VARANASI

VARANASI

Varanasi (770 kilometers east of New Delhi and 590 kilometers northwest of Kolkata) is the holiest city of the Hindus, the most important pilgrimage site in India and the place where every Hindu wants to die. Hindus believe if their life ends here they will escape the toil of reincarnation, attain a nirvana-like state of being known as moksha, and immediately be transported to Hindu heaven.Many Hindus come to Varanasi when they are near death. If one can't actually die here the next best thing is being cremated here and thrown into the Ganges. So auspicious is to die in Varanasi that bars have placed at the top of some wells to prevent suicide.

Varanasi (Banaras) is the home of about 1.2 million permanent residents (1.5 million in the metro area). It is sort of a Hindu Mecca. Some Hindus still call the city "Kashi," its ancient name which means "the luminous" or "city of light." Up until recently the English called it Banaras (Benares). But in 1956 the city's name was officially renamed Varanasi, an older name that means "city of all enlightenment and place where wisdom dwelt." Industries in Varanasi include the manufacture of brocade, silk, and brassware.

The sacred city of Varanasi is one of the oldest inhabited places in the world. Strung out on the banks of the holy Ganges river, it has been attracting pilgrims and curiosity seekers for centuries. Celebrated author Mark Twain visited India in 1896 and wrote: “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Later he said in an interview: “I think Banares is one of the most wonderful places I have ever seen. It has struck me that a Westerner feels in Banares very much as an Oriental must feel while he is planted down in the middle of London. [Source: "Mark Twain: The Complete Interviews", University of Alabama Press]

Henry Chu wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Visitors to this ancient city are invariably struck by its timelessness, the feeling that life is as it was a thousand years ago. The faithful still bathe at dawn in the holy waters of the Ganges, the bereaved cremate their dead on hazy funeral pyres, and pilgrims trace a well-trodden circuit of temples and shrines that seem as numerous as the stars. But India is nothing if not a land of collisions between past and present. And now the country that refined the ancient practice of Hinduism and the modern practice of outsourcing has found a way to marry the two in Varanasi. At its most venerable house of worship, dedicated to the god Shiva, outsourcing your prayers is possible with the click of a mouse.” [Source: Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2007]

Uttar Pradesh

Varanasi is in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous and politically powerful state (with 80 of the 543 seats in parliament). With 200 million people it has more people than all but seven nations in the world. It also one is one of the poorest, most backward states in India. In the mid 1990s only one of every five women was literate, the mean age for women at marriage was 16.7 years, the average woman had 5.4 children, and 13 of every 100 infants died before their first birthday. These figures are better now but the average per capita income is $860 , about on third India's national average. Website: www.up-tourism.com

Uttar Pradesh state covers 243,290 square kilometers (93,930square miles) and has a population density of 820 people per square kilometer, which is roughly equivalent to cramming two thirds of all U.S. residents into Colorado. About 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas. The mud huts and grass roof villages scattered across the state are reminiscent of what you see in Africa. Most villages are centered around a stone temples. Lucknow is the capital and largest city, with about 2.8 million people.

Uttar Pradesh was originally formed as the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh during British rule. Today it is the anchor of the Hindi-speaking cow belt. Caste beliefs, purdah and traditional Hindu beliefs are very strong here. Many people live in the great plain that surround the Ganges. Aga, the Taj Mahal, Varanasi, Allahabad and Lucknow are all within Uttar Pradesh.

Uttar Pradesh is one of the states that aesthetically defines India and its rich history that’s as ancient as the time known. This is the land wherein great sages have emerged, religions evolved and two great epic of India: Ramayana and Mahabharata have been inspired from. With each progressing century, the state has vouched for the secularity of India by giving home to various religions: Hindu, Jainism, Islam and Buddhism

History of Varanasi

Varanasi is believed to date back to 1400 B.C. It is mention in the Upanishads (holy Hindu scriptures that predate Buddhism) as Benaras. It may be the oldest continuously occupied city in the world. It is older than Babylon, Jerusalem and Rome. Only Damascus may be older. Lord Buddha gave his first sermon after experiencing enlightenment nearby in Sarnath in 530 B.C. By that time the city was already more than 500 years old.

