The first things that come to mind when you hear the name Varanasi are – Ganga aarti, Kashi Vishwanath temple, and Paan. And while these are certainly phenomenal, they’re also just the tip of the iceberg! Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world and has much to show for it. It has a unique vibe which facilitates spiritual explorations and arts learning. Its spirit of carefree and festive lifestyle is exemplified by the popular phrase: “Kashi mein 7 vaar 9 tyohar” (9 festivals for 7 days of the week). Here, we have tried to put together a list of experiences to explore all the ras’s (juices) of Banaras!
1. Perform Yoga with the locals at Assi Ghat
The best way to know any city is to interact with its locals – even better if you can learn something in the process. Every morning at Assi Ghat, free guided yoga sessions are held on the banks of Ganga. Most of the participants at this event are locals and the best part is that anyone can join – no registrations are required! All you need to do is show up – even mats are provided. The 40 mins session has both – Pranayams (breathing exercises) and Asanas (postures). Stay till the end for the most fascinating Hasyasana (laughing exercise) 🙂
You can also opt for private guided Yoga sessions. The session can be organized indoor/outdoor, and for any level – beginner, intermediate or advanced.
2. Witness Kushti at an Akhada
Kushti is a traditional wrestling practised in India, and an Akhada is the place where people learn and practice Kushti. Instead of plastic mats, there are pits of dry mud softened with curd, and with added herbs for faster healing. In Varanasi, Kushti is a way of life. While there are several Kushti Akharas scattered across the city, our favourite is the Swaminath Akhada at Tulsi ghat which is now open for women as well. You can even try your hand at Kushti here under the guidance of Siyaram Ji – a veteran Pehelwan. This 60-year-old is no less than a 30-year-old guy when it comes to strength and fitness. And filled with humility and wisdom, he’s a gem of a person to meet!
3. Enjoy a performance of live Hindustani Classical Music
If you enjoy music, Banaras is the best place for you. Awarded the “UNESCO City of Music” status in 2015, Banaras is 1 of the 5 Gharanas of Hindustani Classical Music and famous for both – Singing and Instrument playing. Every morning, artists perform at the Assi Ghat in Subah-e-Banaras during Sunrise and you can witness it for free! You can also hear the music emanating from every nook and corner of some neighbourhoods such as Bengali Tola and Kabir Chaura. Some famous music schools are also found in these areas. The International Music Ashram in Bengali Tola organizes performances every Wed/Sat evening.
4. Try the Banarasi paan and other street food delicacies
A visit to Varanasi is incomplete without trying some of its iconic delicacies – some of the best street food in India. Famed all over the country is the Banarasi Paan which you can find everywhere in the city. Paan helps you step into the carefree state of mind that Banaras is 🙂
Thandai – a mixture of cold milk, sugar, almonds, fennel and rose is another local favourite. Head over to Pathak Thandai in Thatheri Galli for the best thandai. Kachori-sabzi and Jalebi are Banaras’ staple breakfast and too good to be missed. Ram Bhandar in Thatheri galli and Madhur Jalpaan near Gadowlia are our favourite. Other must-haves are Chaat, Lassi, Laal peda, and Baati Chokha.
5. Discover the once lost temples of Kashi Khand
Yes, you heard that right! It’s possible to invoke the Indian Jones within you here in Varanasi, and discover lost treasures. During the 13th-14th centuries, when the city was facing a series of invasions, some scholars decided to pen down the coordinates and stories of some of the important shrines in a book named Kashi Khand. Several of these temples were destroyed over the course of the invasions and their shrines forgotten as the city kept reinventing itself. When peace was restored in the 18th century, several of these temples were traced back and restored – thanks to the book. All of them bear the inscription “Kashi Khand Sthit” and there are more than a hundred of these scattered across Varanasi. Given their importance, most of them are beautiful temples with exquisite carvings. One great example is the Gautameshwar Mahadev temple near Gadowlia.
6. Step out of your comfort zone – invoke the Shiva inside of you!
When in Banaras, push yourself to do something you usually wouldn’t. Try some bhang with your lassi or thandai, lose yourself in the labyrinthine gallis, take a dip in the Ganga, strike a conversation with a sadhu about life and beyond, try your hand at Kushti at an akhada, sing at the top of your voice at the Ghats. Invoke the Shiv within you and discover yourself, which is a key essence of Banaras.
