|Varanasi, India's most sacred city is situated on the West bank of the Ganga. Varanasi is also known as Benaras. Varanasi derives its name from two streams, the Varuna on the North side of the city and the Assi, a small trickled on the south. Varanasi is said to combine all the virtues of all other places of pilgrimage and anyone dying within the area marked by the Panch Kosi road is transported straight to heaven. It is also an important pilgrimage centre for Buddhists as it was at Sarnath (10 km from Varanasi), Lord Buddha gave his Ist sermon after enlightment. Varanasi today, is also a centre of education, art and craft.
The city's life revolves around its seven km long sweep of about 100 bathing ghats that skirt the west bank of the Ganges. Most of them are used for bathing. Some are used for cremating bodies. The most sacred ghats are the Asi, Dasashwamedh Ghat, Manikarnika and Panchganga. Pilgrims who bathe in each one consecutively believe their prayers will be fulfilled. A short boat trip from Manikarnika Ghat can be an interesting introduction to the river. It is believed that cremation at Manikarnika ghat ensures a safe place in Heaven, as the cremators of this ghat are believed to have the patronage of Shiva. The furthermost upstream ghat is Assi Ghat, which marks the confluence of the Ganges and the Assi rivers. It is said that after striking down demon Shumbha and nishumbha, Durga's sword fell and created a curved ditch, which later became the Assi Channel. This Ghat is one of the five special ghats which pilgrims are supposed to bathe at in sequence during the ritual route called ' Panchatirthi Yatra' ending in the Adikeshva ghat in the north. Nearby is the Tulsi Ghat, where Goswami Tulsidas lived till his death in 1623A.D. The Bachra Ghat is used by Jains and there are three riverbank Jain Temples. The Dandi Ghat is used by fakirs , yogis and ascetics and nearby is the very popular Hanuman Ghat. Dashashvamedh Ghat, Varanasi's liveliest bathing place was constructed by Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao. It's name indicates that Brahma sacrificed (medh) 10 (das) horses (aswa) here. It's one of the most important ghats and is conveniently central. Nearby is the grand Man Mandir Ghat (1637) and an observatory both built by Sawai Raja Jai Singh of Jaipur in 1710. Mir Ghat leads to a Nepalese temple, which has erotic sculptures. Dattatreya Ghat bears the footprint of the Brahmin saint of that name in a small temple nearby. The Ram Ghat was built by the Raja of Jaipur. Panchaganga Ghat, where India's five holy rivers are said to merge. The Trilochan Ghat has two turrets emerging from the river, and the water between them is especially holy. Another important cremation ghat is the Hirishchandra ghat, named after the king Harishchandra who worked as a cremator at the cremation grounds.
The best time to visit the ghats is at dawn when the river is bathed in a magical light and pilgrims come to perform puja to the rising sun. The best view of the Ghats can be had from a boat midstream or from the Malviya Bridge. Burning pyres, people getting their hair shaved off, the chanting of sacred slokas, giving of alms to Brahmins, Pandas (Brahmin Priests) sitting under huge umbrellas offering prayers for their clients, devotees praying and drinking water from the holy river are the common sight at these ghats.
Vishwanath temple (Golden Temple)
The most sacred temple in Varanasi is the Vishwanath temple, located at Vishvanath Gali dedicated to Lord Shiva. Hindus believe Shiva lives here, so it's far too holy a place for non-Hindus to view, the followers of other religions are permitted a view from the Naubat Khana (seat of temple choir). The shivalinga at the Vishwanath temple is among one of the 12 Jyotrilingas. The current temple was built in 1776 by Ahalya Bai of Indore with about 800 kg of gold plating on the towers, which gives the temple its colloquial name, Golden Temple. The gold plated spire, was the gift of the Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore in 1835, more than 50 years later. The well of wisdom or 'Gyan Vapi' which is nearby is believed to have been built by Lord Shiva himself to cool the 'linga' of Vishwanath with water.
Durga Temple :
It was built in the 18th century by a Bengali maharani and is stained red with ochre. The Durga Temple is commonly known as the Monkey Temple due to the many frisky monkeys that have made in their home. Non-Hindus can enter the courtyard but not the inner sanctum.
