Varanasi/Benaras – City of Ghats

The City of Death. Moksh. Manikarnika. Assi Ghat. Kashi Vishwanath Temple. All these words are connected to the spiritual city of Benaras or Varanasi or Kashi. In the state of Uttar Pradesh is Benaras, built on the western bank of The Ganges, the city is famous for its temples, ghats and varieties of food.

My parents and I arrived in Benaras late at night eager to get to our hotel. It had been a long workday for all of us, and we had opted for a late evening flight and of all days Indigo which is known for its on-time service was delayed, leading to our near midnight arrival. We got on a taxi from the airport and headed to our hotel but not quite till the doorstep. The hotel we had booked for the first night Rashmi Guest House, was bang on the banks of the Ganges and the last bit of the approach through the narrow lanes of old Benares had to be completed on foot. So, we got off the taxi at Godowalia chouraha where a hotel employee met us and guided us for the last half kilometre walk to the hotel. We were right next to the river at Manmandir Ghat and while the facilities were moderate to good, the location was excellent.

After a fitful night of sleep, we woke up the next morning ready for the day. The plans for today were go on a 4-hour walking tour of the old part of the city, pick up my maternal grandparents from the airport in the afternoon and then in the evening try to watch the famous Ganga Aarti (more on that later). The options were to either walk north and view several temples and the famous Manikarnika ghat or go south towards the famous Assi ghat. Full of energy we decided to cover the southern part first and then come back to do the northern bits later.

The tour began with a walk through the narrow winding alleys of the city to get to Assi Ghat. We passed through the South Indian and Bengali tolas of the city where a lot of visiting South Indians and Bengalis stay while going on pilgrimages, naturally these places got the names as lots of people from those places have settled there in Benares.

On our route we passed a temple for Lord Shiva known as Kedareshwar where my parents went in to pay their respects. I didn’t feel like untying my shoes, so I waited outside. My mother said the temple was nice and while it was a bit cramped near the main shivling since she listened to the pandit and followed a path he suggested she got a better viewing experience. The pandit gave them nice looking flower necklaces which we all put on.

The next stop for our walk was the Naga Ashram which is a school, a temple and home for Naga sanyasis. We got to walk through the ashram and offer prayers to idols of Shiva and Hanuman, then we headed through a corridor where we could see some gurus teaching kids around my age how to write in Sanskrit. The corridor eventually led to the dormitory of the Naga Gurus were some of them were sitting on the beds and talking. We said ‘Namaste’ and then our guide led us out to a balcony with a fantastic view of the river Ganges. The guide told us about how many people come and stay at the ashram to learn the ways of the Nagas as we made our way out of the Ashram.

After this we visited the Harishchandra ghat which is a famous crematorium and location of the dom village. Doms I was explained are a community of people who operate the crematorium.

After a short walk from the Harishchandra ghat we came to one of our more enjoyable stops on this tour, it was an akhara or wrestling ground. The main wrestling area is considered very holy and if you were to enter it you had to bathe in the Ganga River. The mud in the pit was made of a mixture of clay, turmeric and mustard oil and we saw a couple of wrestlers practicing with a selection of ‘gadas’ which are used for strength training. The wrestlers were good at using them and tried to teach my father but…the less said about that the better.

There were two more spots which stand out in my memory. First was a ghat I had really been looking forward to, Tulsi Ghat. This was the ghat where Tulsi das wrote his version of the Ramayana and the Hanuman Chalisa. It was a fantastic place with a view of Assi Ghat and the Ganga River. The temple at the ghat had 4 or 5 ShivLings. Honestly the number of Shiv Lings in Benaras is amazing. If you try to count you would be counting for a very very long time.

We spent a little time sitting and looking out at the river from a bench in Tulsi Ghat before pushing on towards Assi Ghat. Assi Ghat is a significant ghat and almost at the southern tip of this part of the city. It is also the venue for Subah-e-Benares a morning aarti which is conducted at sunrise. We would come back for that aarti the next day.

