Located between two rivers, Varuna and Assi, Varanasi is said to be one of the oldest living cities in the world. Also called Kashi or Benaras, iconic snapshots of this ancient and holy city invariably focus on the ghats. They say it is a city of learning and burning. All the images that Varanasi conjures up the ubiquitous Ganges, the many, many steps that lead to and from it, the saffron-smeared sadhus, the temples are there, but none of that quite prepares you for the Varanasi experience. From the aircraft, it looks like any other Indian landscape but the real surprise is the Varanasi airport. Its smart, sprawling and spotless. During the drive to the hotel, Varanasi reveals itself as a typical north Indian town dusty and hot, quaint little shops with Hindi signboards, all shut in the afternoon sun. There are cows everywhere and the narrow lanes are dotted with temples and other shrines. Theres another thing you cant help notice theres food everywhere. Its here that the ghats meet the chaats!
Rasta shopping, sasta shopping
Many visitors like to begin a trip on a pious note. You can start with a temple or the ghats. And then there is the other kind of pious place the main shopping street of the city! After much research (one chauffeur, one concierge desk) the verdict is clear. Vishwanath Gali. Although 40°Celsius is not exactly conducive to rasta shopping, it does promise to be sasta shopping! In under Rs 500 you can fill your bag. Bindi packets for Rs 10 (the extra sparkly ones can go up to
Rs 50), chooris (starting from Rs 5 a pair, can go up to Rs 500), lal mirchi achaars, aloo papads, a plethora of puja paraphernalia
but the most exciting item is definitely the wooden handicrafts. Fall in love with the dupatta-clad, sindoor-smeared version of the Russian doll really cute for the bedside.
PS: Capture the monkeys in action. They swing vigorously on the wires overhead, so mind the gap!
Temple trail, part i
Sankat Mochan Mandir is just 2.5km from Godowlia Chowk (the central chauraha of Varanasi). This ancient Hanuman mandir is very famous, hence super-crowded on Saturdays and Tuesdays. No phones or cameras or bags are allowed inside. A brief security check later, you walk into the temple barefoot. There are separate queues for women and men for the darshan. Make most of the moments you get in front of the main murti because a quick glimpse is what most people manage in the pull and tug. Theres also a small Ram Mandir within the premises.
The spice route
Right outside the mandir theres a small chaat shop. Its a good place to start on your gastronomical trail. Quiet and anonymous, this shop isnt as famous as Dina or Kashi, but if you cant wait for your first taste of Benarasi chaat, just give in. Their phuchka filling is slightly different from Calcuttas. Its a matar mix (ghoogni) and yummy. But the hero here is Tamatar Ka Chaat. This is basically a mix of everything. Aloo tikki, matar and tomato are cooked on the tawa, some magic masalas are thrown in, theres a generous sprinkling of crushed phuchka the mouth-watering, crackling mash is handed to you in a little khullar. Perfect!
Dinner at Nadesar Palace
Named after Goddess Nadesari, Nadesar Palace an intimate, 10-room Taj property is breathtaking by the moonlight. Begin the tour by stopping for a second at their temple. (Varanasi can have that effect.) Each of the majestic rooms tells a royal story. Dinner is served by the lamp-dotted swimming pool, under the stars. The tables are swathed in luxurious Benarasi fabric, the water goblets shine and when theres a break in the sitar recital, the sound of the trickling fountain provides the perfect soundtrack for a perfect evening. Its all so old world and charming. Try their Satvik Thali sans onion and garlic. A gleaming thali comes with home-style aloo, arhar dal, bhindi, a khullar of dahi and phulka. Theres also some garden-grown snake gourd and jackfruit. The food at the palace is great, the hospitality is greater.
Temple trail, part II
Watch weekend repeat episodes of How I Met Your Mother. Do a double shot of espresso. Relax in the swimming pool. BBM. Do anything to stay awake for the Mangala Aarti at Vishwanath Temple. If you cant keep your eyes open, set back-to-back alarms to drag you out of the sofa (we recommend you dont hit the bed) at 2am sharp. The gates at Vishwanath Temple open at 2.30am, but only for ticket-holders (each ticket is Rs 200). Severe security checks later, you enter the temple to witness the wake-up ceremony of Lord Shiva. The aarti lasts about 40 minutes and they give you 20 of your own to pray before they open the gates at 4am to let you out. The aarti mantras reverberate and take you to a happy place, making you forget what (unearthly) hour of the night it really is. Complete the experience with a pre-dawn walk to the ghats. Its only 10 minutes from Vishwanath Temple and you cross some really cool, dark alleys. The ghats look like a huge sleeping mattress but people are about to wake up with the sunrise. The Ganga flows by peacefully. Its a magic moment.
The Buddha beat
Morning is bound to turn to noon if you sleep after sunrise. After a lazy brunch, the first stop of the day is Sarnath, about 15km from Godowlia. The cradle of Buddhism, it is here that the Buddha gave his first sermon. There are three major spots here the archaeological museum, the excavation site and the temple. The museum has many treasures and two prized possessions the original national emblem, or the Lion Capital, and a statue of the Buddha in the preaching posture (you can buy beautiful mud replicas outside). In the site area, you can see the remains of the Sangharama monastery. Here, the highlight is the stupa Ashoka constructed to commemorate the place of Buddhas first sermon. You can also see the original spot of the Lion Capital, now secure behind an iron enclosure. The temple, built by a Sri Lankan devotee, has a beautiful shining Buddha under a fresco that paints the story of his life.
Zzzzzzzzzzz (Its essential to make up for the sleep deficit on Sunday, or else youll go through an entire week of sleep double deficit.)
Any trip to Benaras is incomplete without getting lost in the maze of galis. Its a good idea to start at the main chowk. An angrezo ke zamaane-style police station stands next to a small paan shop. It is at this paanwalas that freedom fighters apparently exchanged secret messages about their meeting schedules. Shops and more shops crowd the chowk. You find everything here from beautiful Benarasi saris to lip-smacking samosas. Start at the head of any lane and make your way down. Roll up your jeans and dont worry about the bull population. Most of them are very well mannered. Chances are you will land up somewhere near the ghats.
A boat ride on the Ganges is a great way to soak in the sights, sounds and smells of Varanasi. Hire a rowboat for Rs 150 at Dashashwamedh Ghat (one of the main ghats) to begin a journey that is quite unforgettable. If you want to float diyas along the river, buy them for Rs 5 each at the ghat. They are really pretty shaalpattas decorated with marigold and the diyas dotting the centre. As you cruise along the river, you will see everything people taking a holy dip, fathers teaching their children how to swim, dogs splashing around and bodies being burnt at Manikarnika Ghat, with the sinking temple right beside it. And as the sun goes down, light your diyas and float them with a silent prayer on your lips.
The Ganga aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat is perhaps the most-clicked Varanasi moment. During summer, the aarti (picture by Pabitra Das) begins at 7.30pm. Seven pandits come together to perform the puja a surreal, synchronised act. The aarti takes place in stages, first with agarbatti, then luban, then ghee diyas and finally karpoor. You can experience the aarti from the ghats or get a full-frontal view from the boat. We recommend the river view. The bells chime musically and the boat rocks oh-so-gently, making you close your eyes and fold your hands.
The last supper
The taste buds are drooling. They demand a last quick bite of chaat. Just a minute from Dashashwamedh Ghat lie the two heroes of Benarasi chaat Dina and Kashi. Its always crowded but the wait is well worth it. Their chaat is smackalicious. Is it possible to hunt down that Tamatar Chaat recipe? Has to be way simpler than the other thing people travel to Benaras for salvation.