Hindu Pilgrimage
 
Varanasi / Benaras

This is the city of light, which turns its face to the rising sun. This is where the devout Hindu hopes to die, for dying here means eternal life: liberation from the eternal cycle of life and death. This is where the fires of Manikarnika ghat burn continuously as bodies come down the steps of the huge imposing ghats in a prosaic line. Death lives in Varanasi, cohabiting with its widows, pilgrims, godmen, seekers and touts. For it is a city whose religious traditions are still alive, which still pulsates with an energy that is both sacred and mundane.
This is where the thumri, a semi-classical love song of yearning for the missing beloved-the errant Krishna -- was born.
This is where pandas (priests) will practically drag you into temples and ask you to pay at each step of the way for everything from the salvation of your parents' souls to the prosperity of your posterity.
This is Benares. Or Varanasi. Or Kashi. Or Avimukta.

Varanasi/Benaras History

The name Kashi figures in the Mahabharata and the Jataka Tales of the Buddhists. The earliest inhabitants of Varanasi are supposed to be the Aryans who made it a centre of culture, education and craftsmanship. Mahmud of Ghazni raided it in 1033. In 1194 Qutb-ud-din Ghuri defeated the local king and Ala-ud-din Khilji destroyed the temples. For a brief period in the 18th century it was known as Mohammadabad. Despite its early foundation - most guidebooks use the phrase time immemorial -- few buildings date before the 17th century. That is because this was the epicentre of Hinduism that suffered 500 years of razing by Muslim invaders. They destroyed the temples and the images but they did not wipe out the city's tryst with eternity.

Location

The city is cordoned off by water. The three rivers that together give it its name and make it famous demarcate its boundaries: the Rivers Varuna and Assi mark the north and south extremities while the Ganga flows to its west. The entire city is on the west bank; to die on the east bank is to be reborn as a donkey. The Panch Koshi road, which circles the city, marks off the sacred city of Kashi.

How to Reach

The nearest airport is Babatpur (22 km away). Taxis charge around Rs 200 - 250 to get to the city from there. Varanasi is on the popular daily tourist shuttle linking Khajuraho, Agra and Delhi. There are also daily Indian Airline flights to Mumbai. Sahara India has four flights a week to Lucknow and Mumbai and three flights a week to Delhi.
The main station is the Varanasi Junction or the Varanasi Cantonment. The other station is Mughal Serai (12km south and Rs 5 or Rs 10 or Rs 70 by bus or tempo or auto rickshaw away). Many trains run through the city including:
The Poorva Express (thrice a week) and The Doon Express (from Kolkata or Calcutta), the Ganga Kaveri Express (twice a week, from Chennai), the Rajdhani, the Poorva Express or the Kashi Vishwanath Express (from Delhi), the Varuna Express from Lucknow, the Mahanagri (from Mumbai), the New Jalpaiguri Express (from New Jalpaiguri), the Farakka Express (from Patna), the Neelachal Express (from Puri) and the Kurla Express (from Satna).
Buses generally come to a grinding and whiplash-generating halt at the Cantonment Station. Grit your teeth a little more and prepare for an encounter with chaos. However you can get buses from here to Nepal (Rs 105, 10 hours), Jaunpur (Rs 21, 1 hour), Allahabad (Rs 42, three hours), Lucknow (Rs 94, nine hours) Faizabad (Rs 70, seven hours) and Gorakhpur (Rs 75, 7 hours).

Sights to Visit

The ghats

By day, the ghats can evoke mixed feelings. Some of them are dirty, all of them are daubed with advertisements offering everything from Sanskrit in seven days to silk saris on the cheap. But they are still monumental, still glorious because of the investment of faith. By night, they are magical. The darkness cloaks the crass commercialisation and their monumental splendour surfaces. The best way to view them is from the river. Start at the Dasaswamedh ghat which is one of the largest and which has therefore a number of boats on hire. (This puts you in a better bargaining position and bargaining is essential and expected.)

Vishwanath Temple

Ahalyabai Holkar of Indore built The Vishwanath Temple or Golden Temple in 1776. Fifty years later 800 kg gold were used to plate the domes, giving it its colloquial name. The most sacred temple in Varanasi, it is dedicated to Shiva as Vishweswara or Lord of the Universe. It is located in the narrow alleys of the old city. Non-Hindus are not allowed inside the temple but can view it from a house across the street. There have been several successive Shiva temples in the area, each one destroyed by invaders. Aurangzeb continued this tradition, knocking down the previous temple and building a mosque over it. There is considerable tension over the site and armed guards protect the area.

Durga temple

A maharani of Bengal built this small Nagara-style temple devoted to Durga. Non-Hindus can enter the courtyard but not the inner sanctum. It is also known as the Monkey temple because of a tribe of playful monkeys that have made it their home.

Tulsi Manas temple

The temple is named after Tulsidas, the great poet saint who translated the Ramayana into Hindi. The modern marble temple is inscribed with verses from his Ramcharitra Manas.

New Vishwanath temple

The Birlas, one of India's richest industrial families, set up this temple. It was also planned by Pandit Malaviya who wished to see Hinduism revived but without the caste distinctions. Accordingly, the temple is open to persons of all castes and creeds.

Ram Nagar Fort and Museum

The home of the former Maharaja of Varanasi, this is an impressive building to look at from the outside if you can ignore the somewhat garish colours in which it has been painted. The museum contains old silver and brocade palanquins for the ladies of the court, gold-plated elephant howdahs and an entire armoury of swords and guns.

 
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