Varanasi

The city's focus extends from Raj Ghat in the north, to Assi Ghat in the south. At dawn the riverbank's stone steps begin to hum with activity. Early risers immerse themselves in the water as they face the rising sun, boatmen wait expectantly on the waterside, pilgrims flock to the temples, flower sellers do brisk business, astrologers prepare to read palms and horoscopes while families carry the dead to their last rites by the holy river. A few steps away from the ghats, motorbikers speed through the lanes past wandering sadhus, hopeful beggars, curious visitors and wandering cows, while packs of stray dogs scavenge among the piles of rubbish.

Old Centre

Visvanath Temple
(1777) has been the main Siva temple in Varanasi for over 1000 years. Only Hindus are allowed into the temple and there is stiff security by the entrances. The original temple, destroyed in the 12th century, was replaced by a mosque. It was rebuilt in the 16th, and again destroyed within a century. The present
'Golden'
temple
was built in 1777 by Ahilya Bai of Indore. The gold plating on the roof was provided by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1835. Its pointed spires are typically North Indian in style and the exterior is finely carved. The 18th-century
Annapurna Temple
(
anna
food;
purna
filled) nearby, built by Baji Rao I, has shrines dedicated to Siva, Ganesh, Hanuman and Surya. Ask for directions as you make your way through the maze of alleys around the temples.

The Gyan Kup (Well of Knowledge) next door is said to contain the Siva lingam from the original temple - the well is protected by a stone screen and canopy. The Gyanvapi Mosque (Great Mosque of Aurangzeb), with 71-m-high minarets, shows evidence of the original Hindu temple, in the foundations, the columns and at the rear.

The 17th-century Alamgir Mosque (Beni Madhav ka Darera), impressively situated on Panchganga Ghat, was Aurangzeb's smaller mosque. It was built on the original Vishnu temple of the Marathas, parts of which were used in its construction. Two minarets are missing - one fell and killed some people and the other was taken down by the government as a precaution. You can climb to the top of the mosque for fantastic views (donation expected); again, bags are prohibited and you may be searched.

Back lanes

The maze of narrow lanes, or
galis
, along the ghats through the old quarters exude the smells and sounds of this holy city. They are fascinating to stroll through though easy to get lost in. Some find it too over-powering. Near the Town Hall (1845) built by the Maharaja of Vizianagram, is the
Kotwali
(Police Station) with the Temple of
Bhaironath
, built by Baji Rao II in 1825. The image inside is believed to be of the Kotwal (Superintendent) who rides on a ghostly dog. Stalls sell sugar dogs to be offered to the image. In the temple garden of
Gopal Mandir
near the Kotwali is a small hut in which Tulsi Das is said to have composed the
Binaya Patrika
poem.

The Bhelupura Temple with a museum marks the birthplace of the 23rd Jain Tirthankar Parsvanath who preached non-violence. The Durga Temple (18th-century) to the south along Durga Kund Road, was built in the Nagara style. It is painted red with ochre and has the typical five spires (symbolizing the elements) merging into one (Brahma). Non-Hindus may view from the rooftop nearby. Next door in a peaceful garden, the Tulsi Manas Temple (1964) in white marble commemorates the medieval poet Tulsi Das. It has walls engraved with verses and scenes from the Ramcharitmanas, composed in a Hindi dialect, instead of the conventional Sanskrit, and is open to all. Good views from the second floor of 'Disneyland-style' animated show. Bharat Mata Temple, south of Varanasi Junction Station, has a relief map of 'Mother India' in marble.

Riverfront

The hundred and more
ghats
on the river are the main attraction for visitors to Varanasi. Visit them at first light before sunrise (0430 in summer, 0600 in winter) when Hindu pilgrims come to bathe in the sacred Ganga, facing the rising sun, or at dusk when synchronized
pujas
are performed, culminating in leaf-boat lamps being floated down the river, usually from 1800. Large crowds gather at Mir Dasasvamedha (Main) Ghat and Mir Ghat every night, or there's a more low-key affair at Assi Ghat. You may go either upstream (south) towards Harishchandra Ghat or downstream to Manikarnika Ghat. You may prefer to have a boat on the river at sunset and watch the lamps floated on the river, or go in the afternoon at a fraction of the price quoted
at dawn. The foggy sunshine early in the morning often clears to produce a beautiful light.

