GHATS, TEMPLES AND PLACES IN VARANASI

ORIENTATION AND LAYOUT OF VARANASI

Varanasi is divided into three areas: 1) the Old City; 2) the Cantonment area, a former British compound; and 3) the area around Benares Hindu University. The Old City is made up of four zones that radiate out like a target from the Golden Temple of Vishnvanath on the east side of the Ganges.

The one-kilometer-in-diameter circular zone around the temple is known as Antargriha. Most of the important ghats and temples are concentrated in this area. The next area, about three kilometers in diameter, is Avimukta. The next area, about six kilometers in area, is Varanasi and the forth area, a rectangular box enclosing the Panchkroshi Road pilgrimage route is know as Kashi, the city's ancient name.

“Gullies” are lanes in Varanasi's back streets that are so narrow that direct sunlight rarely reaches the streets. This is where much of everyday life in Varanasi takes place. The walls of houses are covered with painting of elephants, monkeys and swordsmen as well as cow dung being dried into fuel.

Vishwanatha Khanda (Old City) is flanked by Dashashwamedha Ghat and Godaulia on south and west, and the Manikarnika Ghat on the north. Visitors can walk through a maze of narrow alleys and the Vishwanatha Gali (lane) to reach the Vishwanatha or Vishweshwara temple complex. The temple is located on Visanath Lane, a twisting, bustling, stone-flagged alleyway near Dasashvamedh Ghat. Stalls along the narrow lane sell butter lamps, flowers and sweets used as offerings. Gurus offering courses in meditation, religion, philosophy and music advertise their classes with flyers and posters in the old quarter.

Varanasi Pilgrimage Routes

Panchkroshi Road is an important part of the 50-mile pilgrimage route that many Hindu devotees follow when they come to Varanasi. The pilgrimage begins at Manikaranika Ghat with a ritual bath and prayers and ends at the confluence of the Ganges and Vruan River. The pilgrims start their journey before dawn. In the course of five days they stop at 108 sacred sites to worship. Many of the sites are unadorned shrines or painted rock formations honored since ancient times. Sometimes the pilgrims fix humble meals in front of the shrines, offering food first to the deities and then taking some for themselves.

The followers travel in groups and spend the night in rest houses donated by rich patrons, sometimes with free room and board. Every Hindu hopes to take this pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime the same way every Muslim hopes to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. The pilgrimage is believed to "approximate in miniature the girdling of the whole world." Items the pilgrims bring back to their villages from Varanasi are reverently displayed in their houses.

Five Fords, another popular pilgrimage route in Varanasi, begins at Asi Ghat. "Ford" in this case is not a river crossing but a crossing from the material world to the spiritual one. After bathing in the Ganges, the pilgrims follow the river north, praying and making offerings as they go. Pilgrims stop at Panchganga Ghat, Tulsi Ghat, Jaendra Pasad Ghat, Dasashvamedh Ghat, Andamayi Ghat and Adi Keshav Temple. Their final stop is Manikarnika Ghat, where they take a bath.

Varanasi Temples and Religious Buildings

By one count there are 1,500 temples in Varanasi. This figure includes small shrines about the size of a road marker. Most of the temples have been built in the past 200 years due to the earlier destruction of the ancient complexes. Noted shrines and religious buildings include the Great Mosque of Aurangzeb, the most prominent structure situated on the highest ground; the Golden Temple of Vishwanath, dedicated to Biseswar (Shiva); and the Durga Temple, favored by tourists for its swarms of monkeys.

Thousand of Hindu temples lace Varanasi and they are visited by thousands of pilgrims every day. They vary in size from the large opulent Golden Temple to ones the size of a closet. Most of them look new, even though they are located on sites that have been designated as holy for thousands of years, because they are constantly rebuilt. In the 1880s an Englishman attempted to count all the temples in Varanasi's most sacred area. When he got to 1,500 and realized he still had hundred yet to go, he gave up. As far as anyone knows no one has tried to count them since then.

There are temples devoted to many gods and many things. There is even a smallpox temple attended by a regular stream of visitors, even though no one gets smallpox any more. Many temples are devoted to Shiva in his many guises and forms. Phallic-shaped lingas that honor him are so numerous that Varanasi has been described as the city "made of lingas." Many of the temples unfortunately are closed to non-Hindus.

Souvenir shops outside the temples sell marigold pedals, candy offerings, containers of holy water and lingams. The palaces, temples and ghats in Varanasi were built by Hindu rulers, many of them from outside Varanasi. Even Varanasi train station looks like a Hindu temple.

