Going to Kashi (earlier known as Banaras, and now Varanasi) had never been on my bucket list.
So, when my Family Travel Blogger Friend Richa suggested a short getaway for just the two of us, it took me all of ten seconds to say yes.
The Kashi, Kashmir & kabir Connection
I had recently read about the deep connection between Kashmir, my birthplace, and Kashi, the land of the learned.
Having piqued my interest, I was keen to explore things to do in Varanasi, Uttar pradesh.
The more I read about the Holy city, the more it drew me to it. Was it a religious place or a historical one? Spiritual or academic? I was soon to explore all this and so much more!
But what really caught my attention was that Banaras was the birthplace of mystic saint and poet Kabir.
It was here that he preached his form of the Bhakti movement and inspired both Hindus and Muslims alike.
I grew up hearing about Kabir from my grandfather, an out and out Kabir bhakth. Having been close to my grandfather, I used to hear him recite Kabir’s verses all the time and our family often lingered over them. Finally, after years, I felt I had a chance to discover more about Kabir, and reconnect to my late loving grandfather.
The right time to visit varanasi
It is best to avoid going to Varanasi during the Monsoons. October marks the end of monsoon and beginning of winter in Varanasi, India. Pleasant weather will prevail from October till around Mid March after which it starts getting warm. It is advisable to carry warm clothes during winters.
When did I visit?
In the monsoon, the Ganga could be unpredictable. The water level was already high and the boat rides had been cancelled.
And then there were Kanwaryias. Anyone living in the city of Delhi and around knows it is best to avoid the saffron clad horde of devotees. (More on my experience with the Kanwars below)!
On top of it all, my weather app showed prediction of rain on all three days of our travel!
But the calling was too strong to ignore. We decided to take the plunge and booked our tickets.
Things to do in Varanasi
We landed in Banaras on a Friday afternoon in a mild drizzle. By the time we reached our home stay, the drizzle had stopped and the weather was thankfully pleasant.
We had booked our home stay close to the Ghats, which is the number one rule to follow if you want to explore Banaras on foot.
Kashi Vishwanath Temple
Vishwanath (also Viswanath or Vishvanath) is another name for Shiva and literally means “Lord of the Universe”.
Why is Kashi Vishwanath temple famous?
The temple of Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi is listed as one of the 12 Jyotirlingas by Adi-Shankaracharya, the 8th century Vedanta scholar. In these spots, Shiva appeared as a pillar of fire on his own (swayambhu linga). Such Shiva temples are distinguished from those set up by human hands (sthapitha linga)(Source).
Unboiled milk can be bought outside the temple to pour on the linga of Kashi Vishwanath (a form of Shiva).
Why unboiled milk? These are the language of symbols through which our ancestors are communicating their wisdom to us.
Shiva is an ascetic god. If one imagines, milk to be a metaphor of life, then raw milk is life as it comes. Raw milk is fit for the ascetic Shiva who does not bother to change the world.
Kashi Temple Timings
The temple is opened at 2:30 AM and closes at 11 PM. For Aarti timings click here.
If you are in Uttar Pradesh and especially Banaras you must not miss having chaat. Fresh chaat is prepared early afternoon and sold 2 to 3pm onwards till late night –gol gappe, tamatar chaat, palak chaat, kachori, papdi chaat….the mouthwatering list goes on!
Our next stop was predictably the Ghats of Varanasi.
We walked up to Rajendra Ghat and after a good one hour long survey, finally found the perfect location to watch Ganga Arti at Dashashwamegh Ghat.
Varanasi Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat.
Perched on the edge of a boat closest to the bank, we sat right in front of the priests performing the Aarti.
Dashashwamedh Ghat Aarti timings
The Ganga Aarti starts at the sunset time. The starting time of the ceremony thus changes with sunset time.
During Monsoons it is around 7 pm. Witnessing the 45 minutes of Evening Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat was absolutely magical.
The Aarti is performed by 7 priests surrounded by hundreds of devotees in all directions.
I would recommend you reach atleast an hour in advance and take a place in the boat closer to the dias from where the priests perform the aarti. Even though the priests turn and face in all four directions, the best view of the Aarti is from the boat.