Dasasvamedha Ghat

Commonly called 'Main Ghat', Dasasvamedha means the 'Place of Ten Horse Sacrifices' performed here by Brahma, God of Creation. Some believe that in the age of the gods when the world was in chaos, Divodasa was appointed King of Kashi by Brahma. He accepted, on condition that all the gods would leave Varanasi. Even Siva was forced to leave but Brahma set the test for Divodasa, confident that he would get the complex ceremony wrong, allowing the gods back into the city. However, the ritual was performed flawlessly, and the ghat has thus become one of the holiest, especially at eclipses. Bathing here is regarded as being almost as meritorious as making the sacrifice.

Moving south

You will pass
Munshi Ghat
, where some of the city's sizeable Muslim population (25%) come to bathe. The river has no religious significance for them. Close by is
Darbhanga Ghat
where the mansion had a hand-operated cable lift. Professional washermen work at the
Dhobi Ghat
; there is religious merit in having your clothes washed in the Ganga. Brahmins have their own washermen to avoid caste pollution. The municipality has built separate washing facilities away from the ghat.

Narad Ghat and Chauki Ghat are held sacred since the Buddha received enlightenment here under a peepul tree. Those who bathe together at Narad, supposedly go home and quarrel! The pink water tower here is for storing Ganga water. High water levels are recorded at Raj Ghat. The flood levels are difficult to imagine when the river is at its lowest in January and February. Mansarovar Ghat leads to ruins of several temples around a lake. Kedar Ghat is named after Kedarnath, a pilgrimage site in the Uttarakhand, with a Bengali temple nearby.

The Harishchandra Ghat is particularly holy and is dedicated to King Harishchandra. It is now the most sacred smashan or cremation ghat although Manikarnika is more popular. Behind the ghat is a gopuram of a Dravidian-style temple. The Karnataka Ghat is one of many regional ghats which are attended by priests who know the local languages, castes, customs and festivals.

The Hanuman Ghat is where Vallabha, the leader of a revivalist Krishna bhakti cult was born in the late 15th century. Shivala Ghat (Kali Ghat) is privately owned by the ex-ruler of Varanasi. Chet Singh's Fort, Shivala, stands behind the ghat. The fort, the old palace of the Maharajas, is where the British imprisoned him but he escaped by climbing down to the river and swimming away. Anandamayi Ghat is named after the Bengali saint Anandamayi Ma (died 1982) who received 'enlightenment' at 17 and spent her life teaching and in charitable work. Jain Ghat is near the birthplace of Tirthankar Shyeyanshnath. Tulsi Ghat commemorates the great saint-poet Tulsi Das who lived here . Furthest upstream is the Assi Ghat, where the River Assi meets the Ganga, one of the five that pilgrims should bathe from in a day. The order is Assi, Dasasvamedha, Barnasangam, Panchganga and Manikarnika. Upstream on the east bank is the Ramnagar Fort, the Maharaja of Varanasi's residence . Here the boat will turn to take you back to Dasasvamedha Ghat.

Moving north

Leaving from Dasasvamedha Ghat, you will pass the following:
Man Mandir Ghat
, built by Maharajah Man Singh of Amber in 1600 and one of the oldest in Varanasi. The palace was restored in the last century with brick and plaster. The beautiful stone balcony on the northeast corner gives an indication of how the original looked. Maharaja Jai Singh of Jaipur converted the palace into an
observatory
in 1710. Like its counterparts in Delhi, Jaipur and Ujjain, the observatory contains a fascinating collection of instruments built of brick, cement and stone. The most striking of these, at the entrance, is the Bhittiyantra, or wall quadrant, over 3 m high and just under 3 m broad and in the same plane as the line of longitude. Similarly placed is the Samratyantra which is designed to slope upwards pointing at the Pole Star. From the top of the Chakra Yantra there is a superb view of the ghats and the town. Near the entrance to the observatory is a small
Siva Temple
whose shrine is a lingam immersed in water. During droughts, water is added to the cistern to make it overflow for good luck.

The Dom Raja's House is next door, flanked by painted tigers. The doms are the 'Untouchables' of Varanasi and are integral to the cremation ceremony. As Untouchables they can handle the corpse, a ritually polluting act for Hindus. They also supply the flame from the temple for the funeral pyre. Their presence is essential and also lucrative since there are fees for the various services they provide. The Dom Raja is the hereditary title of the leader of these Untouchables. You can climb up through the astronomical observatory (which is overrun by monkeys) to the Raja Dom's Palace - a guide will take you round the court room, and on to the roof which has the best view of the river.