Varanasi was founded on a piece of fertile land situated in a loop of the Ganges (a river that was designated sacred long before Hinduism evolved). Hinduism was introduced to Varanasi about 3000 years ago by Aryan nomads who worshiped a mother goddess, a celestial father and a king of gods who lit up the sun and exhaled the wind. No one knows exactly why Varanasi became sacred as opposed some other place up or down river, but since at least 1000 B.C., when the city was known as the Forest of Bliss, gurus, holy men and religious scholars from all over India were making pilgrimages to Varanasi.

By the A.D. seventh century, Varanasi contain a hundred temples devoted to Shiva. In the 11th century a Muslim scholar reported that Hindu worshippers "wander to it and stay there forever, as dwellers of the Ka'ba stay for ever in Mecca...that their reward after death should be better for it. They say the murderer is held responsible for his crime and punished with a punishment due his guilt, except in case he enters the city of Benares, where he obtains pardon."

Varanasi was ruled by Muslim leaders for almost 500 years. The first Muslim invasion was in 1035; in 1194 it was conquered by an Afghan general who according to legend destroyed 100 temples and carried off his booty on 1,400 camels. When the Mughals came in the 15th century they tore down Hindu Temples and in their place erected mosques (which in the meantime have been replaced again with Hindu temples).

Despite being ruled by Muslims and later Britons Varanasi has always remained essentially a Hindu city. But it was also a major trading center not just a religious gathering place. In the 18th century historian Lord Macaulay wrote that in Varanasi "commerce had as many pilgrims as religion. All along the shores of the venerable stream lay great fleets of vessels laden with rich merchandise."

Varanasi, Hinduism and Religion

Varanasi is arguably the holiest of many holy places in India. To Hindus, this city is the most sacred place on earth. They believe dying here guarantees a Hindu release from endless rebirths; and by worshiping at the Ganges here, a Hindu acquires special merits during their present life. Many Hindus come to Varanasi when they are near death. If one can't actually die here the next best thing is being cremated here and thrown into the Ganges. So auspicious is to die in Varanasi that bars have placed at the top of some wells to prevent suicide.

Varanasi is regarded as the abode of Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and rebirth. According to Hindu scripture Varanasi is the center of the Hindu universe and is such a nice place that all the gods make it their home. Tradition says it was founded by Shiva after he hid a lingam of light — or an axis mundi broke through earth — and it soared to heaven. The entire city is regarded as a lingam (a Hindu phallic symbol associated with Shiva) and an access point to his Himalayan heaven. .

Over one million pilgrims visit Varanasi's 1,500 or so temples every year. Varanasi is among the seven sacred cities in India.Varanasi's aura and religious life is most evident at its ghats (stepped banks) into the Ganges River. According to legend Lord Shiva channelled the celestial Ganga on earth, and that is why the river is considered holy. Thousands of devotees from all over the country come to bathe in its waters as it is believed that taking a dip in the holy Ganges absolves one of their sins. It is also believed that those cremated here achieve moksha (salvation). For many, the sacred Kashi Yatra (pilgrimage to Kashi, as Varanasi was earlier called) is one of the most important rituals to undertake during their lifetime.

In recent years, the city has turned into a purveyor of philosophy, yoga, the ancient medicinal science of Ayurveda, and astrology.Gurus offering courses in meditation, religion and philosophy advertise their classes with flyers and posters in the old quarter. The Varanasi area is also important to Buddhist. Sarnath, which is located merely 12 kilometers away, is also one of the holiest sites of Buddhism, It is where Lord Buddha preached his first sermon. Jain literature, too, refers to Kashi as a holy city, as it is the birthplace of four Jain tirthankaras (saints). It is said that Kabir, a 15th-century mystic poet and saint, was also born in this city.

Subah-E-Banaras and Daily Life in Varanasi

A Varanasi shopkeeper told Rama Rau about typical day: "First he would go to the Ganges to bathe, pray and wash his only set of clothes. While he waited for his clothes to dry he wrapped himself in red cloth and wrestled, lifted weights and chatted with whomever was around him. By this time the morning had vanished and he went home for lunch and a nap. At about 3:30pm he went to his favorite tea shop, had a spiced marijuana aperitif and some betelnut while he watched a classical music performance.

"Then it would suddenly occur to him that he hadn't opened his shop yet. He then dashed off to bazaar and kept his shop open until he earned enough money to take care of his needs the next day. This same man used to give his servants "wet" bags of money that they were supposed to "dry," which meant they were take a bonus."

