“Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together,” American writer Mark Twain once famously said of the holy city. Called by various names—Benaras, Kashi, Varanasi—it is one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world. Rising by the River Ganga in Uttar Pradesh, it’s considered the holiest of sites by Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists. Adi Shankara established Shaivism and Tulsidas wrote the Ramcharitmanas here; it’s also the birthplace of Kabir, Ravidas, and other major figures of the Bhakti Movement (the theistic devotional trend that emerged in medieval Hinduism). First inhabited by the Aryans, Varanasi developed by the 2nd millennium BCE into a commercial hub that became widely known for its silks, perfumes, carpets, and ivory. Today, the city is visited for its numerous ghats, scores of temples, and old palaces that rise in tiers from the water’s edge. The inner city is a maze of narrow, winding lanes, where getting lost is a way of finding oneself. By Satarupa Paul
Temples jostle for space with sacred ghats, and vibrant festivals vie for attention with famous sites in this city.
By the Ganga
A total of 88 ghats, or stepped banks, line the holy River Ganga, lending Varanasi its unique character and serving as the centre of all religious activity. The most famous is the Dashashwamedh Ghat, where, according to legend, Lord Brahma performed the Dasa Ashwamedha or the sacrifice of 10 horses. Located at the confluence of the Ganga and its tributary Assi is the Assi Ghat, which marks the southern boundary of the city. Considered the gateway to the afterlife, Manikarnika Ghat is believed to be the most auspicious place for cremation. Candle-lit flower bowls floating in the river here make for an awe-inspiring sight. A boat ride lets you take in the numerous ghats.
Beyond the spiritual essence of Varanasi are landmarks that speak of the city’s history and heritage. With around 30,000 students, Banaras Hindu University is the largest residential university in Asia. Established in 1916, it features Indo-Gothic architecture. Located within the campus is the Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum, which displays over 1,00,000 artefacts, including sculptures, paintings, pottery, and textiles from the 1st to the 15th century. The 18th-century Ramnagar Fort, stretching along the Ganga opposite Tulsi Ghat, exhibits Mughal architecture and houses a museum of vintage cars and medieval costumes. It is also home to the current Maharaja of Benares (a title abolished officially but still in common parlance in the region).
Barely 10 kilometres from Varanasi is Sarnath, where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon. Numerous stupas, excavation sites, temples, and museums make it a popular destination. The water of the Gyan Vapi Well was once considered holier than that of Ganga. Today, it is located inside the Gyan Vapi Mosque, which was constructed by Aurangzeb on the site of the demolished Kashi Vishwanath Temple. The Man Mandir Observatory sits atop Man Singh Palace and was built in 1737 by Sawai Jai Singh II, the founder of Jaipur.
Wine & Dine
A melange of people from around the world call Varanasi their home, and this cultural mix is reflected in its culinary landscape.
The Pizzeria Vaatika Café near Assi Ghat serves vegetarian pizzas, apple pies, and ice cream in a garden overlooking the ghat. In the same area, the Hayat Mediterranean, run by a Jordanian, offers an authentic selection of Middle Eastern delicacies, drinks, and flavoured shishas in relaxed lounge-style seating. In Shivala, head to I:BA Cafe & Restaurant for Japanese fare or to Bread of Life Bakery & Restaurant, run by an American-German duo, for freshly-baked muffins, steaming moussakas, ratatouille, and more. Brown Bread Bakery in Bangali Tola does a range of bread, rolls, and Tibetan dishes.
In Varanasi one can find entire lanes dedicated to a street fare— the Kachori & Samosa Gali near Dashashwamedh Ghat is one example. Pahalwan Lassi Bhandar in Lanka, Varanasi, is recommended for thick lassis served with a generous dollop of malai (clotted cream). Kashi Chaat Bhandar in Godowlia is a hot favourite for mouthwatering chaats like tamatar ki chaat, meethe golgappe, chena dahi vada, and palak chaat. For sweet offerings such as creamy malaiyyo and rabri jalebi, head to New Rajshree Sweets near Kachahari Chauraha. One should not leave Varanasi without sampling a Banarasi paan (betel leaf stuffed with condiments), and Rajendra Chaurasia Paan on Panchkosi Road is the best place for it.
Housed in the 200-year-old heritage building of Hotel Surya, the multi-cuisine Canton Royale is known for its Indian thalis and Continental fare served in a colonial ambience with live music. With stark, minimalist interiors, The Palate in Ramada Plaza is the place to be if you seek a luxe dining experience in Varanasi. Located in the oldest hotel in the city, 1951 at Clarks Hotel offers a range of Indian, Continental, and Chinese delicacies.
One of the best places to escape the din of the city and slow down with a chilled beer and good finger food is Trishna Pub in Sigra. In Nadesar, Mangi Ferra Café offers a lively atmosphere with a selection of drinks, vegetarian and meat platters, and pizzas. Established in honour of artist James Prinsep, who spent many afternoons here sketching the ghats, the stately Prinsep Bar in Taj Ganges is a classy destination. For the most happening nightlife, though, the place to visit is the 3rd Floor Bar Stock Exchange in Sigra.
In Varanasi, vibrant ceremonies and grand festivals make for unique spectacles. The famed Ganga Aarti, held daily at dusk at Dashashwamedh Ghat, attracts onlookers by the droves. In the hypnotic ceremony, the priests move large lighted lamps to the tune of prayer—a ritualistic offering to the Ganga. Held for a month in autumn, the 200-year-old Ramnagar Ramlila is the oldest Ramlila in the world, and has been recognised as Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. The grand Ganga Mahotsav is generally held over five days in November, during which the rich culture and heritage of Varanasi is showcased through classical music, country boat races, crafts fairs, etc. The final day coincides with the traditional Dev Deepawali festival, when all the ghats are lit with a million earthen lamps in honour of the holy river—a dazzling sight regardless of your beliefs.