Golden Temple of Vishwanath

Golden Temple of Vishwanath (on Visanath Lane in central Varanasi) is the most important temple in Varanasi. It is dedicated to Lord Shiva and houses Shiva’s linga, “a fiery column of light” in the central shrine that is said to be Shiva’s home. Nadi bulls outside guard the temple. Vishwanath is one the few temples in Varanasi open to non-Hindus. In the old days non-Hindus were not allowed to enter the temple but friendly shop owners in an alley by the temple let visitors climb to a second story balcony so they could peer inside. These days non-Hindu tourists are allowed inside. They endure a lengthy security check but are allowed to jump the line ahead of Hindu devotees that have been waiting for hours.

The Golden Temple of Vishwanath (Vishwanath Mandir also spelled Vishvanath) is popularly called the golden temple of Varanasi as it has a massive gold plating on its spire although this spire is often hard to see because the temple is surrounded by closely-packed building. The temple houses THE most important Shiva lingam in the world and this attracts thousands of devotees a day. The lingam is a smooth black stone situated in a solid silver plinth. The temple is the most sacred place in Varanasi, besides being an architectural marvel.

Vishwanath Mandir has endured despite being destroyed by Muslim rulers and forcibly moved from its original site and being damaged by pollution and shoddy infrastructure. In 1669 Mughal Emperor Aurangzed tore down an older version of the temple and erected a mosque in its place. Before the temple was torn down a priest took a lingam devoted to Lord Shiva and hid it until a new Hindu temple was built in the 18th century. The temple was given its present shape in 1780 by queen Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore. The iconic 15.5-meter-high gold spire and gold dome were donated by Ranjeet Singh, the ruler of Punjab in 1839. The temple is ensconced within a maze of other shrines and narrow galis or walkways lined by shops selling sweetmeats, paan (betel leaf), handicrafts and other knick-knacks.

In one alcove inside the temple you can see the lingam; in another alcove is a spectacular polychromatic statue of the elephant-headed god Ganesh. Every day the Ganesh's bed is made, and the statue is draped in flowers, dressed in a robe and given offerings. In a courtyard near Vishwanath is an orange statue of a bull, Shiva's mount, attracts sacred cows and pilgrims who wander throughout the temple. Also worth checking out are the gold-plating on the "shikharas," a gift from a one eyed Sikh king named Maharajah Ranjit Singh.

Pilgrims and Worship at the Golden Temple of Vishwanath

Thousands of pilgrims visit the Golden Temple of Vishwanath every day to make offerings, express darshan and perform arati, which takes place four times each day. Sometimes cows and bulls mills around with the people. Worshippers sometimes wait for hours in the stone-flagged alleyway next to the temple. Stalls sell butter lamps, flowers and sweets used as offerings. The time for darshan is from 4:00am to 11:00pm.

In a building in the central courtyard of the temple is the black Shiva lingam situated within a silver-lined pit. As worshipers walk by they pray and throw in their offerings of flower pedals and powder. An arati (a Hindu religious ritual) is held here by 11 priest who wear nothing but loincloths, sacred threads and religious beads. While Vedic verses are chanted the priests shout and take ghee, honey, milk and Ganges water from a silver tray and anoint the lingham. Wreaths of marigolds and orange paste (which the priests use to streak their forehead) are later draped over the lingam and an image of a five-headed cobra. While this is going on other priests light incense stick and worshipers ring bells and beat on drums. The ritual climaxes when the worshipers throw combustible butter on the lingam causing it to briefly flare up like a roman candle. The worshippers then touch their forehead with Ganges water and touch the lingam to receives its blessing.

The worship by the pilgrims at Vishwanath is a form of darshan. Darshan (also spelled Darsan) is an important aspect of Hindu worship. It refers to viewing an image of a deity. "A Hindu goes to a temple," writes historian Daniel Boorstin, "not to 'worship,' but rather 'for darśan ” ...Darsan is a two-way flow of vision. While the devotee sees his god, so too the god sees the devotee, and the two make contact through their eyes. In the building of a new temple...when the images of the gods are made, their eyes are the last to be completed...The bulbous or saucer eyes that make Indian paintings of gods seem so bizarre to us are clues to the dominance of vision in the Hindu's relation to his gods. Many gods, like Shiva and Ganesh, have a third eye in the center of their foreheads. Brahma, the Thousand Eyes, regularly has four heads, to look in all directions at once, and sometimes he has leopard-spot eyes all over his body."

The importance given darshan can be appreciated by the attention that is sometimes lavished on images that are worshiped. In large temples where there are a large number of attendants, the image is woken up in the morning and washed, fed and prepared with flowers and incense before it is placed on its throne in the shrine room. In some cases the images are fanned and entertained with music throughout the day. In the old days many temples had their own troupe of dancers that entertained the images and could be enjoyed by worshipers for a fee.

