Mark Twain once remarked about Varanasi that it is “older than history, older even
than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together." With all the eras
it has lived through, first as Benares, and now in its present avatar, the city
seems to be enveloped in its own divine aura.
Varanasi is sacred to Hindus. It is revered as the abode of Lord Shiva and his consort
Parvati. It is immersed in an ancient culture and history that few cities could
lay claim to. Indeed, it is widely believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited
city in the world.
For millennia, it has been a hub of philosophy, theosophy, medicine, learning and
the arts - and it remains steeped in all of them.
It is the home of Sanskrit, Annie Besant’s Theosophical Society, Asia’s largest
university - ‘Benares Hindu University’, Sarnath - the venue of The Buddha’s first
sermon after enlightenment, two thousand temples and the revered Ganges River.
Location & Attractions
The River Front
At dawn, pilgrims, standing waist deep in the Ganges, perform their ablutions and
devoutly offer their prayers to the rising sun. Witness these fascinating rituals
with a boat-ride on the Ganges at dawn and dusk.
Amongst the most famous are:
- The Bharat Mata Temple which was built in 1918 and has a unique marble relief map
of the subcontinent
- The Durga Temple with its multi-tiered spire and red-ochre stained exteriors, that
was erected in the 18th century by a Bengali maharani
- The New Vishwanath Temple which, unlike most Varanasi temples, is open to all irrespective
- The marble Tulsi Manas Temple was built in 1964 and has two-tier walls engraved
with the Ram Charit Manas, which was penned by the poet Tulsi Das who lived within
the temple walls while he composed it
Benares Hindu University
Founded by Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya in 1916, to spread the teachings of Indian
art, music, culture, philosophy and Sanskrit, the university remains a seat of learning
even today. It offers courses in many subjects to around 15,000 students, including
On-campus is the Bharat Kala Bhawan Museum – a showcase of miniature paintings,
12th-century palm-leaf manuscripts, sculptures and local history. Swiss sculptor
and historian, Alice Boner spent many years in Varanasi, and the museum houses a
special gallery dedicated to her.
No visit to Varanasi is complete without a visit to Sarnath – the Buddha’s first
stop after attaining enlightenment. With monuments that date back to the times of
Emperor Ashoka, this tranquil haven is filled with glorious expansive ruins, breathtaking
temples, lofty stupas, a museum showcasing Buddhist culture and history, and, above
all, a pervading sense of peace.
January - February
- Makar Sankranti: After taking a dip in the Ganges in the early hours and donating grains to the Gods, it’s time for the main event of this festival - kite flying. Scores of kites of all shapes, sizes and colours dot the sky.
- Mahashivratri: For residents of Varanasi, this is the most important festival of the year. The great moonless night celebrates the marriage of Lord Shiva to Goddess Parvati and a huge wedding procession called Shiv Baraat winds its way through the city’s streets.
March - May
- Holi: The city is caught up in a swirl of colours, bhang, Benaresi nagara music and the Ahirau folk dance.
- Dhrupad Mela: A three day long festival of classical Hindustani music is held at the Tulsi Ghat.
- Sankat Mochan Sangeet Samaroh: A galaxy of Indian classical music stars performs for five nights at this festival.
- Buddha Mahotsava: A celebration of the birth, enlightenment and ‘parinirvana’ of The Buddha at Sarnath.
May - June
- Ganga Dashahara: The day is celebrated to mark the day the Ganges entered the plains. Flowers and diyas are offered to the Ganges.
- Buddha Poornima: The full moon marks the birth, enlightenment and passing away of The Buddha. Prayer meetings and other events are held throughout the day.
July - August
- Rathyatra: This three day event is highlighted with a chariot procession for the Lords Jagnnath, Subhadra and Balbhadra, which winds through the city streets and is followed by thousands of devotees. There is a grand fete in the city on these days.
September - November
- Shri Krishna Janmashtami: On the eighth day of the waning moon in the month of Sharavan, Hindus celebrate the birth of Lord Krishna, who is believed to have been born at the stroke of midnight. Temples resound with chants and people decorate their homes with tableaux depicting scenes of Lord Krishna’s life.
- Dev Deepawali: On Kartik Purnima, the full moon night falls on the fifteenth day of Deepawali. The ghats are lit with earthen lamps and each stair glitters with a myriad golden flames.
- Ganga Mahotsav: Is celebrated with cultural performances on the river front at Rajendra Prasad Ghat.