Varanasi is one of the world's oldest continually inhabited cities, and one of the holiest in Hinduism. Beyond it temples and shrines thrives a busy city. We had a chance to explore the streets and visit the silk manufacturers in the Weaver's district.
The holy city of Varanasi goes by several names including Benaras and Kashi. Indians like to have multiple names for their important cities (some of this was done when the colonial names were shed!). The city is old, really old, and is widely believed to be one of the oldest living cities in the world – its origins as a centre of learning and civilisation stretching back over 3000 years. Author Mark Twain was fascinated by the legend of Varanasi and once wrote: “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together. ”
The heart of Varanasi is the most sacred of rivers, the Ganges. According to Hindu legend, Lord Shiva unleashed the Ganges from the knot of his hair. For centuries, its rich floods lent fertility to the soil of the central Gangetic plains, which nourished some of India’s most prominent ancient civilizations.
Varanasi’s legends go back some 10,000 years, to the oldest epics of Hindu literature, including the Puranas, the Vedas and the Mahabharata. They say Varanasi is the city of Lord Shiva, who walked here with his wife Parvati at the beginning of time. It could also be the battlefield where the god Krishna set fire to a duplicate but imposter Krishna, or the place where the Lord Rama came to do penance after slaying the demon Ravana. Of course, none of these myths and legends can’t be proved but they suffice to draw millions of Hindu devotees to this ancient city every year to bathe in the Ganges which they believe has the power to wash away the sins of mortals. Some come here just to die. Hindus believe that one who is graced to die in Varanasi would attain salvation and freedom from the cycle of birth and re-birth.
The area surrounding Varanasi is not just important to Hindus it also has significant symbolism to other faiths. Sarnath, the place where Buddha preached his first sermon after enlightenment, just 10 km away and it is also a pilgrimage centre for Jains, as Varanasi is believed to be the birthplace of Parsvanath, the twenty-third Tirthankar.
Considering its theological significance it is not so surprising that Varanasi has also become a centre of learning, health and the arts. For example, it is home Benares Hindu University, the biggest University in Asia and Ayurvedic medicine is believed to have originated here.
Varanasi is also famous for its trade and commerce, especially for the manufacture of the finest silks and gold and silver brocades.
We visited Varanasi with little knowledge beyond what we had seen on television or read in books. Nothing can really prepare you for the real-life experience. On the negative side, it is one of the nosiest, busiest and dirtiest places we have ever visited – and this does put some people off from visiting. But, it is a truly fascinating and amazing place that will overload all your senses with the variety of experiences that surround you wherever you go in this incredible city. We highly recommend putting Varanasi on your travel plans in India.
1. WEAVER’S DISTRICT
We headed to the Muslim districts of Varanasi where the main silk cloth production takes place. This area is very different to those that border the river Ganges; it has the same narrow streets, but the extreme poverty of the area was soon apparent and was especially evident amongst the children. All around us we could hear the clickety-clack of looms, sounding like an approaching army of giant crickets. We followed the guide as he darted through the narrow passageways, avoiding numerous human and animal obstacles en route, finally ending up at a single room shop where a man was diligently working on a decorative ceremonial turban. From here we sped through more alleys and into the workshop of a weaver. The room was small, dark and filled with the sounds of working looms. How people could bear this is difficult to fathom, as there is obviously no health and safety inspectors to insist on protections for the workers hearing. It was hot as well, but this was December and a cool day at that. I can’t imagine what it would be like on a hot summer’s day when the outside temperatures reach 45oC. Having seen how the stuff is produced our guide took us to a salesroom with another slick tongued salesman. Luckily, the experience of the previous day prepared us for what was to come, but we did end up leaving with a few items (I count this as a lucky escape as Karen had her eyes on quite a number of items).
2. THE BAZAAR
Our favourite time to visit bazaars is in the evening – it is usually cooler and the darkness makes them all the more atmospheric.
After dinner, we headed to the bazaar in the old city of Varanasi. As we passed through the narrow streets we were regaled by a multitude of colours, sounds and smells; it was a total sensory overload. There was a multitude of small shops selling saris and cloth on bolts which were stacked from floor to ceiling. It is hard to believe that all these stores selling the same goods can survive. We did wonder how you decide which of these many stores to shop in, realizing it is probably a matter of wandering and checking in on each and then going back to the one that best fit your needs. This would be my idea of hell! Among the fabric vendors were shops selling religious paraphernalia and food (which we had been warned about eating). We saw the occasional artisan, including a man who was working on an intricate metal panel relief design, which he was labouriously creating by hitting the panel with a metal punch and hammer.