A good way to experience Varanasi is by wandering around the city at dawn and afterwards, observing Subah-e-Banaras (the morning of Banaras). The city’s old quarters wake up at pre-dawn as temples are cleaned and priests start preparing for the morning rituals. The scene of the city transforms as the sun rises in a crimson-hued sky and devotees take dips in the holy waters of the Ganga river. The ringing of bells and the chanting of mantras echo through the city as the streets rise up to a new day. After the customary bath in the Ganga, devotees flock to the wooden umbrellas of pandals to buy roli (vermilion), chandan (sandalwood) and rakshasutra (sacred thread), which are used in the ritual of prayers.With relatively less vehicles and people on the roads, it’s an ideal opportunity to experience the aura and mysticism of the old world with the grandeur and royalty of the new, all in one place.

Varanasi is not without its problems. There are many charlatan holy men and guys that say they work for charities that roam the Ganges looking for gullible pilgrims and tourists to swindle. Some sexually exploit widows. Drug dealers try to sell kilos of hashish and opium to tourists. Tom Downey wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “What they don’t tell you about Varanasi...is that in addition to being filled with sacred temples, mischievous monkeys and bearded ascetics, it’s also full of waste of all kinds: mountains of fetid cow and other, much worse kinds of dung, muddy tributaries of dubious origin, mounds of fast-decaying flowers, shards of shattered clay cups. ” [Source: Tom Downey, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2013]

Expressing a similar sentiment, the travel writer Paul Theroux wrote: "Because nothing that is holy is regarded as dirty, holy Varanasi with its thousand temples is one of the filthiest of Indian cites and positively stinking with sanctity. From a distance in the early morning Varanasi looks wonderful. and the most glorious sight of it is from the express to Howrah as it crosses the Dufferin Bridge that spans the Ganges just east of the city. from the high vantage point of the bridge, the whole populous riverbank and all the ghats can be seen gilded in the light of the rising sun, and the city's splendor is intensified because the distance hides its decay.”

People in Varanasi

The people of Varanasi says journalist Santha Rama Rau have "a cheerful, often slightly ironic insouciance, an ease and confidence that shows in their generosity, their sense of hospitality, and their love of good conversation. They can talk for hours, forgetting mealtimes, ignoring previous appointments, if they find a subject interesting or an acquaintance diverting. "

The parade of humanity in Varanasi includes musicians who are summoned when ever a child is born; classical dancers; Sanskrit scholars; pilgrims holding sacred mint plants as they circle around a temple; hashish sellers selling stamped bricks; and bards reading Hindu epics to illiterate audiences as Homer did with the Iliad in ancient Greece. Lepers, cripples and mendicants (beggars who disdain the quest for material pursuits) flock to Hindu's holiest city because Hindu's believe that charity earns the giver blessings.

Thousands of bicycle and scooter rickshaws barrel though the city dodging ascetics, chattering monkeys, ash-smeared ganga-smoking sadhus, mating mongrels, buffalos and cows going about their sacred business. In the Ganges men take ritual baths while women wash sheets against rocks. Firewood for funeral pyres lies in two-story high stacks. Even many Indians find the place very strange.

Varanasi Culture and Music

Varanasi is said to have been an important center of trade and education for millennia and occupies a special place in the Indian consciousness, especially as a bridge to the old world. Scribes have, for long, tried to capture the essence of Varanasi in books. From the couplets of Kabir to the works of prose writers like DN Khatri, Hazari Dwivedi and Jaishankar Prasad, the city has inspired a vast body of literary, scriptural, poetic and historical works produced by some of the most famous Indian writers over centuries. Famous for silk weaving, the city offers brocade saris that are a must in most Indian brides' trousseau. The city is also famous for copper ware, brassware, wooden and clay toys, and jewelry. Gurus offering courses in music and dance advertise their classes with flyers and posters in the old quarter.

Varanasi is a world-renowned center for the Hindustani classical music. Traditional Indian musical instruments like the sarangi, tabla, shehnai, tanpura, sitar, sarod, santoor, and flute are an inextricable part of Varanasi's cultural fabric. Many great masters of Hindustani classical music like Pandit Ravi Shankar, Pandit Gopal Mishra, shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan and late vocalist Girija Devi have been residents of Varanasi. Their influence on classical and contemporary music is so strong that Varanasi also features among the ‘Cities of Music’, which has been established by UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network. The guru-shishya parampara (teacher-student tradition) still thrives in Varanasi. For music lovers, the best time to visit the city is dusring the five-day festival of dhrupad (classical Indian vocal style), in March, that attracts renowned artists from all over India to the city’s Tulsi Ghat.