The Aarti is performed for the Holy river Ganga and so major Part of the pooja is performed by the priests facing river Ganga.
A seat on the boats is paid for and can be negotiated from Rs 800 to Rs 100, depending upon location of your seat and your bargaining skills!
The Arti begins with a synchronised and long conch sound, and captivates the crowd for the next hour.
We were mesmerised and followed every movement of the priests, every flicker of the flames, and every verse of the prayers. It was a beautiful and soul stirring experience and we were determined to come back the next evening.
We began the second day by paying homage to Kabir, from his birthplace at Lahartara, known as “Kabir Prakatya Sthal”.
Here lies a dried up pond where the Muslim weaver Niru, found an abandoned child and raised him as his own. The place was quiet and a small shrine and an old well were the only remnants of history.
A helpful mahant showed us around and we keenly chatted about Kabir.
Obviously not many people visited this place and after much hospitality the mahant suggested we visit the larger “Kabir Math” where Kabir lived and preached.
Having experience a bit of Kabir in this tiny place, we decided to defer “Kabir Math” to next day.
Banaras Hindu University
Our next stop was Banaras Hindu University, founded by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya.
This huge campus is the academic hub of Banaras and we thankfully toured around in an auto. Every auto driver at BHU gate is a guide and an expert in figuring out what you want to see within a short time.
In one hour, he showed us the Kala Kendra or the Art Centre which Richa wanted to see, the IIT campus that I wanted to see and the new Kashi Vishwanath Temple which he thought we must see!
Kashi Vishwanath temple, also known as Birla Mandir is a new temple built in 1965 and has the tallest temple tower in the world.
And the cold coffee served right outside the temple is a delight too. Don’t miss it if you are here.
While on food, earlier in the day, we had divine Lassi at “Pehelwan Lassi” near Guru Ravidass Gate in Lanka.
Lanka is an area outside BHU. It is called Lanka as the finale of “Ram Leela” is played here on Dusshera.
Jantar mantar in Varanasi - A must visit with kids
My Banaras agenda also consisted of visiting the lesser known “Jantar Mantar”.One of five such observatories built by Maharaja Jai Singh is in Varanasi.
Known popularly as Mann Mahal, we took a while to locate it although it was right under our noses on the first Ghat we had visited, Rajendra Ghat.
Mann Mahal is currently a local dating location with couples hiding in the curves and cantilevers of every instrument there!
However that didn’t dampen our enthusiasm and like school children on an excursion, we were thrilled to see the astronomical marvels.
Our enthusiasm pepped up the sleepy management and we got a complimentary guided tour to help us decode the instruments, often leaving the couples to look for alternate corners.
Our Banaras visit was truly meant to be….the only time the sun shone bright during our three days here was while we were in Jantar Mantar.
I would highly recommend a quick visit to Jantar Mantar if you have the time and even more so if you are travelling with kids. It is currently being restored and is expected to open with better facilities soon.
Bhang Lassi in Varanasi
Our next significant stop was the big “should we/should we not” of our visit- the Bhang Thandai. Both of us had never had Bhang and were not sure whether to try it; in retrospective we spent an unnecessary amount of time analysing whether to have it or not.
However, it took one quick stop at Badal Thandai wala, for us to get convinced.
Bhang is legal in Banaras and it is even sold from Government Authorised outlets.
That’s all we needed to know. Badal Thandai wala highly recommended Bhang Thandai before the Ganga Arti and served us the mildest dose.
Feeling supremely rebellious, we jaunted down to the Ghat, took our “usual” place in yesterday’s boat with the same boatman, and even the same phoolwala boy Asif came selling flowers, and generally to say hi.
The Arti was just as spectacular as the day before, but the Bhaang never hit. Perhaps we did get a bit giggly, and maybe the boat rocked some more but that was it. Kaput!
Either the mild was too mild, or the Thandai wala was unsure of the city girls’ capacity and fed us ghaas phoos….in any case we were chicken to try another glass.
