Banaras – The City of Light & Liberation:  Moksha-Prakāshikā Kāshī (Travel Guide)

Kashi//
Varanasi//
Avimukta//
Ānandavana//
Rudravasa//
Mahashmashana//

Banaras//Benaras

Those are the many names that the holy city of Varanasi has had over the years with Banaras being the most popular one. I have been obsessed with the idea of Banaras for years now. I don’t remember how the obsession started (probably thanks to Instagram) but for the last 5-6 years I have longed to go to Banaras to just sit on the ghats and soak in the spirituality. I am not a religious person but I am a spiritual person and I really enjoy the spirituality that engulfs popular holy places. I have been moved to tears at the temple at Shirdi, Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and so many other places. It isn’t the “presence of God” that moves me but the faith of people that floats around and contributes to the positive energy in that place. I longed to sit by the holy river, Ganga, and feel the same spirituality wash over me.

We finally made it to Varanasi last week and here is my travel diary from my first trip of 2023.

About Varanasi:

Religious Significance for Hindus: Kashi has been known as the abode of Hindu God Shiva and has been a religious center for all Hindus. The holy river Ganga flows through the city. For Hindus the river holds a very high significance. The waters of the river are considered pure enough to wash away all sins. It is also the last resting place for a lot of Hindus as it is considered auspicious to throw the ashes of the dead in the river. Infact, dying in Varanasi is considered to grant you ‘Moksha’ i.e. liberation from the cycle of birth. (If you aren’t aware Hindus believe in the concept of rebirth.) In the past, many old people would travel to Varanasi to die on the banks of the pious river Ganga. Varanasi is also known as Mahashmashana i.e. the great (maha) cremation place (shmashana).

The Kashi Vishwanath Temple is the main temple in Varanasi which is dedicated to God Shiva. It houses one of the twelve Jyotirlingas spread across India. the original temple was demolished by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb and was rebuilt by the famous Maratha queen, Ahilyabai.

Ghats: Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The banks of Ganga are flanked by over 200 ghats. Most people know of 85 ghats because of Lonely Planet and try to cover those during their visit. Each ghat is dedicated to a different person, place or event. A few ghats are more famous than others. The Dashashwamedh Ghat is where the evening Ganga aarti takes place every day. The Assi Ghat is where the morning aarti takes place. Till date the dead are cremated in two ghats i.e. Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat.

If you want to know more about the history and significance of Varanasi, I recommend reading the book Banaras: City of Light by Diana L. Eck.

A small exerpt from the book for foreign tourists – “There are few cities in India as traditionally Hindu and as symbolic of the whole of Hindu culture as the city of Banāras. And there are few cities in India, or in the world for that matter, as challenging and bewildering to Western visitors as Banāras. It is a city as rich as all India. But it is not an easy city to comprehend for those of us who stand outside the Hindu tradition.

Our travel diary:

How did we get to Varanasi: We flew from Delhi. It is a short 1.5hours long flight. You can also take a train to Varanasi from Delhi. The new Vande Bharat Express train takes 8 hours.

Blurry flight photo

Length of Stay: We were in Varanasi for a long weekend i.e. 3 days

Where did we stay: Unfortunately since we did our bookings 2 days before flying out, most of the hotels near the ghats were booked. Our only criteria for booking our stay was that it has to be within walking distance from the ghats. I have been obsessed with a heritage property since I started doing my research and we were lucky enough to get it for 1 night of our stay (it was fully booked). For the other, we booked a private room in a hostel right at Assi Ghat (where the morning Ganga aarti (prayers) takes place at 5AM). Where we stayed:

  1. Rose Heritage Home – Near Shivala Ghat. The rooms were beautiful. The home only has 5 rooms and was extremely peaceful. Loved the bathroom with the hot tub. Being a heritage property it did have some quirks like the window (in the photo) overlooked a neighbouring property which looked like it is abandoned. They don’t have a fully functioning kitchen or dining area. They served us a homely breakfast in the courtyard which was also a nice experience. I’d definitely recommend staying here if you want to be in the center of all the touristy activities in Banaras.

2. Moustache Hostel – Located at Assi Ghat. I definitely recommend this for all those who want to be a few meters away from the ghats yet still be away from all the madness that engulfs the ghats. This hostel is surrounded by fantastic eateries thanks to its proximity to Banaras Hindu University. It is also perfect for those on a budget. We got a private room with a private bathroom.

Those looking to go to Varanasi but not wanting to stay in the midst of the old city can book a nice hotel in the Cantt area instead (Taj Ganges, Radisson, Country Inn, etc.). I’d love to stay in Taj Nadesar Palace (starting from USD 800/night) whenever/if I have that kind of money to splurge. There is also BrijRama Palace which is right on the ghats and is a 210-year-old palace that was converted into a heritage hotel. I personally didn’t love how the rooms look but again if you want to live in luxury and splurge (USD600+/night) and be right on the ghats, you should definitely check out this hotel. For a reasonably priced but fun stay, you can also opt to stay in the new tent city (100USD/ night including food and other activities) that the government has started on the banks of the Ganga (opposite to the ghats).