The sitar player Ravi Shankar was born in Varanasi in 1920. He wrote in National Geographic Traveler: “Varanasi has a tremendous vibration — a vibration that comes in part from the millions of people...It’s a vibration that you can feel no matter what your faith. My Western friends all feel it, and sensed the same spiritual energy when I wnet o jeruselum. It comes from the life cycles displayed yp and down the ghts on the Gnga. Go there and you will feel it, too.”

Varanasi Festivals

Varanasi is rightly regarded as the city of fairs and festivals with a fair or festival being celebrated almost every month. One of the most prominent celebrations of Varanasi is Bharat Milap, which is traditionally celebrated on the day after the Dussehra festival to commemorate Lord Ram's return to Ayodhya after 14 years of exile and his reunion with his brother Bharat. The festival represents the essence of victory of the goodness over the powers of evil. The Bharat Milap celebration is organised every year at the Nati Imli place in Varanasi and Ramnagar fort with thousands of pilgrims congregating to enjoy the meeting of Lord Rama and Bharat.

Ganga Mahotsav is a popular five-day festival that is celebrated every year on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi. Held at Sant Ravidas Ghat, the festival showcases a wide variety of traditional Indian arts, crafts, cuisines and culture at one single place. The last day of the festival is the most mesmerising as the banks of Ganges are lit with thousands of earthen lamps or diyas. The chanting of Vedic mantras adds to the surreal ambience of the surroundings. This occasion is believed to be a welcome to the gods who are supposed to come down on earth and bathe in the Ganges at this time. The festival is also famous for sports tournaments like boating, kite flying, Ganga marathon, and wrestling. It is organised by the Uttar Pradesh Tourism Department.

Maha Shivaratri — the great night of Lord Shiva's wedding — is a very important festival as Varanasi is considered the city of Lord Shiva. Maha Shivaratri falls on the 14th day of the dark fortnight of the Phalgun month (February/March), according to the Hindu calendar. All the Shiva temples of Varanasi are beautifully decorated for the occasion and a marriage procession of Lord Shiva is taken out starting from Mahamrityunjaya Temple in Daranagar to the Vishwanath Temple. A big fair is held on the occasion. On this day, devotees visit Shiva temples to offer prayers and the worship can continue well into the night. People offer flowers, coconut, bhang, dhatura, fruits etc., to lingams (phallic symbols honoring Shiva) and idols.

The origin of the festival has an interesting history. According to legend both gods and demons were once churning the ocean of milk to get amrita (water of immortality). While doing so, they came across a deadly poison which exploded into fumes that threatened to envelop the whole universe. The gods then went to Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu for help, but they couldn't do anything. At last, they went to Lord Shiva to ask for help, who swallowed the poison in order to save the universe. This left a deep blue mark on his throat. A popular belief celebrates this incident on the festival.

Arti Fire Ceremony in Varanasi

The Ganga arti (holy fire ritual) is an elaborate and lively ceremony that takes place at dusk everyday on the Ganges at the ghats, primarily Dashashwamedh Ghat and the Lalita Ghat. . Amid blowing of conch shells, ringing of bells, clanging of brass cymbals and chanting chorus of mantras, priests venerate the Ganga, the lifeline of Varanasi, with brass lamps that rise several tiers. The priests performing the arti are all draped in similar clothing-- a kurta and dhoti. The preparations for the arti include collecting five elevated planks, an idol of Goddess Ganga, flowers and incense sticks. Rituals of the arti are performed by those learned in the Vedas and Upanishads and are led by the head priest of the Gangotri Seva Samiti. The arti lasts about 45 minutes. Devotees float smaller diyas on leaf platters in the river as an obeisance to the holy Ganga. As the sunlight recedes, the innumerable lamps flowing in the water make for an unforgettable sight. The hour-long ritual can be watched from the ghat or boats moored at the river bank.