Mir Ghat leads to a sacred well; widows who dedicate themselves to prayer, are fed and clothed here. Then comes Lalita Ghat with the distinctive Nepalese-style temple with a golden roof above and a Ganga mandir at water level. Above Manikarnika Ghat is a well into which Siva's dead wife Sati's earring is supposed to have fallen when Siva was carrying her after she committed suicide . The Brahmins managed to find the jewel from the earring (manikarnika) and returned it to Siva who blessed the place. Offerings of bilva flowers, milk, sandalwood and sweetmeats are thrown into the tank where pilgrims come to bathe. Between the well and the ghat is Charanpaduka, a stone slab with Vishnu's footprint. Boatmen may try to persuade you to leave a 'private' offering to perform a puja (a ploy to increasing their earnings).

The adjoining Jalasayin Ghat is the principal burning ghat of the city. The expensive scented sandalwood which the rich alone can afford is used sparingly; usually not more than 2 kg. You may see floating bundles covered in white cloth; children, and those dying of 'high fever', or smallpox in the past, are not cremated but put into the river. This avoids injuring Sitala the goddess of smallpox.

Scindia Ghat, originally built in 1830, was so large that it collapsed. Ram Ghat was built by the Maharaja of Jaipur. Five rivers are supposed to meet at the magnificent Panchganga Ghat - the Ganga, Sarasvati, Gyana, Kirana and Dhutpapa. The stone column can hold around 1000 lamps at festivals. The impressive flights of stone steps run up to the Alamgir Mosque . At Gai Ghat there is a statue of a sacred cow whilst at Trilochana Ghat there is a temple to Siva in his form as the 'Three-eyed' (Trilochana); two turrets stand out of the water. Raj Ghat is the last on the boat journey. Excavations have revealed a site of a city from the eighth century BC on a grassy mound nearby. Raj Ghat was where the river was forded until bridges were built.

Other sights

Varanasi is famous for ornamental brasswork, silk weaving and for its glass beads, exported all over the world.
Zari
work, whether embroidered or woven, once used silver or gold thread but is now done with gilded copper or brass. You can watch weavers at work in Piti Kothi, the Muslim area inland from Raj Ghat. The significance of
silk
in India's traditional life is deep-rooted. Silk was considered a pure fabric, most appropriate for use on ceremonial and religious occasions. Its lustre, softness and richness of natural colour gave it precedence over all other fabrics. White or natural coloured silk was worn by the Brahmins and others who were 'twice born'. Women wore bright colours and the darker hues were reserved for the lowest caste in the formal hierarchy, few of whom could afford it. Silk garments were worn for ceremonials like births and marriages, and offerings of finely woven silks were made to deities in temples. This concept of purity may have given impetus to the growth of silk-weaving centres around ancient temple towns like Kanchipuram, Varanasi, Bhubaneswar and Ujjain, a tradition that is kept alive today.

Banaras Hindu University (BHU), to the south of the city, is one of the largest campus universities in India and enjoys a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere. Founded at the turn of the 19th century, it was originally intended for the study of Sanskrit, Indian art, music and culture. The New Visvanath Temple (1966), one of the tallest in India, is in the university semicircle and was financed by the Birla family. It was planned by Madan Mohan Malaviya (1862-1942), chancellor of the university, who believed in Hinduism without caste distinctions. The marble Siva temple modelled on the old Visvanath Temple, is open to all.

Across the river in a dramatic setting on the edge of narrow crowded streets is the run-down 17th-century Ramnagar Fort, the former home of the Maharaja of Varanasi. The museum has palanquins, elephant howdahs and headdresses, costumes, arms and furniture gathering dust. Look out for the amazing locally made astrological clock and peer inside the impressive Durbar Hall, cunning designed to remain cool in the summer heat, with lifesize portraits lining one wall. Nearby Ramnagar village has Ramlila performances during Dasara (October to November) and has some quieter backalleys which make for a relaxing hours wandering.

Chunar

Chunar, 35 km southwest of Varanasi, is famous for Chunar sandstone, the material of the Asoka pillars, highly polished in a technique said to be Persian. The town is also noted for its
fort
built on a spur of the Kaimur Hills, 53 m above the surrounding plain. It was of obvious strategic importance and changed hands a number of times. The army occupies the fort today, but you can look around. There is an impressive well with steps leading down to a water gate; watch out for snakes. The
British cemetery
below the fort overlooks the Ganga.
Islamic tombs
of Shah Kasim Suleiman and his son here, feature in paintings by Daniells and others.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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