Kedareshvara Temple :
It is the most important Shiva temple of the city. The stone linga here is said to have emerged spontaneously. The myth narrate that a pure hearted devotee of Shiva prayed for a chance to visit the famous Kedareshvara Shiva temple in the Himalayas. Shiva, who is the god of destruction is always kind to his bhaktas (devotees). Shiva was touched by his bhakta's piety and instead of bringing him to the mountain, Shiva brought his image to the bhakta. This image (linga) emerged out of a plate of rice and lentils. It can be still seen by the believers on the rough surface of the natural stone linga.
Sankat Mochan Temple :
It is at Durga Kund Road. The word Sankat Mochan means deliverer from troubles. The temple belongs to Hanuman (monkey God), an incarnation of Vishnu. The best time to visit this temple is in the early evening.
Shitala Temple :
This white temple is dedicated to Shitala, the smallpox goddess. It is situated at Shitala Ghat. The Santoshi Mata (Mother of Contentment) shrine is added to this temple.
Chausath Yogini Temple :
This temple is situated just above the Chausath Yogini Ghat. It was originally devoted to a tantric cult. Now it is devoted to Kali. The deity here is known as 'Ma' (mother).
Gyanvapi Mosque :
This mosque was built by Mughal emperor Aurangazeb. The foundation and the rear part of the mosque are the remains of a temple. One of its minarets which dominated the skyline of the holy city, collapsed in the1948 floods
Alamgir Mosque :
This mosque was constructed by Aurangazeb. It is a blend of Hindu and Muslim designs. A famous bathing point, Panjaganga Ghat lies below it.
Around Varanasi :
It is not just the Hindus venerate Varanasi today, for the city has links with Buddhism and Jainism as well. The city has also been influenced by Islamic culture.
In the residential neighbourhood of the city lies Sarnath, the site of the deer park where Gautama Buddha is said to have given his first sermon about the basic principles of Buddhism. It is one of the four pilgrimage sites designated by Gautama Buddha, the other three being Kushinagar, Bodh Gaya, and Lumbini. The Dhamek Stupa is one of the few pre-Ashokan stupas remaining, although only the foundations remain. Also remaining is the Chaukhandi Stupa commemorating the spot where the Buddha met his first deciples, dating back to the fifth century or earlier amd later enhanced by the addition of an octagonal tower.
Varanasi is also a pilgrimage place for Jains. It is believed to be the birthplace of Parshvanatha, the twenty-third Tirthankar. Vaishnavism and Shaivism have co-existed in Varanasi harmoniously.
Varanasi is well connected by air, rail and road.
Regular service connects Varanasi with cities as Delhi, Lucknow, Jaipur, Khajuraho, Calcutta, Bombay, Bhubaneswar and Katmandu. Varanasi is on several Indian Airlines flights including the popular daily tourist shuttle Delhi/Agra/Khajuraho/Varanasi and back. Sahara Airlines also has flights to Calcutta, Mumbai and Lucknow. Jet Airways operates flights to Delhi and Khajuraho. The airport at Babatpur is about 22 km away from the city.
Varanasi is major rail junction. Several trains a day come to Varanasi from both Kolkata and Delhi. The city is linked by trains with all metros and major cities across the country - New Delhi (760 Kms), Mumbai (1509 Kms), Calcutta (735 Kms), Madras (1970 Kms), Lucknow (286 Kms), Allahabad, Patna, Jaipur, Gorakhpur and Khajuraho.. There are not many trains running directly between here and Delhi or Calcutta but most Delhi to Calcutta trains do pass through Mughal Sarai, 18 km south of Varanasi.
Varanasi is connected with Calcutta (677 Kms.), Delhi (765 Kms.), Madras (1901 Kms.), Bangalore (1763 Kms.) Varanasi is very well connected by a network of roads and road transport to all major towns of Uttar Pradesh and surrounding areas.There are buses running from Varanasi to Jaunpur, Allahabad, Lucknow, Faizabad, and Gorakhpur