What did we do:

Our primary goal was to spend as much time as possible on the ghats since that was what had brought us here. So we spent a lot of our time in an around the ghats.

Day 1: As soon as we were done checking into our hotel, we headed for lunch to Aum cafe since we were famished. En route we stumbled upon Rani Laxmibai’s birth place which was a surprise for us. Aum Cafe is a really popular cafe (especially with foreign tourists). The food was great and I was happy to find vegan milk options here.

Aum Cafe

After our meal, we walked down to Assi Ghat to finally be in the place that we had been dreaming of for years. As we walked down the ghat steps and emerged on the banks of the river, I was underwhelmed. We were in Varanasi during Makar Sankranti (a hindu festival) and the ghats were super crowded and did not possess that spiritual/peaceful charm that I had been hoping for. We walked around the ghats till we decided to take a tour of the ghats on a boat. We found a boatman and spent the next 1.5 hours on the boat listening to his stories. The boatman even serenaded us with some songs about Varanasi and it was kind of peaceful being out on the river. He dropped us off at the Dashashwamedh Ghat to catch the evening aarti. The ghat was crowded and it was pretty difficult to find a nice place to view the aarti from. A lot of boatmen park their boats out front and place chairs on it which you can pay to sit on. From some random reason, I found it too amusing to do that. The aarti is an hour long and again, was a little underwhelming or my expectations were just too high.

We then walked out of the ghat and into the market area just figuring out where we wanted to go for dinner. While walking around the market we spotted this beautiful heritage-y saree shop and we were intrigued. Jaharlal and Pannalal Saree shop had such beautiful sarees that I ended up picking up one for my mother. We walked around the market and then decided to go to this cutesy cafe for dinner – Sparrow Cafe. Then we walked back to our hotel and called it a night.

Sparrow Cafe

Day 2: We woke up and had a cutesy breakfast out in the courtyard of our heritage hotel. We then got ready and took an auto to tick off another big item off of our to-do list, Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Being a weekend and a holiday, we were prepared for a long wait time. After reaching the temple premises (where we had to store our bags and phones in a locker) we headed to join the queue. The queue was extremely crowded and stuffy and I immediately had a panic attack and felt like I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to leave the queue and exit but it was so crowded that it wasn’t possible to leave. After tearing up, having 5 meltdowns – the queue became a little bearable. It took us about 1.5 hours to reach the deity and guess what? There was so much pushing and shoving that I didn’t get to see the deity at all. (I’ll have a tips section below on how to avoid all this madness)

Breakfast

While we were standing in the queue we got a glimpse of the Gyanvyapi Masjid (mosque) on the side of the temple and the Masjid’s architecture caught our attention. This masjid was the original temple that Mughal emperor Aurangzeb demolished to build a mosque on. The architecture of the building is unique because you can see the Hindu temple influence and where the Islamic architecture has been added on. We really wanted to get a closer look but due to increased security, we weren’t allowed to go near it. So we decided to head to the other Mosque Aurangzeb had built in Varanasi i.e. Alamgir Mosque. The Alamgir Mosque is situated on the banks of Ganga on the Panchaganga Ghat. With a lot of difficulty and navigating through the streets of Varanasi we found ourselves on the ghat outside the Mosque. We couldn’t figure out how to get to the Mosque so we marvelled at it from outside.

The best photo we could get of the Gyanvapi Mosque

We then found a quiet spot on a ghat to sit down and just enjoy being there. Since we were away from the more popular ghats, this ghat was quiet and peaceful. We then walked along the ghats trying to still find a way to get closer to the Gyanvyapi Masjid. As we reached Manikarnika Ghat, my friend and I were filled with dread, watching dead bodies burning at close quarters is harrowing and was a first for me. We avoided the ghat the best we could and started walking the ghats towards a rooftop hotel with the best view of the river Ganga. The ghats were crowded and there was a lot going on. We had chai and snacks at Ganga View Cafe at Chausatti Ghat and the view was incredible.

The view

We then walked through the streets and stumbled upon a cutesy shop selling funky bags and clothes. Something got over my friend and I, and we each ended up picking up 7-8 items from the shop.

We then walked to Kashi Chat Bhandar to try the famous tamatar chaat (tomato snack). The place was so crowded and we got 3 chaats between us – Tamatar chaat, Palak pata chaat and chura matar chaat. I didn’t quite like the tamatar chaat because it was like having a sabji (a curry).

We then headed to our new room in the hostel we checked into. After resting for a bit (since we had walked a lot), we again ventured out for food. If you haven’t noticed already, we planned our meals better than the rest of the itinerary. We went to this really cute cafe called Terracota Cafe and had a light dinner and just enjoyed the vibe of the place before calling it a night.