Major Temples in Varanasi

Temple of Annapurna (adjacent to Golden Temple of Vishwanath) is another famous Varanasi temple, dedicated to Annapurna with another temple, Dundiraj Vinayak, dedicated to Lord Ganesha. Annapurna, the goddess of food, nourishment and abundance, is an aspect of the goddess Parvati and is often depicted with a pot overflowing with rice and a vessel filled to the brim with milk. She is the deity that beggars often prey to. The temple is the site of the autumn Annakuta festival that features devotees filling the temple with “holy food” that is given to the poor. The temple is located on the banks of River Ganges and the jyotirlinga (devotional shrine of Lord Shiva) present here is believed to be the 12th jyotirlinga. The temple campus also has a well called Jnana Vapi or wisdom well. Many believe that the jyotirlinga was kept in the well to protect it and the main saint of the temple jumped into the well to keep it from intruders. The temple finds immense significance in Hindu mythology as many great saints from the religion are believed to have visited this site to get the darshan of the jyotirlinga and to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganga.

Kal Bhairav is a temple devoted to Siva's as the enforcer of divine law. Here priests perform symbolic executions and give rewards and mete out punishments to the dead. They also cleanse followers of their sins and administer Hindu justice to the citizens of Varanasi. Lord Kal Bhairav, the source of the temple’s name, is the fiercest form of Lord Shiva. The main idol in the temple features a man wearing a garland with a skull for a face. A popular belief here is that Kal Bhairava decides who stays in Varanasi, and perhaps that is why those coming to the city, first visit the temple, and those leaving stop here to take the god's permission. The entrance to the temple is narrow and one can see the deity from it. Devotees like to offer sesame oil and flowers to the deity. The inner sanctum has a back entrance but only priests can access it. There are many shops lined outside the premises in case visitors need to buy offerings for the god.

Jangamwadi Math (300 meters from Ganges, near Chousatti Ghat, in Central Varanasi) is a monastery with a courtyard covered with more 60,000 lingams, the small stone phallic symbols representing Shiva's regenerative powers. Tens of thousands more lingams are buried underground. the monastery has small mausoleum-like rooms where pilgrims stay during the annual feast to commemorate Shiva's marriage. Priest in the monastery drape the lingams with flowers, anoint them with ghee and wash them with Ganges water and sacred cow milk.

Durga Mandir (500 meters from the Ganges and Tulsi Ghat) is known as Monkey Temple due to the hordes monkeys found there. Within the compound is a kund (pond), lined by stone stairs on all sides and watch-pillars standing at each corner. The temple is an important pilgrimage site for Hindu devotees, especially during Navaratri (a Hindu festival during which the goddess is worshipped). Among the devotees, there is a popular belief that the idol of Goddess Durga came into being on its own, and the red hues of the temple are a tribute to the goddess who is associated with the color. Many believe that the goddess protects devotees from problems.

Brahmacharini Durga Temple (close to the Durga Ghat on the banks of Ganges) is another famous Durga temple in Varanasi. Adi Keshav Temple is located at the at the confluence of the Varuna River and the Ganges. It is one of the few temples in Varanasi dedicated to Vishnu.

Sankat Mochan Mandir (southern Varanasi, close to Assi Ghat and Banaras Hindu University) is one of the oldest temples dedicated to Lord Hanuman. Founded by saint Tulsidas, the temple is very popular among devotees. The word 'sankat mochan' translates into one who helps remove sufferings. Many devotees believe that visiting this temple would put an end to their miseries. Tuesdays and Saturdays, considered as holy days, see maximum crowds who flock to the temple to worship the deity. People offer sindoor or vermilion to the idol of Lord Hanuman along with ladoos (spherical sweets). The sindoor is then put on the forehead of devotees. The temple is also the venue for several classical musical festivals, including the week-long Sankat Mochan Sangeet Samaroh, that takes place annually in April.

Tulsi Manas Mandir pays homage to the 6th-century Indian bhakti poet Goswami Tulsidas, the author of the epic Ramcharitramanas. The temple was constructed in 1964. Made with white marble, the temple is beautifully landscaped and has verses and scenes from the Ramcharitramanas engraved on its walls. Located close to the Banaras Hindu University, it has a lot of historic and cultural importance primarily because Goswami Tulsidas is credited with popularising the Indian epic Ramayan, by writing it in Awadhi, a dialect of the Hindi language, thereby making it accessible to the masses. The temple is dedicated to Lord Rama and is near to the famous Durga temple. It houses beautiful idols of Lord Rama, Goddess Sita, Lord Lakshmana and Lord Hanuman. It also has a lovely garden.

