Yadav, who has acted in Bengali films including Satyajit Ray’s Joy Baba Felunath and apparently also taught Bollywood actor Sunny Deol wrestling.
For mithai, also stop by Ksheer Sagar in Sonapura.
Lotus Lounge offers an excellent, peaceful view of Mansarovar Ghat; snack on onion pakoras and lemon pancakes.
Head to Godowlia Chowk for thandai, a milk-based drink; ask if the mix includes bhang, a cannabis preparation that is available at government-approved shops.
For Banarasi paan, stop by Keshav Paanwala in Lanka, or Tambul Bhandar at Godowlia Chowk.
Assi Ghat is the most traveller-friendly, packed with shops and restaurants. Pizzeria Vaatika Cafe serves up crisp pizza and delicious apple pie. At Hotel Haifa, have the Middle Eastern thali. Head to Open Hand cafe if you’re hankering for a Continental breakfast; it also houses a shop selling handcrafted clothes, bags and knickknacks. Stop by Kashi Chai stall for a cup of tea and a whiff of history – the shop now also offers tours, but has its humble beginnings in the 1960s, when the father of the current shopowner progressed from arranging cycles and coffee to lodgings, for the hippy visitors of the 1960s.
If you are not pressed for time, make your way around the city with two books as your guides: Banaras Region: A Spiritual & Cultural Guide by Rana P.B. Singh and Pravin S. Rana, and Nandini Majumdar’s Banaras: Walks Through India’s Sacred City. Make time to chat with the locals; the city is full of philosophers and Banarasis really know how to spin a story.
Varanasi Walks, one of the city’s oldest, is your best bet for an intimate if occasionally whimsical introduction to the city and its colourful people. As with a lot of appointments in Banaras, allow for flexibility on the agreed-on time. We enjoyed their Northern Bazaars and Hidden Alleys walk, led by the affable documentary filmmaker Mayank Pahwa. The tour company’s American founder Jeremy “Jai” Oltmann, a long-time resident, is knowledgeable about the city’s history, and is constantly rooting through for new sights and sounds, so he has wonderful insider tips. Here’s his take on what it takes to be a local in Varanasi.
Listen to at least one live classical music concert; here is our guide to the musical heart of the city. Visit Madanpura to view traditional weavers at work, and Thatheri Bazaar for its metal-workers. Drive through the vast, tree-lined campus of the Banaras Hindu University and stop at Bharat Kala Bhavan for its large collection of artistic exhibits.
Also stop at Bharat Mata Mandir, near Varanasi Junction, an ode to Mother India with a massive marble map showing the topography and sacred routes of undivided India. It was built in 1936 and inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi.
The ghats are great for people-watching, and are dotted with fascinating temples and palaces. Apart from the ghats in the DIY City of Light guide below, a few are listed here. Head to Assi Ghat at the southernmost end; it is the most tourist-friendly, with a cluster of lovely shops and restaurants. Man Mandir Ghat houses the palace of Maharaja Savai Man Singh, with an observatory built in 1710. Lalita or Nepali Ghat has a temple famous for its erotic wood sculptures.
The city is lit by the rising sun as its beam falls across the River Ganga and on the pilgrims worshipping at the ghats, and also by the glowing pyres that burn at all hours. Both sources of illumination are essential to a trip to Kashi. Greet the morning sun at Dashashvamedh Ghat – said to be where the Hindu creator god Brahma performed 10 horse sacrifices in an attempt to usher Shiva back to the city – and take a boat down the Ganga. You can buy a flower bowl of offerings sold for ₹5 or ₹10 at the ghats, light the candle and float it with a prayer on the river. You can even take the boat to the banks opposite (deserted because of the monsoon flooding and also because it is believed to be cursed) and then head downriver.
The most spectacular sight on your City of Light trip might just be the post-sunset Ganga aarti at Dashaswamedh Ghat, a relatively recent practice; two choreographed, simultaneous pujas performed with the billowing of incense smoke, graceful swinging of heavy lamps, blowing of conches and clanging of cymbals. We preferred the serene riverside view from a boat to the press of the crowd at the ghat.
If you decide to witness the open cremation grounds of Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat, you can view from a boat or from a discreet distance from the pyres. Offers for a view from a nearby house are not for free. Photography is not permitted. The kund (well) at Manikarnika is said to have been dug by Vishnu and filled with the sweat of his efforts.
