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Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The city has been referred to by many different names during its more than 3000 year old history. The present name, Varanasi, has been revived in the last years of twentieth century. This name is mentioned the ancient Hindu epic, Mahabharata as well as in the Jataka tales of Bodhisattvas or previous incarnations of Buddha. The name is comprised of two Sanskrit words, Varuna and Asi that are the names of two tributaries of the River Ganga. During the British period the name was corrupted to Banaras or Banares. In pre-Buddhist period the city was called Kashi and was the capital of a significant kingdom that also had the same name. Referring to the ‘light of Shiva’ it was also called ‘Kashika’. In other texts it is referred to as ‘Avimukta’ meaning the city that Shiva never deserted. Rudravasa is another name that one finds in Hindu ancient texts meaning the ‘residence of Shiva’. ‘Anandavana’ or the forest of bliss is one other name that is used in some ancient Hindu texts. According to ancient Hindu texts Varanasi has had an association with the Hindu god Shiva throughout its history.
Varanasi has the same significance for Hindus as Jerusalem has for the Jewish and Muslims, and Mekka has for the followers of Islam. Historical evidence suggests that the city was founded in about one millennium BCE. Vamana Purana, an ancient Hindu text, along with the more famous, Mahabharata as well as many Buddhist manuscripts mention Varanasi. The American author, Mark Twain, was so impressed by the legend and sanctity of the city that he wrote, “Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
Varanasi is a city where the past, present and eternity seem to co-exist. From the descriptions of the city during the period when Lord Buddha frequented one is amazed to find that the Varanasi of today is not much different than 2550 years earlier. Because of the mineral rich water flowing from Himalayan mountains, the water of the Ganga River does not contaminate. This quality of the river’s water has led the people to consider it holy and sacred through out the more than two and half millennia of its history. This combined with the association of Varanasi with Shiva has made this city a Mecca for Hindus. Life begins to hum on the banks of Ganga well before dawn as thousands of pilgrims start coming to its Ghats (the stone steps leading into the River) to greet the rising sun with a ‘Surya Namaskar’ standing in the water. The Ghats are related to various gods and goddesses. Manikarnika Ghat honors goddess Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiva. The Vishwanath Temple also celebrates Lord Shiva as the most important of the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara (another name for Shiva). This is the most popular of all Varanasi’s Hindu temples. Despite all the suppression during the long period of Islamic rule over most of north India, the reverence of the deities in Varanasi has been overwhelming. Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi promises a passage to Moksha or liberation from the cycle of life and death. Many families bring either their dead for cremation at the Varanasi cremation Ghat or they bring the ashes to Varanasi to be immersed in the River Ganga here. Dasaswamedha Ghat is perhaps the most popular Ghat where one can see rows of traditional Pandas (priests) sitting under umbrellas waiting for their clients. Varanasi was a celebrated center of learning even in the life time of Buddha who came to this city after renouncing the material life. It has continued to attract students throughout the ages. Today India’s most prominent Sanskrit language College is in this city and the Banaras Hindu University founded by efforts of a great social reformer, Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, is one of the leading centers of learning in eastern India.
Many temples in Varanasi were deliberately destroyed under various Islamic rulers, particularly the sixth Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb. Many temples that were destroyed have been subsequently rebuilt in different locations. The old Vishwanath Temple could not be rebuilt because Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb not only destroyed the temple but also built a mosque in its place. The old Vishwanath Temple near the Ghats was built later beside the mosque.