Parshavnath Jain Temple (away from the city center, in Bhelapur) is dedicated to the 23rd tirthankara (saint) of the Jain religion, Parshavnath. Primarily managed by the Digambara sect of Jainism, the temple is a prominent pilgrimage center for members of the Jain community. It is believed to date back to the time of Bhagawan Adinath. It is said that that the svayamvar of the daughter of the king of Kashi, Sulochana, was held here. The tirth also finds mention in Vividh Tirth Kalpa, which was written by Acharya Jinaprabhsurisvarji, a scholar, in the 14th century. The lattice work of the temple is delicate and intricate and the carvings along the walls of the structure add to its value.

Sights in Varanasi

Maharajah's Place is where Queen Elizabeth slept when she visited Varanasi and where King Saud of Saudi Arabia had one of his first vegetarian meals (which he liked so much he stole the maharajah's cook). The former maharajah, who no longer has his title but is respected in Varanasi as Sanskrit scholar and a purveyor of Banaras culture, likes to entertain his guests in the drawing room.

Mosque of Aurangzeb was built in the 17th century by a Mughal emperor on the ruins of a Hindu temple. Specimens of ancient temple art are still evident in the foundation and the rear of the mosque. Aurangzeb ruled in the 17th century. He destroyed many of the most important temples in Varanasi and renamed the city "Muhammadabab." He was so strict that the playing of music was forbidden on the grounds that it was idolatrous. No temple in the sacred city predates his reign. Almagir Mosque (also known as Beni Madhave Ka Darera) was originally a temple devoted to Vishnu. It is a mix of Hindu and Mughal styles of architecture.

Kabir Chaura is a neighbourhood in central Varanasi where the mystic poet and saint Kabir Das is said to have lived. In his honour, a memorial called Kabir Math has been erected that boasts paintings depicting the events of the saint's life. Tourists can also visit the nearby Ramapura locality, which is popular for being the home of a large number of illustrious artistes, including classical musicians Pandit Bade Ramdas, Harishankar Mishra, tabla player Samta Prasad, and vocalists brothers Rajan and Sajan Mishra. Also known as the “mohalla of musicians”, the Banaras gharana (school) of music has thrived here. The Chaura is located north of the Banaras Hindu University, near Kabir Chura Hospital, DAV Inter College, Adarsh Grounds and Gandhi Park. One can travel here easily as it lies about 2 kilometers from the Varanasi and Kashi Railway Stations.

Ramnagar Fort is located on the eastern bank of River Ganges, opposite to Tulsi Ghat, in Varanasi. The 18th-century red sandstone fort was built in Mughal style by the ruler of Kashi, Maharaja Balwant Singh. It is said to be the ancestral home of the Maharaja of Banaras. A 30-minute boat ride away from Varanasi, the fort is an imposing sight, rising from the bank of the river. It houses a temple dedicated to Ved Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharata, along with a popular temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman. A museum inside the compound showcases collectables belonging to the royal family. It is known for its exhibits of antique scripts and scriptures, vintage furniture, cars, royal costumes, gold and silver brocaded palanquins and elephant saddles carved out of silver. There is an armoury that contains swords and old guns from Burma (Myanmar), Japan and some African countries, and a rare astronomical clock, which shows the month, week, day, time and other astronomical details about the position of planets, moon and sun. The clock was built in the 19th century in the court of a king of Varanasi. It is said that Ved Vyasa lived and did penance in Ramnagar and thus the fort was built in his honour. The fort palace appears most vibrant during the one-month-long Ram Leela festival held in the months of October-November, where scenes from the epic Ramayana are enacted.

Ghats of Varanasi

The ghats running along River Ganges are among Varanasi’s most famous features. The ghats have been a source of inspiration for artists, film-makers, photographers, writers and musicians for centuries. There are about 88 ghats in the city and most of them are used as bathing sites while a few, like Manikarnika Ghat, are exclusively designated for cremation purposes. As a dip in Ganga is considered holy in the Hindu religion, most of the ghats are dedicated to religious rituals, the most popular being Dashashwamedh.

Ghats are passages or stairways leading to a river, in this case the Ganges. The word "ghat" literally means "step." There are 12 major ghats in Varanasi, with holiest ones located near the Golden Temple of Vishwanath, and several dozen smaller ones. Many of buildings around the ghats are covered with ads for soft drinks, laxatives and political candidates. About 35,000 bodies are burned every year in the cremation ghats.