Shumon Sengupta wrote in the Huffington Post: “We saw the 'Ganga Aarti' at two places. The one held daily at the crack of dawn on the Assi Ghat (Ghat, meaning stepped embankments) and the other held daily in the evening, at the Dasashwamedh Ghat, In short, the word Aarti (also spelt as Aarati) comes from the Sanskrit word "Aratrika" - meaning a ritual that dispels darkness. This ritual worship traces its origins back to the Vedic time (circa 2000 BCE) and holds deep symbolic value for Hindus. The various ingredients of an Aarti ritual includes water, flowers, lamps, incense, bells and various other ritual objects. [Source: Shumon Sengupta, Huffington Post, January 19, 2017]

“For a practicing Hindu, this ritual can potentially express a wide range of emotions including love, devotion, obeisance, gratitude or thanksgiving to a particular God or a group of Gods/Deities, and/or it can be a part of a prayer for seeking positive energy, strength and peace of mind. Very importantly, through this ritual process, the worshipper is also expected to surrender and transcend the ego. One of the most beautiful aspects of the Aarti is that after the ritual is first dedicated to chosen Goddess / God (in four cardinal directions, indicating omnipresence of God or the transcendental entity), it is then dedicated to all observers who are also, in effect, participants in the ritual. The latter dedication stems from a fundamental Hindu belief that divinity lies within each and every human being that everyone has a part of God, within. Given that the ritual celebrates both material and spiritual aspects of Hindu life, it is essentially celebratory, joyous and life affirming in nature.

“The Aarti at Assi ghat began at 4.30 in the morning and was a part of a daily morning program called "Subah-e-Banaras", which included a musical program, followed by a yoga session. The ceremonial lamps were set ablaze while it was still dark and coupled with the burning incense, it created a sublime mood, as night quickly gave way to the stillness of dawn. There was a gentle river breeze and as the sun rose from across the river, a soft pre-dawn light spread all over. We could sense world around us slowly come alive. The morning Aarti was an awakening of the body, mind and spirit; it left us with a sense of hope, of eager anticipation.

“Later in the day we took a boat from Assi Ghat to attend the evening Aarti at Dasashwamedh Ghat. A group of young priests who perform this daily ritual turned out in resplendent ceremonial dress. The ritual began at 7:00pm and lasted for 45 minutes. Blowing of conch shells, singing of devotional hymns and chants, and the pulsating sound of ceremonial bells, gongs and drums reverberated in the air, to the circular sway of large multi-tiered blazing oil lamps and a big brass camphor lamp, with a dramatic snake hood. The Lamps were so large that they had to be often held with both hands and the flames flared several feet high.

“The redolent air, heady from the burning incense, other ceremonial lustrations ('dhoop') and flowers combined with the sights and sounds to create a magical, enchanted atmosphere. We were mesmerized by the alchemy of color, by the lamps blazing against the darkness, the sounds and fragrances, and a sense of harmony and proportion in movement. It was a unique aesthetic experience which dispelled the sense of uncertainty and anxiety that generally comes with approaching darkness. It left us feeling a sense of peace, joy and reassurance. Hindu rituals involve a conscious pursuit of beauty and is essentially a creative process, translated into the practice of art. In Varanasi, watching the Ganga Aarti, we realized that if Hinduism had engendered a profusion of art through rituals, art had found a potent and dynamic space for expression through this religion.”

Ganges in Varanasi

The Ganges River is Varanasi's focal point. The best time to visit the Ganges in Varanasi is the morning. Women in saris and men in loin clothes bathe and chant in the holy river against a backdrop of ghats, minarets, temples and palaces shrouded in a smokey early morning mist. Lotus flowers, flickering butter lamps and marigold pedals float in the river along with excrement, pollution, half burned bodies and dead goats. Some of the faithful cup their hands to drink the water. Others collect it earthenware bowls and silver and brass jars to take to temples as offerings. Hindus believe that drinking the water of the Ganges is healthful even though many have come down dysentery, cholera and hepatitis after consuming it. The morning is also when bodies are cremated on the funeral pyres.

Varanasi's aura and religious life is most evident at its ghats (stepped banks) into the Ganges River. According to legend Lord Shiva channelled the celestial Ganga on earth, and that is why the river is considered holy. Thousands of devotees from all over the country come to bathe in its waters as it is believed that taking a dip in the holy Ganges absolves one of their sins. It is also believed that those cremated here achieve moksha (salvation).