3. THE GOLDEN TEMPLE & TRYING THE LOCAL LASSI
On our last day, the morning was quite chilly and fog had set in overnight. We were picked up by our guide shortly after breakfast and set out on a walking tour. A little time later we found ourselves in the same bazaar area we had visited the night before, which was already bustling with people. Our guide pointed out the many heavily armed soldiers hanging around the narrow streets; these are now a constant presence due to the terror attacks a few years back. The reason we were here was to see the mosque and the golden temple (a Hindu temple), which are hard to see in this district, where the buildings are densely packed. What is amazing is that Hindus and Muslims coexist as neighbours in such close quarters! We could have waited for hours in the lines to get into the compounds for these temples, and on this dismal day, it was hard to say how much we would actually see. Instead, our guide took us into a small shop selling various religious items, where we were offered a nice cup of hot masala chai tea. Subtly, one at a time, the owner took us to the back of the store and asked us to climb on a ramshackle box and look out of a small window. From here you could see both the mosque and the golden temple, but as we suspected there was not much to see on this foggy day. After the excitement of this experience (note the sarcasm) we were taken to a crossroad in the alleys, where the guide pointed out a small shop called Blue Lassi, which apparently is mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide. Lassi is a dessert dish (but is also great for breakfast) that is made from blending yoghurt, water and spices. To make it all the yummier, you can add in fruit. Whilst we had been discouraged from eating street food our guide assured us it was safe to eat, so we ordered a couple of different flavours and sat down and waited. The lassi was being prepared by a sallow looking gentleman in a bowl on the side of the street. It didn’t feel very hygienic – but when in Rome! As we waited we got talking to a group of three young western looking people, who from their raggedy appearance had obviously been travelling for some time, which made it difficult to tell where they were from. As it turned out they were from Portland, Oregon and knew Bend fairly well – it is a small world, but I will not harp on too long about this as it gets Karen going on her deep beliefs in the six degrees of freedom mumbo-jumbo. Soon our lassi was ready, and it was delicious. This was just the beginning of our love affair with lassi during our stay in India!
In summary …
- Never try and drive in Varanasi unless you are crazy
- Always look down while you are walking as you’ll never know what you are stepping in
- Don’t stop and talk to locals at the main tourist areas – they want to sell you something
- Don’t wash, drink or clean your teeth in the Ganges
- Cow dung and water makes a slippery hazard
- Lassi is very tasty
Best time to visit Varanasi
Varanasi is 76m above sea level. The climate here is mild and generally warm and temperate. The rainfall in Varanasi is significant, with precipitation even during the driest month. In Varanasi, the average annual temperature is 25.7 °C | 78.3 °F. The rainfall here is around 982 mm | 38.7 inches per year.
Where to stay?
1. AMRITARA SURYAUDAY HAVELI
We stayed at the Amritara Suryauday Haveli which is a small hotel set on a ghat in Varanasi with wonderful views across the river Ganges. It was a great place with very comfortable rooms and helpful staff.
We ended up taking most of our meals at the restaurant in the hotel and it was a pleasurable experience. The rooms are set around an inner courtyard where you can lounge and take your meals.
There is a lovely rooftop area where you can lounge and watch the world go by on the river or on the ghats below.
2. BRIJ RAMA PALACE
Located on its own ghat, BrijRama Palace – A Heritage Hotel was built in the 18th Century and is considered as one of the oldest structures in Varanasi. Overlooking the Ganges, the property is a stone’s throw away from the popular Dasashwamedh Ghat.
Every room at this hotel is air-conditioned High-tea, yoga sessions and bottled water are complimentary.
Kedar Ghat is 2,300 feet from BrijRama Palace while the Kashi Vishwanath Temple is 1,300 feet. The Nepali Temple is 0.6 mi and the Sankat Mochan Temple is 2.8 mi.
3. SHIVA GANGES VIEW GUEST HOUSE
Located in Varanasi, 1,000 feet from Kedar Ghat, Shiva Ganges View Guest House features a restaurant, private parking, a shared lounge and a garden. Boasting family rooms, this property also provides guests with a terrace.
The rooms at the guest house are fitted with a seating area, a flat-screen TV with satellite channels and a private bathroom with a hairdryer and a shower. The rooms also have a desk and a kettle.
Popular points of interest near the accommodations include Harishchandra Ghat, Dasaswamedh Ghat and Assi Ghat.