Most of Varanasi's ghats were rebuilt after 1700, when the city was under the rule of the Maratha empire. Marathas, Holkars, Shindes (Scindias), Peshwas and Bhonsles are the patrons of the current ghats.At one end of the line of ghats, is Assi, which is famous for morning yoga sessions.The evening arti (a religious ritual with lamps) at the ghats, primarily at Dashashwamedh, is a sight to behold. One of the more visually spectacular ghats is the Lalita Ghat.

It is widely believed that people are cleansed mentally, physically and spiritually at Ganga ghats and thus, they have been flocking to this place for thousands of years to offer prayers to the rising sun. While visiting the city, visitors can take a boat ride on the river and enjoy the spiritual fervour of the bustling ghats, some of which are privately owned.

Life and Death at the Ghats of Varanasi

Sitting under large toadstool-shaped straw parasols at many of the ghats are Brahman priests, known as pandas, who help fledgling pilgrims with their prayers and provide offerings of sweets and marigolds for a small contribution. In addition to ritual bathing people come to the ghats to do their chores, enjoy themselves and run errands. Every night a Brahmin priest performs a Hindu ritual to the sound of beating drums. Hundreds of candles are set in cups made from dried reeds and released to float down the river. Sometimes hawkers try to get money from tourists for simply being there.

Street barbers shave their customers; children fly kites; workers pour concrete; children wash their pets; souvenir sellers sell chillum pipes and kumkum forehead powder; and tourists snap picture of it all. The ghats are connected by stretches of concrete and black mud, making it possible to walk the entire length of the Ganges in the old city. Not far away are hospices filled with people that are ready to die and be cremated.

The funeral pyres in Varanasi go day and night. More than 38,000 corpses are cremated each year on its riverbanks. The ashes are poured into the river, which carries them the sea and ultimately to heaven. The evening is the best time to observe the cremations. There are usually at least a half dozen of them going simultaneously in various stages. The smell of burning flesh and sandalwood fills the air. Doms tend the fires, poking the logs, and shovel ashes into the Ganges. Onlookers include mourners, tourists and scabby dogs. Each pyre fire is lit with a sacred flame that is believed to have been going since 3102 B.C., when the Stya Yuga era began.

Important Ghats in Varanasi

Anandamayi Ghat is named after a woman saint who died in 1982. Here there is a beautiful garden, an ashram, and one of the best hospitals in Varanasi. Panchganga Ghat is one of the most beautiful ghats. It has broad stairs. Panchganga Ghat is filled with 40-foot-long bamboo poles with sky lamps for the dead. And Ganga Mahal Ghat is dominated by latticework towers of a maharajah's palace. Jaendra Pasad Ghat (next to Dasahvamdh) is one of the newest ghats. Named after one of the first presidents of India, it has a water tower with movie posters of Shiva.

Harish Chandra Ghat is one of the two cremation ghats and is also known as Adi Manikarnika, which means the original creation ground. It is much smaller than Manikarnika that is a more significant ghat for cremation. However, Hindus come from distant places to this ghat to have their dead cremated here as many believe that they would get moksha (salvation). This is one of the oldest ghats in the holy city of Varanasi and has been named after mythological king Harish Chandra. It is said that the king once worked on this ghat for the perseverance of truth and charity. The gods impressed with his endeavours rewarded him and restored his lost kingdom and dead son to him. The ghat was modernised in 1980s when an electric crematorium was established here.

Tulsi Ghat is named after Tulsi Das, a 16th century poet famous for popularizing the epic Ramayana and translating it from Sanskrit to Hindi. The Ramayana describes the adventures of the god Rama, his wife Sita and their pal Hanuman — the monkey god. The poet's house faces the ghat and inside the museum there you can see the poet’s sandals and the image of Hanuman he revered. Near the house is the temple of Hanuman.

Assi Ghat (the furthest south to the main ghats) is one of the biggest ghats, drawing many devotees. It is located at a particularly important spot, where the River Ganga meets the Assi river. Visitors come here to worship a lingam of Lord Shiva, kept beneath a peepal tree. The evening arti (a holy fire ritual) held here is a spectacular sight when mantras are chanted, conches are blown and even the air feels heavy with a spiritual fervour. This ghat is famous for its morning yoga sessions and devotional music. It is also a starting point for boating rides.

According to legend Goddess Durga, after killing demons Shumbha-Nishumbha, threw her sword in a river (called Assi). That is why this ghat has been named so. While the evening arti invites visitors regularly, the ghat is especially crowded during the months of chaitya (March/ April) and magh (January/ February). Other significant events like lunar/solar eclipse, Makar Sakranti and Probodhoni Ekadashi also see swarming crowds.

