The most iconic part of Varanasi is the Ghats, where most rituals and prayers occur. What many travelers ignore is that there are many more historical sites to visit while in town. There are temples, mosques, palaces, ancient monuments, and the old areas of town with narrow streets and alleyways.
Varanasi is one of India‘s oldest and perhaps most sacred Hindu cities that was formerly known as Benares, Banaras, or Kashi city. This city has been inhabited for centuries Before Common Era as a cultural and religious center, attracting countless pilgrims every day. The Hindus believe that if you die in Varanasi, you will be liberated from the cycle of reincarnation and reach Nirvana.
Although the city is mostly known as a holy place next to the River Ganga, it also has several temples, museums, and fun places. It is a pilgrimage place, finding peace, getting a massage, or joining in their cultural events and festivals.
History of Varanasi
Varanasi’s city is believed to be the cradle of the Buddhist religion when Buddha founded this faith in 528 BCE. Before this time, it is believed that the city had already existed for two thousand years Before Common Era. It was, of course, known as Kashi city as part of the Kashi Kingdom.
This very ancient city is known to be the oldest inhabited city since there are artifacts that date back from several eras. This indicates that this place has always been a hub of art and ancient temples, and mythology.
Muslim Era of Varanasi
When Islam reached India in the 12th century, the city has reduced religion’s population and diversity. Religious conflicts and rivalry have always existed in India, but this time, the temples of other religions were being destroyed for nearly three hundred years. However, these harsh times did not mean the end of diversity as this sacred place remained a destination for pilgrimage.
One of the things that kept the city alive was the commercial aspect and the importance of silk, perfume, and ivory products, among other things. Besides trade, a helpful hand came by the founding of Sikhism. Later on, in the 16th century, the Mughal Emperor Akbar further helped revive this city by building two important temples.
Modern Day Varanasi
These two temples of Shiva and Vishnu, built by the Mughal Emperor, played their part until the 18th century Maratha era. The city continued to develop as the country was modernized and later on gained independence. Other than the events that took place, the name of this ancient and holy place comes from the two Ganges named Varuna and Assi.
Things to Do in Varanasi
Before You Go Exploring…
It would help if you were careful where you are going since there are always touts and scams around town.
Before introducing any of the sites you can visit, you need to know about some popular scams and how to avoid them! You will meet the first group of scammers as you get into the city. They are the Rickshaw or taxi drivers that will offer to take you to a hotel. They usually take people to a random hotel to take a commission from that hotel, even if you have booked your own hotel room.
To avoid this scam, you need to either insist on your instructions to the driver and firmly ask them to take you to a specific destination. If they refuse, you must either threaten them not to pay or get off. Alternatively, you can look for other means of transportation or call your hotel and ask them to call a taxi for you.
The other bunch of touts actually offer tours or good viewpoints, or rather, teach you about Varanasi’s culture and history and, in the end, ask for large donations and payments. The way to avoid these people is to reject their help at the start firmly. They may also make up other stories about how they or someone they know needs money, which is probably another scam.
Visit the Ancient Places of Worship in Varanasi
Some several important mosques and temples are worth a visit while you are in the area. You can see some elements of their architecture and learn a little about their religion and beliefs. Some of these important sites that you do not want to miss are as follows:
The Durga Temple, also known as Monkey Temple because of the large population of monkeys, is a Hindu temple with north Indian architecture. While you are there, you can pay attention to the symbols of their religion. You can explore most of this place, but the inner sanctums and sacred areas are off-limits.
Vishwanath temple, also called the Golden Temple, was built in 1780 by Queen Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore. This temple has been destroyed and rebuilt several times in history and was moved a little from its original place.
Alamgir Mosque is one of the several mosques of Varanasi that is worth the visit for two reasons. It is a beautiful 17th-century mosque built upon a Hindu temple’s ruins, meaning it has a rich history. And Two, because it offers a great view over the Panchganga Ghat as the mosque is built on the high ground.
Sarnath is not in Varanasi; it is actually 10 kilometers to the north-east of this city. This sacred site is where Buddha taught Dharma for the first time. Besides a museum in this place and its historical significance, it is also a very peaceful area.
Being one of the oldest continually inhabited cities globally is not just because of its religious value. As mentioned earlier, Varanasi was, and still is, a trade and production hub. Other than trade and religion, knowledge is also a factor in keeping the city alive. Here are three more not-so-religious sites in the city that you should consider visiting.
Banaras Hindu University
Known as the Oxford of the east, the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) is a very famous educational center in Varanasi with a capacity of nearly 30,000 students. While it is always a good idea to apply and study here, some things are worth seeing as a tourist. One is the Bharat Kala Bhavan, a museum inside the university, and two, Tulasi Manas and the Vishvanatha, which are two modern temples inside the campus of BHU.
Ramnagar Fort in Ramnagar is a sandstone, Mughal style fort, built in the mid-18th century and on Ganga River’s eastern bank. The fort is not very far from the Banaras Hindu University, has a beautiful appearance, and a great view over the river. If you have the time, try getting a boat ride to the fort and explore the area.