A good way to experience Varanasi is by wandering around the city at dawn and afterwards, observing Subah-e-Banaras (the morning of Banaras). The city’s old quarters wake up at pre-dawn as temples are cleaned and priests start preparing for the morning rituals. The scene of the city transforms as the sun rises in a crimson-hued sky and devotees take dips in the holy waters of the Ganga river. The ringing of bells and the chanting of mantras echo through the city as the streets rise up to a new day. After the customary bath in the Ganga, devotees flock to the wooden umbrellas of pandals to buy roli (vermilion), chandan (sandalwood) and rakshasutra (sacred thread), which are used in the ritual of prayers.With relatively less vehicles and people on the roads, it’s an ideal opportunity to experience the aura and mysticism of the old world with the grandeur and royalty of the new, all in one place.

Ganges River Cruises are offered by a number of companies and boat trips are offered by private boat owners, who pester tourists as they walk along the river. It can be a memorable unforgettable experience rowing down River Ganga during sunrise in one of the many skiffs that line the banks. Bucolic conch sounds pierce the first rays of the sun and welcome the visitor to the new day, presenting a panoramic view of innumerable temples, old buildings, ashrams, palaces and the ghats along the river. A similar experience can be enjoyed at dusk, when the evening arti (a holy fire ritual) of River Ganga takes place. It is mesmerising to watch the grand ritual from the river, floating on a boat. While most of these boat rides last for about an hour, one can also book for longer durations.

Shopping in Varanasi

Stores and restaurants in Varanasi open right onto the streets. Clothing shops sell delicate silk saris with gold and silver thread. Varanasi is famous for it brocades, embroideries and embroidered saris. At one timer there were more than 100,000 weavers in Varanasi. Souvenir shops outside the temples sell marigold pedals, candy offerings, containers of holy water and lingams. Occasionally you may come across Tibetans selling mugs made from human skulls and flutes whittled from human thighbones.

In the 18th century historian Lord Macaulay wrote that in Varanasi "commerce had as many pilgrims as religion. All along the shores of the venerable stream lay great fleets of vessels laden with rich merchandise." This traditions remains alive today. Curd sellers dispense their products from pole-hung pots; Vendors sell sweets, trinkets, vegetables, balloons and clothing; and crafts man in workshops make jewelry, metal bowls, and enamel boxes.

The old bazaars of Varanasi, in the galis around Vishwanath Mandir, and at Chowk are the most famous street shopping areas in the city. From souvenirs, metal craft items, handcrafted wooden toys, jewelry, glass beads, gulabi minakari work and traditional perfumes to Banarasi saris and brocade, there is a lot on offer here. Explore the maze of alleyways at the Vishwanath Temple lane, Thathera Bazaar and Godaulia to find some of the most authentic Banarasi wares and weaves. Varanasi also has a plethora of shopping complexes that offer most modern day conveniences found in the metropolitan cities.

Varanasi Food

Varanasi is famous for its baati chokha - a traditional meal popular all across Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Balls of unleavened bread stuffed with dal (lentils), onions, peas or sattu (powdered roasted gram), are baked on wood fires and eaten with chokha (traditionally made with potato, tomato and roasted aubergine). It is said that since baati was such a simple dish many freedom fighters like Tantia Tope and Rani Laxmi Bai made it their travel meal. It hardly needed any water and could be baked without a utensil. Moreover, it was packed with nutrients like carbohydrates, calcium, proteins and vitamins.

Lassi, a popular yoghurt-based drink is the most pleasing way to end a typical Varanasi breakfast. It is traditionally served in a kullhad (earthen glass) with a thick dollop of cream, often flavored with rose water and generously garnished with condiments like cardamom. Bhaang, which is cannabis mixed in milk, is also a popular beverage here, especially consumed during the Maha Shivratri festival.

Kachori is a spicy snack that is a mainstay of north Indian food and is especially popular in Varanasi. It comprises round flattened balls of fine flour filled with a flavorful filling of dal (lentils) and spices. Kachoris are traditionally served with an accompaniment of spicy chutney. The best place to eat hot and crispy kachoris is Kachori Gali near the Vishwanath Mandir. Chaat is a savoury snack, a popular hors d'oeuvre all across India, originated in Uttar Pradesh. Varanasi is home to a wide variety of chaats made with a host of ingredients – chopped tomatoes with spices, crispy fried spinach, curd, sev (fried strips of gram flour), sweet tamarind chutney or spicy green chutney.