Manikarnika Ghat

Manikarnika Ghat (between Dashashwamedh Ghat and Scindia Ghat) is Varanasi’s largest cremation ghat and one of the most auspicious and sacred ghats for Hindus. There is a pond nearby Manikarnika Ghat that is believed to have been dug by Lord Vishnu so that Lord Shiva and Goddess Shakti could bathe. A footprint near the pond is said to belong to Lord Vishnu, left from the time when he had meditated in Varanasi. As one goes up the steps, they can see a well-known tank, called Manikarnika well. According to legend Goddess Parvati dropped her earring here and Lord Shiva dug a hole to find it. It is said that the depression was filled with his sweat, thereby resulting in a well.

The most sacred of all ghats, Manikarnika is named after a jeweled earring dropped into Ganges by a god or goddess. The pool here links creation with the universe.The ghat is mentioned in some pieces of literature of the 5th century. It is said that when Goddess Shakti immolated herself in her father's yagya (fire ritual), her husband, Lord Shiva was bereaved, and maddened with grief, he carried her corpse on his shoulder and traversed the whole universe. Terrified that Lord Shiva's dance of cosmic destruction (tandava) would destroy the whole universe, Lord Vishnu shredded Shakti's body with his chakra. The place where her earring fell is called Manikarnika.

Manikarnika Ghat is where funeral pyres are lit pretty much around the clock, night and day. The strange cracking sound you hear is when the skull has been split open by the he fire, releasing the soul. Dozens of shrouded bodies are sometimes laid out on litters waiting their turn to be burned, and several corpses are burned at the same time, with each in a different stage of the cremation process. The walls around ghat are blacken from fires that are never allowed to die. Huge piles of wood feed the fires The cremations are performed by the Doms, the sub caste that usually dress in black rags. The processions to the ghat are often accompanied by singing, dancing and drumming.

Dasahvamedh Ghat

Dasahvamedh Ghat is one of the oldest and most visited ritual sites in Varanasi. It is also the most popular, easiest to get to, and busiest ghat. Bathers and tourist gather here and boats offering tours of the Ganges leave from here. "Dasahvamedh" refers to the ritual sacrifice of ten horses by the creator-god Brahma. Beggars considered this a prime spot to beg, There are long lines of them, many of them widows sitting on pieces of plastic.

Dashashwamedh is most famous for its Ganga arti ( a holy fire ritual), which is an elaborate and lively ceremony that takes place at dusk everyday. 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.

The name 'Dashashwamedh' means the place where Lord Brahma sacrificed ten horses. It is also said that Bajirao Peshwa I had the ghat reconstructed in 1740. It was later constructed over by the queen of Indore, Ahilyabai Holkar, in 1774. This ghat lies very close to the famous Vishwanath Mandir.

Universities and Educational Institutions in Varanasi

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.

Varanasi is a world-renowned center for the Hindustani classical music and The guru-shishya parampara (teacher-student tradition) still thrives in Varanasi. Gurus offering courses in meditation, religion, philosophy and music advertise their classes with flyers and posters in the old quarter. Sampurnanand Sanskrit University, built in the middle of the 18th century, features a very out-of-place Neo-Gothic building. Jain Vidyalaya College is located near the site where two of the 24 Jain prophet teachers were born.

Arabic Center of Islamic Studies is an indication that Varanasi is not just a Hindu city. Some 25 percent of the city's residents are Muslim, and the city itself was ruled by Muslim leaders for almost 500 years.

Bharat Mata Mandir was inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi. A unique temple dedicated to Mother India, it houses a relief map of India carved out of marble and is home to Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth, another important center of learning in Varanasi. The Bharat Mata Temple is located within the campus of this varsity. This unique temple, which worships no gods or goddesses except Bharat Mata (Mother India), was inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi in 1936. The temple houses a marble statue of Bharat Mata (Mother India), which is modelled to symbolise India. Its design indicates the goddess of India for all the religious deities, leaders and freedom fighters. It also houses a marble relief geographical map of undivided India, representing plains, mountains and oceans. The temple was constructed by Babu Shiv Prasad Gupt. It is an eight-storeyed structure with a height of about 180 feet.

Banaras Hindu University

Banaras Hindu University (BHU) (in the suburbs of Varanasi) is one of the largest universities in India. Founded in 1916 on 1,300-acre piece of land donated by the maharajah of Varanasi who was a scholar of Sanskrit and Hindu philosophy, it is the largest residential university in Asia, combining Western teaching methods with Indian subject matter.