The concentration of cosmic light out of which Shiva manifested to prove his supremacy to Brahma and Vishnu is represented at the Kashi Vishwanath temple near Dasashwamedh Ghat. Adjacent is the Annapurna Temple to the goddess of nourishment, an incarnation of Parvati. The Kashi Vishwanath temple is one of the 12 jyotira (light-manifested) lingas (phallic icon of Shiva) of India, which mark a pilgrimage route that in its full form pays homage to Shiva and his consort, Gauri (Parvati). This pan-India pilgrimage is represented in abbreviated form at the Panchakroshi Mandir at Gola Gali.
Kashi is said to rest on the trident of Shiva, which has its prongs at the temples of Omkareshwar, Vishveshwar (Vishwanath) and Kedareshwar – the former and latter are representations of the jyotirlingas in Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand respectively. Kedareshwar Temple, with its striking red-and-white steps, is said to be older than Kashi Vishwanath temple, which has been shifted and rebuilt four times following the repeated plundering of the city.
Kashi Vishwanath temple is closed to non-Hindus; afternoons are perhaps the least crowded. Entry is best from gate 4. Footwear and belongings are not permitted inside the heavily guarded precinct; in case you leave them at a shop nearby in exchange for a fee and an offering bowl, remember that you are not obliged to do a puja inside. Offers to show you around the temple come at a price. The Jnanavapi Kupa (“well of wisdom”) adjacent to the current temple and next to the Jnanavapi Mosque built by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, is the start and end point of Hindu pilgrimages in Kashi as it is believed to hold the primordial water on Earth and serve as the axis mundi.
The temple is on the route to Manikarnika Ghat, via the handicraft stalls of Vishwanath Gali and the kachauri-sabzi (fried bread with vegetables), lassi and mithai sold on Kachauri (or Khoya) Gali. In the vicinity is the wholesale flower market, Bansphatak Phool Mandi, which has flowers for every religious occasion and deity.
Visit Tulsi Ghat to see the house of Hindu saint Tulsidas, who completed most of his seminal retelling of the Ramayana in Hindi in the Ramacharitamanasa in the city, and initiated Varanasi’s now-famous Ramlila theatrical performances. Adjoining his house is the still-functioning akhara (wrestling ground) he initiated, as well as the Hanuman shrine where his sandals are kept. The saint also set up 12 Hanuman temples, including the famous Sankat Mochan temple.
Professor Rana P.B. Singh of the Banaras Hindu University also recommends stopping at Lolarka Kund near Assi Ghat, the pre-Aryan fertility temple said to mark the spot where the sun god Surya trembled with delight at the sight of Kashi. Also on his list is the Kapileshwar temple at Kapiladhara, “the oldest site mentioned in the Mahabharata”; look out for the image of a dancing Ganesha, symbolising all of his 56 forms that appear as guardians on Varanasi’s pilgrimage routes. Also see the Kardameshwar temple at Kandwa that has “the only temple complex which was saved from the [Mughal] destruction”; one of the few in north India to “have maintained its live tradition of rituals”. The Kardameshwar lingam is distinct because it is flat, and separate from the vulva: seen by some as the ultimate communion between the masculine and feminine powers.
To walk the path of medieval saint Kabir of the Bhakti and Sufi movements, stop by Panchganga Ghat – so named for the mythical confluence of five sacred rivers – which has an illustration of saint Ramanand’s acceptance of Kabir as a disciple on its steps. (Also on the ghat is Alamgir Mosque, built by Aurangzeb, on the site of an 11th-century Vishnu temple whose statue is now at the nearby Vindu Madhav Temple.) You can also stop by the temple at Lahartara, where Kabir was found by his adoptive parents, and the headquarters of Kabir’s followers at Kabirchaura.
Three of the 24 tirthankaras (teachers) of Jainism were born in Kashi, including Chandraprabhu; you can visit the temple of Parshvanatha at Bhelupura, and of Suparshvanatha in Bhaidini.
At Sarnath, whose Buddhist monasteries and temples include those from Tibet, Thailand, Japan and Korea, stroll through the Deer Park, where the Dhamekh Stupa marks the spot where Buddha first preached after enlightenment. Visit the beautifully frescoed interiors of the Mahabodhi Society’s Mulagandha Kuti Vihar Temple; the nearby compound has a bodhi tree brought as a sapling from Sri Lanka that was grown from the tree which Buddha gained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya. Opposite is the Sarnath Archaeological Museum, which houses fine sculptures such as the famous lion-capital of the Ashoka pillar. Also worth seeing is a large outdoor statue of the last Jain tirthankara, Mahavir, erected by the Digambar Jain sect.