Vagabonding in Varanasi

Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together~ Mark Twain

An ancient city, a pious city, a heritage city on the banks of the holy Ganges. Varanasi is much more than that. The name Varanasi is derived from the two rivers – Varuna and Assi, which flow through the city and merge with the Ganges. It is a magical place where chaos meets serenity. We have been to this place every year since we fell in love with this “chaos”.

With our experience of this exploring this city over numerous travels, we have tried to pen down a 3-day itinerary for someone who would love to go explore the city beyond the temples and the chaos.

Day 1

Stay in a backpackers’ hostel

To capture the true vibrance of the city, you should stay in an equally vibrant place with all the travelbuzz. There are many hostels for backpackers, including Zostel, which is located near Luxa Road, and you can easily walk down to the Dashaswamedh Ghat from here. Other good hostels include Bunked Up , Blox and Hostale. While hostels are the perfect place to meet a fellow traveller, you can also put up at hotels near Assi Ghat. We met people from different countries, and various Indian cities, travelling solo, or in groups.

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Evening snacks at Deena Chat Bhandar

Let’s get this straight- Varanasi is not really a non-vegetarian’s delight. But the vegetarian platter here is sure to amaze you and keep you exploring more of its cuisine! Deena Chat Bhandar, located along Luxa road is just the place you need to jump into, after your long journey to Varanasi. Pani-puris, sweets, kachoris, dahi vadas, name it and they bring you a plate. This would help you to gain energy for the rest of the evening.

Shop for silk scarves and sarees

Just as you enter the road to Dashaswamedh Ghat, you would find rows of shops flooded with tourists buying scarves or sarees. Banarasi silk weaving is a specialty of this city, and the intricately woven sarees, which might take even six months to complete, are sure to amaze you. If a saree seems heavy for your luggage or your style, pick from the Banarasi stoles or the inexpensive colourful stoles sold near the Ghat. You need to have one around your neck to complete the Banarasi style!

Also, do not forget to explore the narrow lanes inside. The narrow gallis are overcrowded and overflowing with people, things, cows and bikes and rickshaws. Some of them are as narrow as two feet! Yet, it’s an experience to wriggle your way through these, to explore and discover the cramped shops. A truly unique shopping experience.

Of course don’t miss the Dashashwamedh Ghat aarti

The main attraction of the city, apart from the usual Kashi Viswanath temple or Sankat Mochan temple, is the Dashaswamedh Ghat, the largest of all ghats in Varanasi. A grand pooja-aarti ceremony for the Ganga is performed in unison by 7 young priests with thousands of tourists, visitors and devotees bearing witness to the grandeur. The aarti starts at 6.45pm, after the sunset.

Day 2

Take an early morning walk along the ghats

Varanasi has a total of 84 ghats with each Ghat having its own history and significance. The Ghats are best explored by walking, especially in the early morning. A must-do activity to experience Varanasi in its entirety, if you don’t mind the occasional cow dung and some solid waste on your way! The multitude of activities at the Ghats will consume all your senses – of artists painting the cacophony, of photographers adjusting their lenses for that perfect click, of devotees taking a holy dip to absolve of all sins, of dhobis engaged tediously in doing laundry, of bathers bathing, swimming, playing, singing, meditating, mourning and so much more. The Ghats are alive.

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Some of the better known Ghats are:

Dashaswamedh Ghat- The most visited ghat because of the Aarti. There are various shops and markets around this Ghat.

Harishchandra and Manikarnika Ghats- There’s a saying that the burning pyres have never stopped in Manikarnika Ghat. While it might seem interesting to stop by and take a look, on humanitarian ground, we would request to refrain from clicking the mourning families or taking that close up shot of the pyres.

Assi Ghat- A favourite with foreigners, this quiet place towards the southern banks, also has a small Aarti in the evening. Boat rides and good food are what people come here for.

Scindhia Ghat- houses the partially submerged Shiva temple.

Man Mandir Ghat- houses the Jantar Mantar observatory, with its intricately carved windows.

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Trinkets for shopping along the Ghats

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Breakfast with Kachori and Jalebis at Kachori Gali

Kachori sabzi is the quintessential breakfast one must have in this city. Most people have their breakfast here right after offering the pujas in Kashi Vishwanath temple beside this gali. The fried kachoris with piping hot aloo sabzi (a potato gravy) sets your mood for the day. End your breakfast on a sweet note with the crunchy jalebis. The shops in Kachori gali open as early as 7am, but are open almost all day, so you can eat as per your appetite anytime.

Buy trinkets from shops around Assi Ghat

Assi Ghat is a favourite with the travellers. One of the Ghats at the end of the city, it houses few small shops on the road to the Ghat, selling trinkets and beautiful souvenirs. Choose from paintings on old post cards, handmade bookmarks, jewellery, bags or painted t-shirts.