BHU was founded by renowned social reformer and freedom fighter Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, with the cooperation of nationalist leaders and Gandhians such British socialist Dr Annie Besant. The university counts many freedom fighters, as well as a great number of scholars, artistes and scientists among its alumni. With well-maintained roads, a large temple, an airstrip and several buildings of architectural significance, the university, with a dense green cover, resembles a sub-city. Its wide streets are lined with trees on either side and make for great walking avenues. With accommodation available for over 30,000 students within the main campus, BHU is one of the largest residential universities in Asia. One should visit this campus for its unique buildings and a museum called Bharat Kala Bhavan, which lies within the premises. The museum houses miniature paintings, palm-leaf manuscripts, sculptures and history displays. These highly valuable archives are more than a lakh in number. One can also interact with the locals and students while visiting the campus.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “BHU aimed to promote the study of the Hindu Shastras and of Sanskrit literature as a means of preserving and popularizing the best thought and culture of the Hindus and all that was good and great, learning and research in arts and science in all branches, to advance and diffuse such scientific ,technical and professional knowledge as is best calculated, to help in promoting indigenous industries and in developing the material resources of the country and to promote the building up of character in youth, by making religion and ethics an integral part of education. [Source: Archaeological Survey of India]

“Banaras Hindu University ranks among the first few in the country in the field of academic and research output. This university has two campuses with a number of institutes, faculties, departments, advanced centers and interdisciplinary schools all working towards excellence in areas of Science, Social Science, Technology, Medicine and Agriculture. It is also associated with a number of outreach programs in community development, social work, environmental protection, rainwater harvesting etc. its social welfare agricultural extension program promotes services in rural development and self-employment.”

Banaras Hindu University Museum features 17th century Kashmiri shawls that feel like silk, a large crystal pendant dating back to the 3rd century B.C., jade dagger hilts, opium cups, and archery thumb rings inscribed and dated by Emperor Jehangir. Many of the Rajput miniatures, showing women playing with serpents, have songs to accompany them (sometimes the curator if will sing them).

Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum (at Benares Hindu University) is an art museum so rich in artifacts that "the overflow of sculptures gods and goddesses has been head on the corridors." There are sandstone sculptures, paintings and photos associated with all of the major religions: Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity.

Bhadohi

Bhadohi(16 kilometers from Varanasi) is a small hamlet known for its colorful, handmade carpets and is home to the one of the largest hand-knit and handwoven carpet industries in South Asia. It draws admirers and shoppers from across the country. It is believed that the craft of carpet-making was introduced in Bhadohi in the 16th century by Iranian travelers.

In fact, the city produces a wide variety of beautiful carpets handwoven with ethnic designs – such as dhurry, loribaft, chhapra mir, indo gabbeh and even Napalese carpets. One can take a firsthand look at the process of carpet making here. The iconic Indian Institute of Carpet Technology is also located in Bhadohi and promotes carpet designing techniques in the area. There are many famous temples in Bhadohi like the Sitamarhi Temple, which is located on the banks of the Ganges. According to legend this was the place where Goddess Sita had absorbed herself into the earth.

A 110-foot-tall statue of Lord Hanuman stands here and is believed to be the world's highest statue of the god. Some other temples worth a visit are Shani Dham, Tilanga Shivjatpur, Tilngeswarnath and Bhadrakaali.

Jaunpur (55 kilometers from Varanasi) was once an important Muslim center where art and architecture found patronage. Today it is known for its perfumes and incense.

Chandra Prabha Wildlife Sanctuary

Chandra Prabha Wildlife Sanctuary (40 kilometers south of Varanasi) is spread over an area of 78 square kilometers in the Vindhya mountains, the forest of the Chandra Prabha Wildlife Sanctuary has been named after the Chandraprabha river, which means the luminescence of moon. The river is a tributary of River Karamnasha and both of them pass through the forest to finally meet River Ganges. The sanctuary was established in 1957 and was once famous for Asiatic lions.

Today, it is home to a wide variety of animals like leopard, hyena, wolf, wild boar, nilgai, sambar deer, chinkara, chital, blackbuck, gharial, python and many species of birds. With waterfalls like Devdari and Rajdari and several trekking paths, the sanctuary is ideal for a day's getaway from Varanasi. In addition, its many caves and mountains make it a hotspot for adventure travel. Visitors can also view beautiful cave paintings, parks, watchtowers, the sunset point and rock shelters.

The forest is also home to an indigenous tribal population, which celebrates with native forms of dance and music that convey the untold tales of the tribes. One can spend an evening here listening to the rhythms of the community. The best time to visit the place is from July to February and the entry gate is located at Chandraprabha Dam.

