Varanasi General Information
- Area 83.05 sq km
- Population 2.5 million
- Altitude 80.71 m
- Languages Bhojpuri, Hindi & English
- STD Code 0542
- Best time to visit October-March
Introduction to Varanasi
Varanasi, or Benaras as it was earlier called, sacred to the Hindus has many names Kashika, or ‘the shining one’ referring to the light of Shiva. Avimukta, meaning ‘never forsaken’, refers to the city that Shiva never deserted. Anandavana, the ‘forest of bliss’, and Rudravasa, the place where Shiva (Rudra) resides. This city has held many a true sceptic captive, despite the atmosphere being dirty and crowded, badly planned and chaotic. The holy river of the Hindus, the Ganga traces a great arc through Varanasi, perfectly aligning the river bank with the rising sun. A dip in the Ganga is considered to be a rite of purification, with the power to purge all sins. The ultimate pilgrimage Varanasi, or Kashi or Benaras as is believed to be the place that provides man the answers to the penultimate quest for salvation and enlightenment. Wake up early and hire a boat, watch the sun rise over the famous ghats and close your eyes before you open them again to let the sight stay with you. For a city that is considered ancient, there is no temple, no monument older than 3 centuries ago. Credit for this shame goes to the destructive Emperor Aurangzeb and the carnage he wrought here. But for all of that, the city gazes at you calmly and waits for you to realize the answers to all your questions and at Varanasi, this seems completely possible.
Places of Interest:
The long strings of ghats the chain of stone steps along the western bank of the Ganges forms the major attraction of this city. There are about hundred ghats in the city and each of them is marked by a lingam and occupies its own special place in the religious geography of the city. The ghats, though some of them have crumbled over the years, continue to thrive with early-morning bathers, Brahmin priests offering puja and people practicing meditation and yoga. Though most of the ghats are used for bathing, there are two ‘burning ghats’ Manikarnika Ghat & Harishchandra Ghat were bodies are cremated. The pilgrims here are supposed to bathe at five special ghats in a sequence during a ritual called the Panchatirthi Yatra. For the casual visitor however the easiest way to see the ghats is to follow a south-north sequence either by boat or on foot.
Also known as Beni Madhav Ka Darera, the Alamgir Mosque is a blend of the Hindu and Mughal styles of the architecture. The mosque, built by Aurangzeb on the site of the Vishnu Temple, overlooks the Panchganga Ghat.
Located 2 kilometers south of the old city, this eighteenth century Durga Temple is also known as the Monkey Temple due to many aggressive monkeys that reside here. The temple was built in a common north Indian style with an ornate shikhara, consisting of five segments symbolizing the elements and supported by finely carved columns. Here Durga is represented as the embodiment of shakti or female power, clad in red and riding a tiger and fully armed with Shiva’s trident, Vishnu’s discus and a sword. A forked stake in the courtyard was used during festivals in the earlier times to behead sacrificial goats. The ritual of sacrifice has now been replaced by a symbolic mark in vermilion. Non-Hindus are admitted to the courtyard but not the inner sanctum.
The temple is located in the premises of the Banaras Hindu University and is about thirty minutes walking from the gates of the university. The temple, built by the Birlas, was planned by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya. Unlike many other temples in Varanasi, this temple is open to all irrespective of caste or creed.
Bharat Mata Mandir
This temple of Bharat Mata (Mother India), inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi, lies about 3 kilometres west of Godaulia, outside the old city. Here, instead of gods and goddesses, one finds a huge relief map in marble of the whole of Indian subcontinent and Tibetan plateau. The map is said to be perfectly to scale both vertically and horizontally with mountains, rivers and the holy tirthas (pilgrimage centers) all clearly visible.
Tulsi Manas Temple
Built in 1964, the Tulsi Manas Temple stands about 150 m south of Durga Temple. The temple, dedicated to Lord Rama is situated at the place where Tulsidas, the great medieval seer, is believed to have lived and written the great epic ” Shri Ramcharitmanas”. The two tier walls of the temple are engraved with the verses and scenes from this great epic.
Located in Sarnath at about 10 km from Varanasi, the Archaeological Museum houses the capital from the Ashokan pillar, the symbol of which has been adopted as the state emblem of the modern India. The museum also has the figures and the sculptures from the Mauryan, Kushana and Gupta periods discovered during the excavations at Sarnath. You can have a look at the earliest Buddha image found at Sarnath and many images of Hindu Gods dating from the 9th to 12th centuries.
One of the holiest cities of India, Allahabad is situated at a distance of about 135 km west of Varanasi and 238 km from the state capital Lucknow. This ancient city finds mention in the Vedas, Puranas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, as Prayag. Allahabad stands at the confluence of two of India’s holiest rivers, the Ganga and the Yamuna. The confluence called the Sangam, is the venue of many sacred fairs and rituals and attracts thousands of pilgrims throughout the year. The present city was founded in 1575 by the great Mughal ruler Akbar who gave it a name of `Illahabas’. It was he who built a magnificent fort on the banks of the holy Sangam. The city, which has been the hometown or the adopted town of many eminent personalities of the country, is quite an interesting and relaxing place to visit.
Located in the state of Bihar, Bodhgaya along with Sarnath and Kushinagar are the most sacred places for the Buddhists around the country. It is here in Bodhgaya that Buddha is supposed to have attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. The tree from the original sapling still stands in the temple premises. The magnificent Mahabodhi temple stands adjacent to this bodhi tree. The temple stands on the site of the ancient temple erected by Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. The inscriptions here describe the visits of pilgrims from Sri Lanka, Myanmar and China between 7th and 10th century AD.
About 51 kilometers from Gorakhpur lies Kushinagar, a place famous for the Mahaparinirvana (death) of Lord Buddha. The town, once a celebrated center of the Malla kingdom, has many of the stupas and viharas that date back to 230 BC-413 AD. One of the important sites to see here is the Mahaparinirvana Temple, where you can find the famous reclining statue of Buddha. The 20-feet-long statue is seated on a brick platform. Around the temple, one can find the ruins of as many as eight monasteries
This 17th century fort is the home of the former Maharaja of Banaras. The fort lies at a little distance to the south of the Asi Ghat. You can have an impressive view of the fort from the other side of the river. It can be reached by a road heading south from the Banaras Hindu University and over a rickety pontoon bridge. During the monsoon, the area is accessible by a ferry. The museum inside the fort houses a collection that includes horse-drawn carriages, old motor cars, gilded and ornate silver howdahs (elephant seats), hookahas, costumes, a collection of minute ivory carvings, an astronomical clock, hunting trophies, vintage silver and brocade palanquins, a replica of the royal bed and an armoury of swords and guns.
A major Buddhist center, Sarnath lies 10 kilometers north east of Varanasi. It was here that Buddha preached his message of the ‘middle way’ to nirvana after achieving enlightenment at Bodhgaya. In around 234 BC, Emperor Ashoka, a great follower of Buddhism, erected a stupa here. Between the 3rd century BC and the 11th century AD, several Buddhist structures were built here in Sarnath. Most of the Sarnath’s monuments are set in large gardens making it quite pleasant for a visitor to spend some time here. The Buddha Purnima festival is held here in May to celebrate the birth of Lord Buddha.