One cannot truly be said to have visited Varanasi without having tasted the heavenly flavors of the justly famous Banarasi paan. Betel leaf is rolled with areca nut and other condiments to make the lip-smacking paan. Moreover, the makers of the Banarasi paan have refined and elaborated the process to an art form, making it a culinary as well as a visual treat. To prepare this delicious paan, betel leaves are first cleaned. Then, betel nuts are soaked in water to remove their astringency. The kattha (food additive) is dipped into water and then after a few days, soaked in milk. It is then boiled and left to decant. After sometime, it is tied into clothes and pressed hard to remove its astringency. This kattha is then churned. The tobacco used in the paan is yellow or plain tobacco. All of these steps then culminate to create the delectable Banarasi paan

Banaras Sari Weaving

Banaras, Uttar Pradesh (25.2820° N, 82.9563° E) is one of the Saree Weaving Clusters of India that was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2014. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Banaras is home to the iconic brocade sari. Built heritage of Banaras sari weaving settlement is intact to a large extent, with a large number of weavers still in their original homes and active looms. Designs and motifs are sourced from architecture. Weavers comprise almost 25 percent of Banaras city's population (about 110,000), who trace their presence in the city between three hundred and a thousand years. European and Indian royalty patronised the craft of Banarasi sari, and it flourished, absorbing influences from Islamic traditions and Hindu lore. [Source: Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO]

“Craftsmanship means more than technical virtuosity. It is not only a profound understanding of materials, and of the tools with which materials are fashioned, but most importantly it involves a genuine pride which drives an individual to craft and weave as well as can be done, beyond what is required, beyond economic considerations of reward. An excellent example of such craftsmanship is sari weaving in India. The sari is undoubtedly distinguishable as the Indian woman’s traditional attire and is essentially a valuable Indian contribution to the world’s cultural heritage and diversity. Rooted in history and maintaining continuity as a contemporary garment, the sari survives as a living traditional clothing. Traced to the Vedic civilization, evolving with cross-cultural influences of trade, confluences of techniques and patterns, the sari still has innovations in its production processes. As an unstitched garment for women, it has no parallels in terms of versatility, richness of color, texture, and variety of weaving techniques using different kinds of yarn, including cotton, silk, gold and silver thread.

“However, the craftsmanship is not only limited to the final product i.e. the sari but also in the space in which they are produced. The houses of craftsmen are example of vernacular architecture, where the architecture has evolved over a large span of time. The Plan of a weaver’s house developed from the livelihood needs of the inhabitants. Built from local materials and available technology, they aptly cater to the needs of the craftsmen. This pan-India serial comprises of sites from five Indian states: Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Assam. It focuses on the tangible elements of sari weaving clusters irrespective of the popularity of the sari.”

Getting to Varanasi

Getting There: Kolkata to Varanasi is 14 hours by train. A ticket for the 16-hour express train between Delhi and Varanasis is about US$50. Several airlines including IndiGo and Jet Airways fly between Mumbai, Delhi and Varanasi and other cities. Remember that flight schedules are often disrupted in November to February, the best time to visit, by fog. The one-way fare from Delhi is $150; from Mumbai, $250.

By Air: The Lal Bahdur Shastri Airport is located 25 kilometers northwest of the city and operates regular flights to Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Vishakhapatnam. Buses, taxis and tuk-tuks/auto rickshaws regularly ply between the airport and the city.

By Road: Varanasi is connected by reasonably good roads to nearby cities. The bus station in Varanasi is located just east of the Varanasi Junction railway station. There are buses running regularly from Lucknow, Gorakhpur, Khajurao, Kanpur, Faizabad, Bodhgaya and Allahabad.

By Train: Varanasi is served by three major railway stations – the Varanasi Junction, the Manduadih railway station and the nearby Mughal Sarai Railway station. There are multiple daily trains to and from Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Agra and Lucknow.

Local Accommodation and Transportation: A wide variety of accommodation available, ranging from small guest houses on the banks of the Ganges to five-star hotels in the Cantonment Area, a fairly quiet and less hectic neighborhood. A taxi and driver can be hired for around US$50 a day. Most people get around in black-an-yellow, three-wheeled autorickshaws.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: India tourism website ( incredibleindia.org), India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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