Chunar

Chunar (40 kilometers from Varanasi) in the Mirzapur district is famous for its close association with the Afghan ruler Sher Shah Suri who dethroned Humayun in the 16th century. Chunar is an ancient town on the banks of River Ganges. A popular attraction in this town is Chunar Fort that was established by Maharaja Vikramaditya, king of Ujjain, for his brother, Raja Bhartihari. The fort is sprawled across an area of 34,000 square feet and is a solid structure standing on a rock. Since it is located on a steep slope, it used to be practically impregnable. From here, one can get splendid views of the gushing Ganges as it flows in its pristine glory.

Other attractions in the fort complex are the samadhi (grave) of Bhartihari, the bungalow of Warren Hastings (former governor-general of India), prisons, the Hanging Place and the Sonwa Mandap. There is also a well called the Well of Love, which was constructed by king Vikramaditya for his wife, who used it for ablutions. The well also has secret dungeons and changing rooms. A stone umbrella built by king Sahadeo to mark his victory over 52 rulers, is another interesting sight. It is said an underground tunnel running from the fort connects it to nearby Vijaygarh and Raigarh.

There are several legends around the establishment of Chunar, among which the most popular one says that it was earlier known as Charandari, because Lord Vishnu took his first step here during his Vaman incarnation in the Satyug period. However, Chunar came to be highlighted after the visit of Mughal emperor Babur, followed by other Mughals successors, and later the British.

Kaimoor Wildlife Sanctuary

The Kaimoor Wildlife Sanctuary (100 kilometers from Varanasi) is a serene forested area spread over an area of 1,342 square kilometers and dotted with waterfalls, of which the finest are, Karkat and Telhar falls. The sanctuary is most famous for its blackbuck population and is home to several other animals like tiger, leopard, wild boar, sloth bear, sambar deer, chital, four-horned antelope and nilgai.

In addition to these, crocodiles, pythons and other different species of snakes are also found. The place is a nice spot for birdwatchers who can spot more than 70 species of resident birds during the year, along with many migratory birds. Some of the common bird species that one can find here are the brahmini duck, pintail, red-crested poacher, coot, common teal, mallard and tufted duck. Visitors can go up to watchtowers or to the waterholes to get good views.

The sanctuary was established in 1982 and also houses a sheer diversity of vegetation, including tree vegetation like baakli, mahua, dhaak and bamboo. It is one of the major tourist attractions that is located on the border of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The topography of the region comprises deciduous forests, swampy marshes and grasslands. Moreover, it has caves with prehistoric paintings and a fossil park that are unique to it.

Mirzapur

Mirzapur (51 kilometers from Varanasi) is famous for its handmade carpets and Thugs, The latter were devotees of the goddess Kali who robbed and strangled their victims until they were crushed in the 1830s by the British. Vindhyachal, a small town in the district of Mirzapur, is the highlight of the place. Situated on the banks of River Ganges, it is one of the most famous shaktipeeths (place where the severed body parts of Goddess Shakti fell) of Goddess Vindhyavasini. It also finds mention in ancient scriptures and according to the reference, Goddess Vindhyavasini is believed to be an instant bestower of blessings. The town boasts many other shrines dedicated to the goddess. Its many ghats and structures that date back to the British era are also quite interesting.

Mirzapur is famous for its brassware and carpet industry. The concept of handwoven carpets was introduced here by the Mughals in the 16th century. Today, Mirzapur is believed to produce a huge percentage of India's carpets that are a blend of Persian and western styles. The scenic beauty of the region is also noteworthy and one can visit some of the popular ghats like Nar Ghat and Pakka Ghat.

Mirzapur was properly established by the British East India Company in 1735 though signs of civilisation have been found dating back to 5000 B.C.. Evidence like artefacts and painted rocks unearthed here also show that Palaeolithic age existed in the region of Belan River Valley. Some petroglyphs discovered in the sandstone of the Vindhya range are almost 20,000 year old.

Mubarakpur Sari Weaving Feeder Town

Feeder town Mubarakpur, Uttar Pradesh (100 kilometers north of Varanasi, 26.0900° N, 83.2900° 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: “Cotton weaving started in Mubarakpur during 14th century. During Sultan Muhammad Bin Tughlak's era there were 4000 silk sari weavers in Mubarakpur. Mubarakpur is known for making pure silk Banarsi saris with zari work. Ninety percent of the working population is stated to be engaged in the task of weaving saris of pure silk and zari, working on handlooms. Presently there are about 20,000 families of weavers in Mubarakpur. Thus, this village is known as weavers’ village.” [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.”

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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