For anyone out there who wants to try Bhang thandai, don’t wait for the last day of your visit. Have a mild one on first day; if it doesn’t work, try a medium on day two. If Bhang isn’t your thing, do try one of the numerous thandai (malai maar ke).
Day two ended with tamatar chat and palak chat at Kashi Chat Bhandar (too good) and another round of Paan at Kuber Pan.
Morning Ganga Aarti at Assi Ghat Varanasi
On the last day, we started very early and reached Assi Ghat at 5.15am to watch the morning Ganga Arti and cultural program.
This is a relatively new feature in Banaras and is quite impressive with Arti, live classical music and a yoga program.
It is also one of the finest examples of appropriate use of a public space to indulge locals and tourists together, along with a vibrant platform for cultural arts.
In the two hour program, the most poignant feature is the Arti Shlokas sung live and perfectly in chorus by young girls. These girls are senior students of Sanskrit and give your feminist side a big boost!
If you are a yoga enthusiast, you mustn’t miss the well conducted yoga camp followed by the classical music, which is quite a treat too. We missed the classical music since something quite unbelievable happened to us during that time, something that we had given up the hope for.
Just as the music was about to begin, we saw some movement of boats on the riverside. It hadn’t rained for two days, so it seemed that short boat rides were possible!
We struck a quick deal with a boatman for a 30 minute ride. And what a memorable ride it was! Although below the danger mark, the Ganga was swelling with water, the breeze was gentle and our boatman had stories to tell.
In Banaras, everyone is a storyteller, a seer or a philosopher. The entire city buzzes with history and folklore- in its Ghats, its temples, its rituals, its sarees, its paan and of course, its river.
While the Ghats and temples had energized us, the boat ride calmed us. From the river, we could see and feel what a city of contradiction Banaras was, full of chaos and also of order, life and death, dirty yet chaste….The boat ride was over too soon, but our state of reflection continued.
Kushti Routine At Tulsi Akhada In Varanasi
Deep in this thought, we reached Tulsi Ghat. Of the 88 ghats that Banaras has, Tulsi Ghat is one of the smaller ones but is a peaceful retreat in the morning.
A handful of locals were at the Ghat, just soaking the calm. After years of no practice, I was motivated to sketch here; in my own way thanking the universe for this time in Banaras.
Tulsi Ghat is also home to “Tulsi Pehelwasn Akhara”, one of the very few akharas, which allow women within its premises.
So here we were, watching the wrestlers get ready for a training session.
Even in this place of physical mastery, there was a feeling of reverence. All the wrestlers cleaned up the place together, dug the mud fresh in the ring and then prayed together.
They began with traditional warm ups which also included traditional weights and applying mud all over their body (like a mud pack). The mud used in the ring is a mixture of finest mud with turmeric, herbs, milk and oil to give therapeutic property to it.
It was a treat to watch the pehelwaans wrestle and train under their guru’s guidance.
It was a great set of matches to watch and we had the best seats in the front row!
Rani Laxmi Bai Janmsthali (Birthplace)
On our way back, we stumbled across a memorial for Rani Lakshmibai.
We had no idea that she was born in Banaras.
It was a pleasant tribute in the small but well made outdoor memorial.
Sanskrit Schools in Varanasi
A walk around the lanes of Tulsi Ghat was enigmatic yet again; we saw a small Sanskrit school and enjojed chatting with young students.
Their chanting classes had already started at 7 am in the morning. The chanting became louder on seeing an audience and the confidence with which they answered our questions was admirable.
Kabir Chaura Math
Our last stop before we left Banaras was “Kabir Chaura Math”.
While going to the smaller “Kabir Prakatya Sthal” at Lahartara was insightful for me, I would recommend it only for intense Kabir fans.
For those of you who are curious about Kabir as an enigma or for the “dohas” you read in school, you can skip the“Kabir Prakatya Sthal” at Lahartara and visit (only) Kabir Chaura Math.
It is a large memorial which houses Kabir’s Samadhi, a small temple, a library and many sculptures and statues on the touching anecdotes and stories about his life.