Varanasi is also a very important center of Indian classical music. The school of music known as the Banaras Gharana still flourishes in the city. One of the most famous musicians of this city was Ustad Bismillah Khan, who was undoubtedly the most respected Shahnai (special Indian Oboe) player leads many other famous musicians of the city including Pandit Shanto Prasad (tabla drums) and Pandit Ravi Shankar (Sitar) among many more accomplished musicians. Between Jangambali post office and Bengali Lane the International Music Ashram at D33/81 Khalishpura, holds concerts and organizes classes aimed at foreigners. Asi Ghat has always been known for its rapidly changing music scene, and there's a lively performing arts department at Banaras Hindu University. Varanasi is renowned for its popular music festivals particularly during winter and spring. At Shivratri (Feb/March) the Dhrupad Mela is devoted to Dhrupad an archaic form in which the voice is treated as a musical instrument and the vocal singers are accompanied by the double membrane barrel drum Pakhawaj. Pakhawaj solos are particularly vibrant. The drum has a deep and sonorous tone and performances rise to energetic crescendos. A four-day music and dance festival the Ganga Mahotsav takes place at Rajendra Prasad Ghat near Dashashwamedha and is held around Kartik Purnima - the full moon after Diwali (Oct/Nov) in which the entrance is usually free. Varanasi's large Muslim community also makes its mark in the musical arena with Quwwali Vocal and Instrumental performances of spiritual songs in praise of Sufi saints, the prophet of Islam and God. Qawwali music can be often heard on Thursday evenings at the Dargah of Chandan Sahid at Raj Ghat. The age old music tradition has attracted accomplished craftsmen who make the various Indian classical musical instruments. Many artists have their instruments made to order according to their specifications. The daily evening Ganga Aartee at the Ghats is a very interesting event both for Hindu pilgrims and tourists alike.
The silk industry is another source of fame for Varanasi. Especially the brocade work done on silk is very much appreciated in the Banaras Silk Saris for the ladies. This industry provides livelihood for thousands of weavers, especially in the Muslim community. The small town of Badhohi near Varanasi is world famous for its woolen hand woven carpets.
Banaras Hindu University is one of the oldest educational centers in India for the study of Indian art, culture, music and Sanskrit. It houses a museum - Bharat Kala Bhawan - that has one of the finest collections of Mughal, Rajasthani and other miniature paintings, sculpture from excavations in the region, ancient bronze sculptures, contemporary art, and brocade textiles. It is open daily from 10.30 AM to 4.30 PM except university holidays and Sundays. Along with Buddhist and Hindu sculpture and Mughal glass artifacts, galleries are devoted to foreign artists who found inspiration in India, such as Nicholas Roerich and Alice Boner. Jamini Roy, the Bengali renaissance painter who was influenced by folk art, is also well represented.
The New Vishwanatha Temple, open daily from 4 AM to noon & from 1 to 9 PM and distinguished by its lofty white marble Shikhara is also in the Banaras Hindu University campus. The temple was built to replace the original Vishwanath temple that was destroyed by Emperor Aurangzeb. In this temple the architecture is a deliberate blending of temple art of various regions of India.
The descendents of the former Maharaja of Varanasi still live in one part of the Ram Nagar Fort and Museum that is located just south of Asi Ghat. The museum displays of old horse drawn carriages, antique automobiles, palanquins, gilded and ornate silver howdahs (elephant seats), “hookah” smoking water pipes, ancient royal costumes, old silk garments and various items of armory decorated with ivory, gold and silver. There is a collection of items used in the Ram Lila and Dassehra (October) processions in one of the fort’s courtyards. Before the independence of India the Maharaja of Varanasi used to personally lead these Hindu festival processions. The present structure of the fort was built in the seventeenth century though there may have been an earlier fort in this location.
Other places of interest for Hindu pilgrims and tourists at Varanasi include Bharat Mata Temple, Durga Temple, Annapurna Temple, Manmandir, Sankat Mochan Temple and Tulsi Manas Temple. These are some of the most important Hindu temples in Varanasi. Unfortunately because of terrorism threats still and video photography in and near these temples is prohibited.
- Radisson Varanasi Hotel – 117 rooms
- Taj Ganges Hotel – 130 rooms
- Rivatas by Ideal - 50 rooms
- Clarks Varanasi Hotel – 104 rooms
- Ramada Plaza JHV – 120 rooms
- Ideal Tower Hotel - 58 rooms
- A Palace on the River – Rashmi Guest House – 18 rooms
- Suryaudaya Haveli on Shivala Ghat - 14 rooms with free Wi-Fi
- A Palace on Ganges on Assi Ghat – 22 rooms
- Best Western Kashika Hotel – 102 rooms
- Hotel India Varanasi – 80 rooms
- Best Western Hotel Hindustan International – 85 rooms
- Hotel Varanasi Ashok – 84 rooms
Distance from Varanasi:
City Kilometers Miles
- Patna 235 146
- Lucknow 300 186
- Allahabad 125 78
- Gorakhpur 212 132
- Bodhgaya 242 150
- Sarnath 9 6
- Kushinagar 263 163