Wednesday, March 4, 2009

VARANASI - EAST INDIA


Short-cut to heaven

Born Kashi (City of Light) on the bank of river Ganges, christened Benaras and finally renamed Varanasi, this is one Indian city that has completely preserved its Babylon-old heritage and is ‘Indian’ in every sense of the term. This is also the land where the Hindus have discovered the secret link to achieving Moksha or salvation of the soul from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Tens of thousands Hindu pilgrims from round the globe visit Varanasi and actually hope to die and blend in this holy land and get their ashes washed by the holy Ganges straight to heaven. The very dip in this river is believed to be soul-cleansing. Mark Twain, perhaps, gave the city its best appellation when he said Varanasi is “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together”. Other than believers and temples, its rich silk brocades (the most notable being the Banarasi Sarees), ancient Yoga tradition and north Indian classical music --- all enmesh to give Varanasi a class unequaled by any other Indian tourist destination.


Tale of the City

The name Varanasi is derived from the names of two streams - Varuna and the Assi. The city’s genesis dates back to the age of the great epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana – some 8,000 years back, when it was called “the city of learning and burning”, and visited even by the enlightened Buddha (500 B.C.). Thus, its reputation as one of the holiest tirthas (meaning a sacred place where mortals can cross over to the divine) is virtually too old to be traced.

Attractions

The Riverfront : A boat cruise in the Ganges along the ghats at dawn or sunset is the best way to observe the ritualistic performances that animate these ghats. Dasashwamedh Ghat boasts of the most remarkable ambiance where young Brahmin priests perform age-old prayer rituals and the sound of conch shells and mantras compete with one another. Manikarnika Ghat, Assi Ghat, Panch Ganga Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat are other ghats worth visiting where pilgrims and sadhus jostle for a holy dip in the Ganges and incessant chants rent the air. A very prominent smell that predominates the Varanasi Ghats ghats (like Manikarnika ghat) is of funeral pyres, compounded with the smell of incense sticks and ghee.

Kashi Vishwanath Temple : This is Varanasi’s most sacred Shiva temple which is believed to preserve the original shiva-lingam in its Gyan Vapi tank. Its 800 kg of gold adornment has earned it another name, the “Golden Temple”. Go there to witness the religious fervor of Hinduism, so special to this Hindu-heartland. Note that only Hindus are allowed inside.

Ramnagar Fort (Oct-Mar daily 8am-noon and 2-6 pm, Apr-Sept daily 10am-5pm) : This is a 17th century palace that belongs to one of the former Maharajas of Varanasi. The Ved Vyasa (who authored Mahabharata) temple and a museum with interesting concoction of gold-plated howdahs, richly decorated palanquins, antique weapons, gruesome elephant traps, an astrological clock, and many swords and guns.

Gyan Kup : This is the “'Well of Wisdom” whose waters are believed to the source of highest spiritual illumination.

Gyanvapi or Aurangzeb Mosque : The mosque has minarets towering 71m above the Ganges and was constructed using columns from the Bineswar temple razed by Aurangzeb. The rear portion of the mosque reveals traces of its Hindu origin.

Banaras Hindu University (BHU) : Founded in 1917, this is India’s 3rd largest residential university with a classic Sanskrit School of learning. The Bharat Kala Bhavan and the Museum is worth visiting to have a dekko at the amazing collection of old manuscripts, ancient sculptures from the 1st to 15th centuries, old photographs of Varanasi and paintings.

Live performances : Go to International Music Center in Ganesh Mahal on Wednesdays or Saturdays for live Indian classical music performances by up-and-coming artists. Naach Ghar (Bungalow no. 25, Cantonment, near SSP Residence) is another place that puts on dance performances almost every evening around 7:15pm. Check out with our agents for exact timings and shows.