At this point we had been walking for more than two hours and were quite exhausted and hungry. We climbed into a tuktuk and drove towards Gadodia Chowk near which was Ram Bhandar famous for its kachodis and jalebis. Now when we reached Ram Bhandar, we realized that the place was sold out of food. Our guide took us to another shop nearby which was equally good which is where we sat and enjoyed a sumptuous breakfast of the famous kachoris and jalebis. The kachodis were delectable, I do not have enough adjective to describe how good they tasted especially with the curry they served with it. Then for dessert we even had jalebis which were just as delicious and to quench our thirst we finished one litre of water and some Thumsup. Now re-energized we were ready to continue our tour.

In this part of the tour there were but 4 main locations that we covered, an old palace in the process of becoming redeveloped into a hotel, a temple with an underground Shiv Ling, another old palace with a view of Manikarnika Ghat and of course the Manikarnika Ghat.

The first palace we visited was quite rundown but with a nice view of the river. Our guide told us about how with the rise of tourism in Benares old palaces were being taken over by hotel chains to create exotic stay experiences.

Just down the road maybe five or six turns later (yes after some of the alleys I had to go through, 5-6 turns is down the road) we arrived at an underground Shiv Ling temple which was two floors below our feet. You could offer prayers to it by dropping your offering down a hole that leads straight to the Shiv Ling. It was really cool to see how many temples and places of worship were scattered across this city. It reminded me of Rome with a church on every corner.

Next, we arrived a beautiful palace that was in much better shape than the first one and had its own temple and though I’ve forgotten the name of the palace it had some beautiful window arches and red pillars. The main temple was a statue of Nandi looking in at the Shiv Ling and you could see the brilliant craftsmanship and colouring on the idols.

The next temple we went to had a great view of the main Manikarnika Ghat building and here our guide told us the story of Manikarnika Ghat. It is called Chakrapushkarni Manikarnika Ghat. Chakra as it was made using Krishna’s Sudarshan chakra, pushkarni as that is a name for the type of steeple pool it is and Manikarnika from the Mani (gem) and Karnika (earring) that Lord Shiva and Lady Parvati lost while bathing in the pool. The building that we could see was mainly used as a crematorium but not any old crematorium, Manikarnika is the busiest crematorium in the world as it is considered very auspicious by Hindus and here corpses are cremated round the clock. While it seemed incredibly interesting seeing a cremation up close is not on my bucket list and the idea kind of grossed my mother out, so we didn’t take a closer look looking at the flames from a distance was enough. Even so just walking back towards the hotel to end of our tour we passed 5 bodies on their way to the Ghat. It’s very disturbing to see so many people that are no more, like truly it puts in perspective how short life is and how many people actually pass on from this world so regularly. Still, this is where our fantastic hike ended, and we returned to our hotel.

We were completely exhausted but there was more for us to do today. Quickly we checked out of our hotel and climbed into a cab to get to Taj Ganges where we would be staying for the rest of our trip with my grandparents. We had decided to watch the Dasashwamedh Ghat Aarti and apart from that relax for the rest of the day. So, we decided to grab a late lunch from room service and then prepare to leave for the aarti.

This aarti is not very easy to watch because of the huge crowd that piles up and a lot of people will tell you about boats and try to sell you a ticket for a seat on them but it was clear from where we were that the people on those boats could not see a thing. We were lucky enough to find a restaurant atop a saree shop which was right behind where the aarti was taking place, so the window offered a clear view. Now it is a lot of people. An unreasonable amount of people. Like way too many to be in that area. So, it is not easy to enter and exit the area and with my grandparents we had to be very careful. It is a great aarti to watch. It is a well-orchestrated performance with seven priests offering evening prayers to the river Ganges. There was music and orchestrated lighting making all the effort of watching the aarti a worthwhile experience.