Jantar Mantar Observatory
Jantar Mantar is one of the five observatories built by Maharaja Jai Singh II in 18th century India. He was an astronomer himself and was very much interested in this science; therefore, he sent scholars to other countries to gather knowledge and bring back to construct the observatory. Jantar Mantar was built above and near the Manmandir and Dasaswamedh Ghats and still remains a highlight.
The Famous Ghats of Varanasi
Now is the time to talk about the number one attraction of Hindus’ religious and cultural center. The Hindu belief is that the waters of this river are sacred, and if you die near them, you will be free of the cycle of life and reach peace. As for the Ghats near the riverbank, they are the stone steps leading to the waters.
People come to these places to perform rituals and even cleans themselves of their sins as they bathe in the holy water. There are more than 84 Ghats in Varanasi, where you see the locals, worshipers, and tourists. You can also see pyres for cremating the dead and pouring their ashes in the river near some of them.
Some of these areas are centuries old, for example, the Dashashwamedh Ghat that is also close to the Vishwanath Temple. Near the rest of the Ghats, you can see more temples, old or recent, as well as palaces and hotels that used to be palaces belonging to kings. The story behind these royal buildings is that India’s former kings who believed in Hinduism also came to Varanasi in their final days to expect their deaths and everlasting peace.
What to Do Near the Ghats and In the River Ganga
The Ghats are sacred places where you can find peace or take some amazing pictures. It is a great idea to go walking at the river banks and visit as many stone steps as possible. If you want to participate in some of their rituals, that would also be a good idea while avoiding touts.
What you do not want to do is to bathe in the waters, as tempting they may seem. This is mostly because of the pollution in the river and the chemicals dumped in the river by factories. If that does not disturb you, wait till you see a floating corpse or body part! Now don’t be alarmed, as the chances of seeing such things are low, but they are possible. After all, people come here to spend their last days before death…
Alternatively, if you want to have a closer look from inside the waters, you can hire a boat. In that case, it is very much recommended to have a good camera with you to take some amazing pictures of the pilgrims and all the lovely buildings near the riverbanks.
Finally, one of the best things you can do in Varanasi is to travel to this ancient city during a festival or national event.
One of the most famous festivals and perhaps the most recommendable one is Deepavali or Dev Diwali. This festival takes place in October or November. It is believed that the gods come from the heavens and bathe in the holy waters of River Ganga. The Ghats are decorated, and celebrations occur, making them an exciting place to be during this event.
This festival also occurs in October or November and includes bathing in the river and drinking the holy water. Again, it is mostly advised not to join in on this part but watching the believers while they do their rituals and give offerings is fun. The best part is drinking Aragh (an alcoholic drink) as the sun sets or rises each day of the festival.
This festival, dedicated to Lord Shiva, gets rather crowded as the pilgrims flock to Varanasi. The streets and the temples will be filled with worshipers; therefore, getting around may get a little difficult.
On a more general note, during the Hindu festivals, you will get a lot of traditional music and dances as people celebrate and join in the festivities. If nothing else, visiting this city during such times is the best way of getting familiar with the culture and mythology of the Hindus.
Varanasi Travel Guide
Watching out for scams and researching Hindu theology and mythology is always a good plan before visiting as this city needs prior knowledge. It is also better to look for the appropriate time to visit and how to get around.
Best Time to Visit
The weather is mostly hot, especially during spring and summer, so if heat bothers you, it would be wise to make your plans for cooler months. The best time is during autumn and winter, preferably during October when festivals take place. It would help if you also kept in mind to bring appropriate clothing during the colder months as the nights get a little cold.
As soon as you get to the place you are staying, it would be wise to ask how to get around as most of the alleys and streets are narrow. There are also some limitations which will force you to walk in several sections of the city. In any case, the first thing that you must do is to acquire a map of Varanasi.
There are several walking tours in the city, which is because of the mentioned transportation limitations. Even if you are not on a walking tour, you should know that you can only go near the Ghats and some sites on foot.
This is the part where you really appreciate having a map as some scammers may steal street signs to offer directions for a price. But do not be alarmed, most shops will be happy to give you directions as the locals are very hospitable and friendly.
If you do not like the idea of walking all the time, you should look for bicycle rentals. If you cannot see or find them, ask your hotel for instructions.
Instead of asking your hotel for bike instructions, you can ask for information about taxies or car rentals. To avoid touts, it is always better to ask the hotel reception to call a taxi for you. If not, be ready to negotiate a price while moving around.
- If you have never been to Varanasi or India, the best way to visit is to take a tour and have a guide with you for the first time.
- You will not have difficulty communicating with the locals, as most of them know English.
- Taking pictures of this lovely and memorable experience is advisable, but taking pictures of people, especially when performing rituals, will be seen as offensive.
- If you are going to a crowded part of town, do not bring a lot of cash. The city is mostly safe, but there is a chance to meet scammers, touts, and other annoyances.
- Varanasi is more about culture and religion rather than its heritage sites, despite being very ancient. The monuments are great places to visit, but try to enjoy their culture more than the sites.