If you have time, consider visiting: A.B.C. Art Gallery (Opp. Tulsi Manas Temple), Alamgir Mosque, Annapurna Temple, Bharat Mata Temple, Carpet Weaving Centre (Bhadoi), Chhinmastica Temple, Durga Temple, Jantar Mantar, Jantar Mantar, Kaal Bhairav Temple, Man Mandir (Manmandir) Palace, Nandeshwari Kothi, Nepali Temple, St. Mary's Church, Tulsi Manas Temple.

Shopping

Benaras, to any Indian women, means much more than temples and pilgrimage. Yes, its the silk that gets woven into beautiful sarees (traditional Indian wear), that gets female tourists glued to its shopping arcades more than its ghats. Every Saree is a piece of art and unique with its beaitiful design and color scheme. The intricately designed Bhadohi carpets, instruments of Indian classical music, “Langda Aam” - a local variety of delicious mango are items worth trying and buying, besides Varanasi’s brassware, copperware, ivory-ware, stone inlay work, glass beads, bangles, wood and clay items. The best shopping locales are Chowk, Vishwanath Gali, Thatheri bazaar, Lahurabir, Godoulia , Dashswamedh Gali and Golghar. For best brass buys hunt Thatheri Bazaar, while for silk brocade and jewelery go to Jnana Vapi and Vishwanatha Gall with its Temple Bazaar and the state run emporia in Godowlia. Handloom House at Sigra is recommended for silk saris. Imtiaz Ali at Siddh Giri Bagh/Triveni Music Center at Godaulia is the best place to buy musical instruments.

Cuisine

Varanasi has myriad eateries good for Chinese and Italian to Continental and Indian cuisines. The lemony paapri-chat topped with yogurt and ginger-tamarind chutney is a Varanasi favorite. The legendary Bollywood hero, Amitabh Bachhan, shot to fame the Banarasi Paan (betel-nut & leaf, eaten as a mouth-freshener) in one of his songs (khaike paan Benaras wala) and you should make sure to try a bite once here at the paan-city.

In Old Benaras city, try Ganga Fuji for Indian/Chinese/Japanese cuisine, Ayyar’s CafĂ© for South Indian, Madhur Jalpan Grih for Snacks and Sweets. In the Cantonment Area, try Palm Springs and Canton Restaurant. Near Railway Stations, the best bets are Winfa (Chinese), El Parador (Italian/ Greek/ Mexican cuisine).

Getaways

Sarnath (10 km): Site of Buddha’s first sermon after enlightenment in 530 BC, this is a must-visit pilgrimage destination in the Buddhist world. The main shrine, Ashoka’s Sarnath Pillar, Dhameka Stupa, Dharmarajika Stupa, Digambara Jain Temple, Buddhist Temples and Archaeological Museum are names to mug up now and later visit when at Sarnath.

Chandra Prabha Wildlife Sanctuary (55 km): The main attractions of this sanctuary are beautiful picnic spots, dense forests, and scenic waterfalls like Rajdari and Devdari, besides chance spottings of Chinkara, Panther, sambhar, nilgai, blackbucks, porcupine, wild boar, python, gharial and some 150 species of birds.

Jaunpur (58 km): Its Indo-Islamic-Jain architecture mosques, Jaunpur Fort built by Feroz Shah in 1360 give this quaint village its place of importance.

Kushinagar (51 km): This is where Lord Buddha breathed his last and needless to say, a famous Buddhist pilgrimage destination. The town, once a celebrated center of the Malla kingdom, has many of the stupas and viharas that date back to 230 BC-413 AD. One of the important sites to see here is the Mahaparinirvana Temple, where you can find the famous 20-feet-long reclining statue of Buddha. Encompassing the temple are ruins of as many as eight monasteries.


Location :
320km (198 miles) SE of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh

Go there for :
Temples, Holy dip at the Ganges

Climate :
Harsh summers (Up to 45°C); Mild winters (around 20°C)

When to Go:
September to March

Local Tongue:
Hindi, Bengali, English


STD Code :
+91 - 542

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