Big and small, decorated and sparse, famous and obscure—an estimated 23,000 temples can be found in Varanasi.
The most important shrine and the biggest attraction is the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. It is one of the 12 jyotirlingas and perhaps the holiest of Shiva temples. Destroyed and reconstructed several times in history, the current temple was built by the Maratha ruler, Ahilya Bai Holkar, after the last structure was demolished by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb to make way for the Gyan Vapi Mosque. Another popular temple is the serene Tulsi Manas Temple, constructed in white marble at the site where Tulsidas composed the epic Ramcharitmanas in the local Awadhi dialect. A place of worship for Aghoris and Tantriks, the Batuk Bhairav Temple features a lamp that is said to have healing powers. The Bharat Mata Temple is a unique shrine dedicated not to any god or goddess, but to Mother India. It features a large relief map of the country carved in marble on the floor.
An array of famous products exclusive to Varanasi makes the city a shopper’s paradise.
The city is best known for the resplendent and utterly gorgeous Banarasi silk saris. Among the finest saris made in the subcontinent, Banarasi saris are known for their smooth fabric adorned with gold and silver brocade, or zari, and opulent embroidery. While these saris are available at almost all the markets as well as standalone shops, the best places to score great wholesale deals are Rajan Silk Market, Mehrotra Silk Factory, and Godowlia market.
Most visitors to Varanasi return with plastic canisters of Ganga water, but for an eco-friendly alternative, opt for copper cans that are available in many shops around the ghats. Shivling idols can be bought from the vibrant Vishwanath Gali. They are available in stone and crystal and start at INR 100/ USD1.5. Rudraksha necklaces, which comprise beads made from the polished seeds of the Rudraksha tree, are sought after; authentic ones can be bought from Banaras Rudraksham near Kashi Vishwanath Temple.
Banarasi Gulaabi Meenakari is a rare craft practised in the lanes of Gai Ghat. One can buy jewellery, home decor items, and souvenirs adorned with this beautiful Persian art form. Varanasi also has the world’s largest manufacturing unit of glass beads, which are made into colourful bracelets, anklets, and earrings—available at Thatheri Bazar. The market is also known for its copper and brass artefacts, and antiques with stone trim work. For handloom and handicrafts, Chowk and Urban Haat are the best bets, while Banaras Art Gallery houses a huge collection of paintings and sculptures by local artists.
Sample the ancient city through its heritage resorts, or opt for a no-frills modern accommodation.
Located close to the main ghats and important sights of the city, this upscale business hotel offers 116 rooms and suites appointed with all modern amenities. A stay here comes with complimentary services such as daily budget breakfast, two bottles of water, newspaper, and Wi-Fi. The hotel also offers a 24-hour travel desk, which can arrange a chauffeur-driven car to take you around town. The outdoor pool is great for a relaxing swim, while the fitness centre takes care of your workout needs. In-house dining choices include The Great Kebab Factory, which serves a range of kebabs and Indian delicacies; a coffee shop; a bar; and a lounge.
Address: The Mall Cantonment, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh; starts from INR 7,000/USD95.
An oasis of peace, this resort features suites designed in local architectural style—with a high ceiling, private sit-out, teak wood carved furniture, and a Shiva mural painted on the wall. The Ganga Kund here is an abridged version of the ghats, featuring steps leading down to a sacred pond, where you can participate in prayer ceremonies and light floating lamps. Unwind with a book at the charming sit-out called Barja, or enjoy a drink in the Yantra lounge. Other offerings include a multi-cuisine restaurant, al fresco dining around a chiku tree with a crackling fireplace, and a spa that uses 100 per cent natural products.
Address: Kazi Serai, Sehlampur, Uttar Pradesh; starts from INR 11,000/ USD150.
Set amid mango orchards and jasmine fields, the historic Nadesar Palace has been known to host royalty, statesmen, and celebrities since 1835. Now converted into a lavish five-star hotel by the Taj Group, the property retains its old-world charm and way of life. The highlight is a guided tour of the property in the ‘Royal Horse Carriage’. Besides three categories of luxuriously appointed rooms with garden or pool views, there’s a mini-golf course; The Dining Area, serving global and Indian cuisines; and Jiva Spa, where you can try the revitalising Abhisheka treatment, among others.
Address: Nadesar Palace Grounds, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh; starts from INR 18,000/USD247.
This is a magnificently restored 18th-century riverfront house located on Guleria Ghat. The boutique heritage property offers a taste of traditional Indian hospitality with modern comforts. The 15 rooms here provide breathtaking views of the river, while the exteriors feature sandstone quarried from the Chunar area in the structural columns, beams, and walls. Sprawling courtyards, quaint nooks and water features, and long marbled verandahs and corridors lend a touch of charming grandeur to the place. Overlooking the Ganga, Cafe Guleria offers delectable food in a laid-back setting, while the rooftop fine-dining eatery, Ganga Teere, does authentic Indian cuisine.
Address: CK 1/14 Ram Ghat Road, Near Ganesh Mandir Ghat Chowk, Patni Tola, Varanasi; price on request.
Lal Bahadur Shastri International Airport serves Varanasi with regular flights from major Indian cities, while Varanasi Junction and Mughal Sarai Junction are the main train hubs. State-run bus services are available from neighbouring cities and towns. Within Varanasi, the best way to get around is on foot, especially in the old areas near the ghats where the winding lanes are too narrow for vehicles. For short-distance commute, auto-rickshaws and cycle rickshaws are ideal; prepaid taxi services are available for longer trips. The city also offers a luxury Maharaja Rickshaw service at affordable prices.