Don’t worry about being judged, or getting lost. The locals will go the extra mile to ensure that you’re looked after, especially if you’re living the spirit of their city 🙂
7. Make peace with death by spending time at cremation Ghat – Manikarnika
A lot of people come to Kashi to spend their last days here or to perform the last rites of their loved ones, for Kashi is believed to be the gateway to Moksha (salvation). Even death sheds its usual cloak of goriness here. There are hotels here called Mukti Bhawans (Salvation homes) where people check-in to check out! Just like beauty parlours, we have cremation parlours! The main cremation ground – Manikarnika Ghat, is located smack in the middle of the city, on the banks of Ganga. Seeing bodies burning into ashes gives people the chills, and yet at the same time, it can be a profoundly enlightening experience. All that one accumulates in life gets left behind at the pyre. Death is also a strong reminder to live each moment to the fullest.
8. Treat yourself to some local handicrafts
Having been a hub of both arts and commerce, Varanasi has an amazing legacy of beautiful handicrafts. There’s of course the world famous Banarasi brocade and Sarees – which can be bought from Chowk, or one of the many famous emporiums. Besides that, there are also colourful Wooden toys, Glass beads, undercut stone work – all 3 can be bought from the colourful markets in Vishwanath Galli or Bengali Tola. And there’s also Gulaabi Meenakari work – which can be bought directly from the artisans in the Gaay Ghat area. Also, you can buy some beautiful paintings of Banaras at the Ghats.
Besides getting yourself fantastic souvenirs, you will also be providing a much needed boost to the local economy and help promote sustainable tourism which benefits the local community 🙂
9. Get inspired, create something!
Don’t stop at just buying some local art. Go ahead and create some yourself! Varanasi’s soulful vibes have inspired many artists throughout history such as Kabir, Tulsidas, Amrita Sher-Gil, etc. Create something using this city as your muse – it can be a photograph, a painting, a beautiful song; anything that you feel inspired to create.
Participate in a painting workshop with one of Varanasi’s most promising upcoming artists and paint your experiences of Varanasi on the canvas or take a photography walk and join us as we discuss the rules of Framing, Composition, Light, and Spotting, and then methods of breaking them one by one to render unique photographs!
10. Ride along the Ganga during Sunrise:
Sunrise and Sunset anywhere is a marvellous experience. But in Varanasi, they’re exceptional, especially the Sunrise. As the Sun rises over an empty horizon (Varanasi is exclusively on the western bank of Ganga), the colour palette of nature is mesmerizing and makes each Ghat and the Ganga glow. The myriad rituals of the bathing and chilling locals on the Ghats are a sight to behold. Witnessing all this from the middle of Ganga in a boat is like seeing the most beautiful painting being created in front of your eyes!
Boats can be hired from any of the Ghats. For a guided experience with the stories of Ganga, Ghats, and the bond between the river and the people, you can also check out the boat tours at Roobaroo Walks.
11. Darshan at Kashi Vishwanath
Kashi Vishwanath temple is 1 of 12 Jyotirlingas in India, and with 25 million devotees annually, it’s the most visited one! It’s a great place to see the hustle bustle inside Hindu temples, and while the atmosphere can often be chaotic, you can find immense peace by sitting in an empty corner. The present structure of Kashi Vishwanath was built by the Maratha Queen Ahilyabai Holkar in 1771 and has beautiful carvings.
The temple opens at 2:30 am every day. There are 5 aartis conducted through the day – of which the Mangla Aarti between 3 am – 4 am is a highlight. The chanting of mantras, lamps, amidst playing of huge damroos creates a spellbinding experience. If 3 am is too early for you, then you can visit any time before 6:30 am is still great for a peaceful visit. VIP passes can also be obtained near Gate no. 4 to avoid the queues.
Are you planning a trip to Varanasi? If you have any questions related to the experiences shared above or otherwise, do let us know in the comments below. And if you’ve already visited, let us know your best memory of Varanasi 🙂