Kabir’s life is an inspiration not only because he was a great poet, but also because he managed to make an impact in lives of Hindus and Muslims equally. His teaching brought him admirers from both religions; in fact he is considered to be a forerunner of Sikhisim and his verses find place in the Sikh Holy Scripture Adi Granth as well.
If you are short on time, it is a good idea to get a mahant to show you around; they are master storytellers and can make your visit unforgettable. I came back with a bundle of stories to tell my children. Personally I feel that many of the stories or miracles associated with Kabir have been distorted over the years, but the fact that he was a legend and mystic remains.
For me, he is still a mystery, but I feel closer to his thought and have understood what drew my rationalist grandfather to him.
Varanasi - What to Expect in India's Spiritual City
Walking in the lanes of Banaras is like being in a hodgepodge of sights, sounds and tastes.
You see cows and kanwars, hear shlokas and shouts, eat lassi and paan, all at the same time.
Then there is the beautiful architecture of the Ghats, temples and old buildings.
Every lane is full of life, synchronized chanting of Sanskrit students vibrating the air with energy, the bells of temples clanging with fervor and the chorus of “Har Har Mahadev” resounding.
This was the season of “kanwaryas” or Shiv Bhakts, pilgrims travelling barefoot in saffron robes with their Kanwars (walking sticks used to hang urns of Ganga water). The city was bursting with Kanwars and although I would surely avoid a Kanwar crowd in Delhi, I felt completely calm in the Kanwar throng at Banaras.
We were at ease with each other, the traveler and pilgrim; perhaps both were full of gratitude for being in Banaras.
I was captivated and loved every bit of the city. Early in the trip, I had promised myself to not get bothered by the crowds, the jostling, the cowdung, or the touts.
Isn’t that an inherent part of the city which hosts thousands of people every day?
In fact, much to my surprise, I found Varanasi to be one of the cleanest cities in India. Every shopkeeper had a dust bin in place and no plastic was being used, even the Ghats were spotless and a pledge was taken by the community before Ganga Arti to keep Ganga and Varanasi clean.
All was good in the city of gods. And absolutely divine was the Banarasi paan we had just before wrapping up the day!
Why is Varanasi a Holy place!?
The story goes that Shiva took the form of Bhairava to behead Brahma who became arrogant after creating the world. Brahma’s head seared into Shiva’s palm and he wandered the earth chased by Brahma-hatya, the infamy of killing the creator.
Shiva finally descended from Kailash southwards along the river Ganga. A point came when the river turned north. At this point, he dipped his hand in the river, and Brahma’s skull became undone and Shiva was thus liberated from Brahma-hatya.
This became the site of the famous city of Avimukta (site where one is liberated) which is now called Kashi (Source).
Varanasi: The last hope for nirvana !?
It is often said that if one dies in Kashi one will not be reborn and will thus be liberated from the cycle of life and death. This is the reason why thousands go to die in Varanasi, or demand that their last rites be performed there. An interesting interpretation of this concept can be read here.
Going to Banaras was like going back to school, only it was much more enjoyable.
We certainly behaved like schoolgirls, mixing fun with lessons! It was a crash course in history, mysticism, culture, philosophy and religion…. There is yet much more to learn and when I come back, which I will, I am sure to unravel a new Banaras, one that that I missed earlier.
And then there were other eye-openers after this visit; a whole new world opened out for me. Now I find it is possible to have meaningful vacations in a really short time if you plan well, not over plan.
There is no better way to explore a city than on foot. Talking to locals is the best resource ever. It is also possible to spend less money on travel than I ever imagined without compromising on safety and comfort.
Post Banaras, my bucket list is being reloaded. It includes more solo travel, and it includes a trip with just my daughter to Jaipur, one with my son to Dharamshala, another with my sister to Goa and hopefully one with my husband to Kashmir……let’s see how it goes. For now I am soaking in the incredible Banaras experience.
This is a guest post by my dear friend Bhavna Bhat who was my travel partner in Varanasi. Bhavna is a Designer, Storyteller, Runner, Parent, Daughter, Friend, Foodie, Maverick, a Car Rallyist and now a writer 🙂