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An old postcard from 1965 from a daughter to her father

Take an evening boat ride from Assi Ghat

This is one of our favourite and must-do things while in Varanasi. Take a boat ride from Assi Ghat and you can take a tour across all the Ghats. The river beckons and if you oblige, you won’t be disappointed. The best time would be at dawn, with the hand made wooden boat drifting along the river from one Ghat to another. In most cases, the Manjhi will be thrilled to narrate anecdotes and stories about the city, its people, and its history. Like what specific functions are assigned to specific Ghats, where to buy Benarasi sarees from, what not to do in the city and more.

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However, we are not much in favour of watching the Dashaswamedh Ghat Aarti from the boat, as it gets really crowded with little view of the Aarti. Another boat ride can be to the other side of the city, or Lanka, as it is called, which is a barren land with nothing but sand. With almost no people around, this serene bank is the best for watching the golden sun set over the ancient city.

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Hang out at the Pizzeria Vaatika Cafe

The Pizzeria Vaatika Cafe, conveniently located on the Assi Ghat, offers great views of the Ganga. End your day by relaxing at this place with their continental fare and beverages. There is also a little book shop beside the cafe, where you can find various books on the history of Banaras or Kashi.

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View from the rooftop Pizzeria Vaatika Cafe

Day 3

Start the day with Malaiyo and fried idli

Malaiyo, a must have in Varanasi, is flavoured milk foam/ froth garnished with dry fruits, found best in Thateri Gali. You can also try the lassis at the Blue Lassi shop or few other shops along the Luxa road as well.

Don’t be startled at the mention of idli in Varanasi! A blink-and-you-miss moving cart sells the best butter fried idlis we ever had. Located within few metres of Deena Chat Bhandar when you walk along Luxa Road from the Girja Ghar Crossing, the seller fries the idlis in ample butter and mustard, and you get to have the lip smacking idlis with chutneys which are equally awesome.

Take a day trip to Sarnath

While there are many day trips you can take from the city, Sarnath is a must visit. The place where Gautam Buddha delivered his first sermon, Sarnath is visited by Buddhist pilgrims from across the world. It is also a part of the Buddhist circuit of India and is around 40 min from Varanasi . The Sarnath Archeological Museum here houses the famous Ashokan lion capital, which is said to have miraculously survived a 45-foot drop to the ground (from the top of the Ashokan Pillar), and became the National Emblem of India.

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Another option for a day trip would be Chunar Fort, which is around 1.5 hr away, but we recommend visiting it if you are staying for a longer duration, as the journey is hectic due to road conditions.

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View of the Ganges from Chunar fort

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Visit the Ramnagar fort just before sunset

Built by the Kashi Naresh (king of Kashi) in the 18th C., the fort still stands strong across the banks of the city. Visit this fortification before sunset, and you would be mesmerised. The fort also houses a museum, known as Saraswati Bhawan. Check out this museum for the beautiful Palkis (palanquins).

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Ramnagar fort

Have panipuri- Varanasi style

The panipuris in East India are nothing like the golgappas of Delhi or pani puris of Mumbai. They are spicier and have an immense capacity to make to salivate at the smell or sight of them. We like the ones at Kashi Chat Bhandar, or you can also find many roadside stalls on your way.

Dine with live classical music

Varanasi is known for the famous Banarasi Gharana of Indian music style, and was home to eminent singers like Girija Devi. Even today, when you walk past the by-lanes of the old city, you can hear the music of a Sitar or a Tabla. If you miss the Dhrupad festival of Varanasi held in March/April, get a taste of live classical music with good food at the Brown Bread Bakery in Bangali Tola near Dashaswamedh Ghat.

Check out more about the restaurant which also supports a charity project, here: http://bakerybreadbrown.blogspot.in/p/blog-page_9.html

Varanasi is a city that grows on you. Once you come back from here, you want to get back again!

Travel ityadis (et ceteras) :

How to reach there: Varanasi Junction, the nearest railway station is connected well from all cities. Else, take a train till Allahabad and take an auto from there- takes around an hour. The airport is located around 17km away from the city, so book your cabs ahead.

Must haves while travelling to Varanasi- Boots! We recommend you wear covered comfortable shoes since Varanasi is best explored by walking. And also, the cows leave you with their presents in every gali. Also, carry sunscreen and shades to help to get going under the scorching heat.

Best time to travel- Varanasi is a year round destination, however, Feb-March, or Oct-Dec is a good time where mornings are very comfortable. If you are not keen on visitng a tourist-crowded Varanasi, do not visit around Deep-Dipavali, which is otherwise an amazing festival.

Safety- Varanasi welcomes all tourists with love, and it is pretty safe through the year except around holi, when there are a lot of outsiders and the city gets very crowded. There are tourist help centres and information booths across the city. We have been here as solo female travellers, all women groups as well as a group of friends. We felt safe every time.

More places to see- If you have some more time in this city or want to visit other places, here are few recommendations:

  1. Jantar Mantar observatory
  2. The Bharat Kala Bhavan museum inside the Banaras Hindu University (BHU)
  3. Durga Mandir

We are also coming out with an informative map on the city and its surroundings soon, which would help you plan your trips better!

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