ost visitors agree Varanasi is a magical place, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. Read this article for interesting facts about Varanasi, what to expect on a visit, best time to visit, festivals and events, and how to get there and back. Be prepared and you will have an unforgettable experience.
10 Interesting Facts About Varanasi
- Varanasi has been known at various times in history as Benares or Kashi, “City of Light”
- Varanasi is one of the most sacred cities in the world today
- It is a crumbling maze of a city that rises from the ghats (steps) on the western banks of the Ganges
- Varanasi is named after the confluence of two rivers, Varuna and Asi
- Varanasi is seen by devotees, as the holiest of Indian pilgrimages, home of Shiva, where the devout come to wash away their sins
- It is also one of the holiest tirthas (literally a “crossing” or sacred place where mortals can cross over to the divine, or the gods and goddesses come to bathe on earth), where many return to die in the hope that they may achieve moksha, the salvation of the soul from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth
- Mark Twain famously described Varanasi as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together”
- Varanasi is centered on the ghats that line the waterfront, each honoring Shiva in the form of a linga—the rounded phalliclike shaft of stone found on every ghat
- Pilgrims come to the Varanasi ghats lining the River Ganges to wash away a lifetime of sins in the sacred waters or to cremate their loved ones
- Varanasi is the quintessential India – colourful, chaotic, dirty, overwhelming, and yet magical
What to Expect on a Visit to Varanasi
Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colourful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. But if you’re ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favourite stop of all. Varanasi is a highly congested maze of narrow alleys winding behind its waterfront ghats, at once highly sacred yet physically often far from clean. As an image, an idea and a symbol of Hinduism’s central realities, the city draws pilgrims from around the world, to worship, to meditate, and above all to bathe. It is a place to be born and a place to die. In the cold mists of a winter’s dawn, you can see life and death laid bare. For an outside observer it can be an uncomfortable, albeit unmissable experience, juxtaposing the inner philosophical mysteries of Hinduism with the practical complications of living literally and metaphorically on the edge.
Most visitors agree it’s a magical place, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. Here the most intimate rituals of life and death take place in public and the sights, sounds and smells in and around the ghats – not to mention the almost constant attention from touts – can be overwhelming. Getting lost in the impossibly cramped labyrinth, you are crowded by pilgrims purchasing flowers for puja (offering or prayer), grieving relatives bearing corpses, chanting priests sounding gongs, and sacred cows rooting in the rubbish – an experience you will never forget.
Persevere. Varanasi is unique, and a walk along the ghats or a boat ride on the river will live long in the memory.
Varanasi Festivals & Events
It is worth scheduling a visit to Varanasi during one of their fairs or festivals that are held on a grand scale as the city is the most colourful and liveliest at this time. Be prepared for throngs of tourists, both local and foreigners, during this time.
- Makara Sankranti during January and Basant Panchami during January-February are the popular festivals celebrated in Varanasi.
- Maha Shivaratri held during February-March is a very special religious festival in Varanasi. It is marked with many rituals and festivities all through Varanasi and is a good time to explore the local culture of the city.
Varanasi Transport Options
Getting to & from Varanasi
Varanasi is well connected by air, train and bus, with multiple trains and buses heading in every direction daily.
By Air – Varanasi Airport (IATA: VNS) is 23km (14 miles) from the Cantonment area, where the large chain hotels are located, and 30km (19 miles) from the riverfront. There are daily domestic flights to Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Khajuraho and Visakhapatnam. Allow plenty of time to get to the airport as it can take an hour or more depending on traffic. A taxi (from the pre-paid stand just outside the terminal) should cost about Rs 600-700 (plus Rs 40 parking toll) or about Rs 125 in an auto-rickshaw, but most drivers will want to charge double since it is likely they will return empty.
By Train – Trains are the easiest way to reach Varanasi, with multiple daily services to cities including Delhi, Agra, Lucknow, Mumbai and Kolkata. Varanasi is served by two major railway stations. Many trains arrive at Varanasi Junction (IR station code : BSB) in the heart of the city, and many others arrive at Mughal Sarai Junction (IR station code : MGS), about 15 km east of the city.
By Road – Unless you have a lot of time on your hands, driving to Varanasi means spending too much time on a bumpy road with no interesting stops. There are buses run by the state government from Lucknow (8hrs), Gorakphur (8hrs) Kanpur (9hrs) and Allahabad (3hrs).
Getting Around Varanasi
Most of the places to visit in Varanasi are situated in and around the Varanasi ghats which can be accessed on foot. Boat trips along the Ganges are a great way to see the ghats from the water; you can also get to Ramnagar Fort by boat. If you want to go further afield, there are auto rickshaws that ply around Varanasi and can be picked up near the Archway at the end of Bengali Tola. It is advisable to get a return trip with them as they tend to charge double for a single trip (as they usually return empty).
Click on Places to Visit in Varanasi for more information about Varanasi.
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