A few minutes before the aarti was finished we decided to leave to avoid being absolutely mobbed by the crowd as we left. We managed to make it quite a way off and decided against fighting our way through the path as we didn’t want to be engulfed. We slipped into an air-conditioned restaurant to grab our dinner and cool down a bit. The food was okay, but the place was stuffed to the brim with lots of other people having the same idea. After dinner we headed home, there was still a constant stream of people moving through which was so confusing to me. After a while we got back to the hotel in a tuk-tuk and called it an early night because the next morning we would have to wake up well before sunrise.

We woke up way earlier well earlier than the sun rose and caught an auto to Assi Ghat, the ghat farthest to the south in Varanasi. This was where the Subah-e-Benaras would take place. The seating there was bit confusing as some people were being ushered into chairs while others were being removed from them. Thankfully we managed to sit down quite close to the aarti and watched the priests enter and take their positions. There were some fantastic movements involving fire such as an elaborate 100-diya stand, which also featured in the last aarti. There was also another diya with a big single fire which was used for the aarti. Still up close and personal it looked a lot better than the view we had from behind the preists last night. The chamor or ‘fly brush’, the peacock feather and a flower were among the non-fiery contraptions used to offer morning adulation to the River Ganga. All in all, it was a great aarti with all 7 priests performing each of the actions flawlessly.

After the aarti there would be some singing and some yoga but we decided to explore the ghat.

There was a large area in alongside the Ganges which was also a mooring place for boats which were currently not allowed to set out. It was the monsoons, though we faced no rain for the whole trip yet still the boats weren’t allowed to ply. This was because the river was flowing a little bit high and maybe choppier than normal. Luckily for us one of the boat owners let us on to their boat to click pictures with the picturesque sunrise. We were lucky enough to have enough time to click a multitude of pictures and even click some later with the sun at an even better angle. By now everyone had been awake for a while and hunger was creeping in, so we called it an excursion and went back to the hotel by tuk-tuk for breakfast. And of course, hotel buffet breakfast as usual…mind-blowing.

Our next major stop with Kashi Vishwanath. I was not a fan of this experience, but it did check a lot of boxes. It is a lot of people again. Even with a pass that we pre-purchased online the queues to get to the main Shiv Ling were still very long. Also be careful about the things you bring into the temple, electronic gadgets like phones, cameras are not allowed and we had left ours in a locker at the ticketing office. Some people outside complained about my smart watch but the guards that frisked us let me through so that was less of an issue than I thought. Anyways, I digress. We managed to join a queue that would take us to the temple parallel to another much longer queue because of our passes. But, quite close to the main temple area the lines merged, and we were pushed to the front of the Shiv Ling which was unfortunately very difficult to see. I just spotted it for a second before being forcefully shoved on by the guards behind me. In the same incident my grandfather was also shoved and nearly fell to the ground.

Thankfully it was all okay and we made out safely. Initially we though of heading back to the hotel for lunch, but there was a mad rush for the tuktuks. So, we had lunch at an AC restaurant while hoping that the the crowds would thin out a bit. The thing is, in that part of the city the crowd never thins. We also browsed for sarees in some AC saree shops in equal parts because of my mother and grandmother’s interest in benarasi sarees and to escape the heat. That evening back in the Taj we relaxed, swam and had a sumptuous dinner in the restaurant.

Later in the trip we also visited Sarnath and the ‘Triveni Sangam’ in Prayagraj and it was a great experience boating to the sangam of the two great rivers of India, Ganga and Yamuna.

Tips –

Be prepared for crowds. Religious tourism around the world and especially in India is booming and attracts lots of people. We made the choice to visit during the holy month of Shravan which is a busier period.

Be careful about the end of day aarti as it could be very, very, very, very, very crowded, explore VIP viewing tickets in advance if you want a nicer view. Same for Kashi Vishwanath, book your darshan time in advance.

I highly recommend the Subah-e-Benaras as it is very good and peaceful and worth the early start.

Try the kachoris but don’t obsess over Ram Bhandar, other kachori taste very good as well.

One of the receptionists at the hotel told us to be careful of the ‘specialty saree warehouses’ which sell hard, the more established stores are probably a smarter choice.

Last but not the least, have fun.

1 thought on “Varanasi/Benaras – City of Ghats”

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