Day 3: I woke up at 5AM hoping to head to Assi Ghat to catch the sunrise aarti. But it was SO cold (5-6 deg) that I couldn’t convince myself to leave the blanket and actually have a bath before heading for the aarti. So I decided to sleep in. We woke up later and our plan for the day was to go to Sarnath before heading to the airport. We got some breakfast at a cafe and then stopped at this cute book shop that we had passed a dozen times and wanted to check out before leaving for Sarnath. Unfortunately due to the crazy traffic, we got extremely delayed and were only able to spend 45 minutes in Sarnath. Sarnath has Buddhist stupas and is the place where Buddha gave his first sermon. While we were checking out the museum, at this really beautiful Buddha statue I was suddenly surrounded by a group of foreigners who were also Buddhists. Along with their guide, they started chanting Buddhist chants (in their language I am assuming) and I finally found that peace and spirituality that I had been looking for. It was such a beautiful moment and a few of the tourists noticed I was mesmerized by their chanting and gave me these big smiles. I felt so so good at that moment.

We then headed to the airport where we had a quick meal before catching our flight back to Delhi.

My thoughts on this trip –

  1. The trip left me feeling underwhelmed. I think I had built up Banaras so much in my head that the reality was…. disappointing. Due to the large crowds, the ghats weren’t at their cleanest best which also broke my heart.
  2. I was a little weirded out by how much people stared. I think it was more curious staring since we were two women roaming around on our own, but it still weirded me out, more so when I was seeing all the videos I took after and noticed just how much people were staring. Even if it isn’t a bad meaning stare, it was very off-putting. Although I should specify we did not have any bad experience whatsoever even in crowded places and even when we were out at night.
  3. I loved all the food we had during the trip. It was the highlight of the trip for both of us. Even the airport meal which I assumed would be average turned out to be really good.
  4. I will be going to Varanasi again since I want to explore it during a non-weekend,non-holiday time to see if that makes a difference to my experience.

Tips for planning your Banaras trip –

  • Read up extensively before you come to understand the history and meaning of what Kashi/Varanasi is.
  • Avoid weekends and holidays to enjoy a quieter time in the city.
  • Explore the food scene as much as possible – you will be pleasantly surprised.
  • Carry some cash since most people still prefer cash payments. But a lot of places do accept Paytm/UPI payments.
  • Uber and Ola are available but most drivers will ask you to cancel and pay them cash offline. We found a decent driver who drove us from the airport, I’d recommend booking him. Ganesh: +91 9794537378 (you might have to bargain to get a better rate)
  • For travelling within the old city, you can use rickshaws and autos.
  • Book your evening boat ride to also stop at the Dashashwamedh Ghat and show you the aarti from the boat. Make sure the boatman takes you to show you at least 80 ghats since walking that distance is a little difficult. We saw about 70 ghats on foot.
  • DO NOT MISS THE MORNING AARTI at Assi Ghat. The government has launched Subah-e-Banaras where after the aarti there are other activities for tourists too such as Yoga and music played by famous Banarasi musicians. You can also take a boat ride in the morning to catch the sunrise over the city.
  • For souvenirs buy Banarasi silk products – sarees, skirts, etc.
  • For a better and easier experience at Kashi Vishvanath Temple buy tickets online or at the center near the temple for queueless darshan. It doesn’t cost a lot and your entire experience will be hassle-free and you can see the deity in peace. Please note foreign tourists need to show their passport for booking the tickets.
  • I definitely recommend staying near the ghats to experience the real Varanasi.
  • A lot of hawkers/children will roam around on the ghats with flowers/tilak and ask you to buy them. Firmly say no if you don’t want to buy from them.
  • If you want to enjoy some peace on the ghats, walk ahead to the lesser crowded ones to enjoy some quiet.
  • Places we missed visiting:  Banaras Hindu University, Ramanagar Fort, less popular ghats, Namo Ghat etc.
  • Save at least half a day to visit Sarnath and see everything properly with a guide

I know Banaras is pretty high on both Indian tourists and foreign tourists list of places to see in India. I hope this comprehensive guide will help you plan your trip whenever you plan it. I took my time with writing this post to include as many details, links as possible. If you need any help with planning your trip, you can also drop me an email.

Have you been to Banaras? How was your experience? Is Banaras on your bucket list?

PS: I hope you liked this detailed post and bookmark it for your future travel plans.

PS: if you haven’t already, check out my other recent posts –

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Pooja G says:

    I have heard of Kashi but didn’t know much about it so this was really interesting! Also that is one gigantic samosa lol 😂

    Like

  2. petespringerauthor says:

    All new places to me, but I appreciate learning about them. We live such sheltered lives in our little speck of the universe.

    Like

  3. Great food
    Great vibes
    Great atmosphere
    And all things great.

    Like

  4. Niharika says:

    Oh wow! This post is so beautiful and detail rich. I have bookmarked it and will definitely refer to it before visiting Varanasi. Thanks a ton for this hard work. 👏🏼👌🏼

    Like

  5. Vanya says:

    I want to visit Varanasi once! It looks s beautiful! Great post Moksha 🙂

    Like

  6. TCKlaire says:

    I’ve been to Sacre Coeur and I’m spiritual but not religious too, so I understand what you mean. I love places that encapsulate that!

    Like

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