Varanasi, also known as Kashi or Benares for its local people, is one of the oldest living cities in the world. It has stood there long before civilizations like Jerusalem, Athens and Beijing came to light. However, no one did bother to record its history. Therefore, its beginnings were lost with time. The exact year at which this city started is still unknown.
When Gautama Buddha came to Varanasi 2500 years ago, he was just another pilgrim. Varanasi itself was already big city breathing between birth and death busy making and erasing history like consistent ocean waves do to beach sand dunes.
Therefore, Lord Buddha could bring only five ascetics to attend his first teaching. Even today, he doesn’t seem to hold special place in the hearts of Varanasi people.
Attractions of Varanasi for Buddhist Tourists/pilgrims
I am a Buddhist. So, when I was planning my travel to Varanasi, I had just one site in my mind to visit. And that is the Deer Park. Lord Buddha turned his first wheel of Dharma there.
On my actual visit, I could visit other religious sites like Dhamekh Stupa and Stupa-shaped Vihar Temple. Dhamekh Stupa, a big cylindrical stupa was built during Gupta period.
The Vihar temple was built by Sri Lankan Dharmapala. This temple looks like a stupa from outside. But inside, there is a small library and shrine. It holds two bone relics of the Gautama Buddha. General public can see them on full moon day of eleventh month every year.
Travel to Varanasi shall remain incomplete without visiting Ganga River. The Lord Buddha has used Ganga River as a subject of metaphor in many of his sutras. It is the holiest water of the world. And bathing in Ganga means washing away of sins.
Ganga River is also great cremation ground. Only very fortunate people die in Varanasi because they get to cremate at Ganga. And ones cremated here become free from the unending cycle of life and death.
Varanasi Attractions for general Tourists/ pilgrims
If you want to experience many things of Varanasi, I would suggest you to remain near Ganga River. Varanasi city itself stands by a curve of it. Ghats link land with water. Its name as Varanasi is also a derivation of two rivers’ names; Varuna and Assi.
Morning attraction or beauty of Varanasi city
People gather at those ghats before dawn to bathe in Ganga. They start the day cleaning sins of previous day. You can hire a boat and enjoy the distant view of the city. It’s a wonderful to fresh yellow sun rays adorning the city.
We can see never ending movement of people across those ghats wearing different dresses. And from distant, heads of bathers will be seen wonderfully in water like turnips floating across a big pond.
I started boating from Dasashwamedha Ghat. According to my guide it is the holiest and the biggest ghat. As the boat started moving, panorama of Ghats becomes the most arresting sight of Varanasi. Yet I was busy cursing myself for leaving the camera at my room.
It seems different ghats are for different purposes and activities. In one ghat, a group of people were swinging and slapping their clothes on stones in systematic beats. In one ghat, clean fluffy smoke rise up. I was told it is the ghat dedicated for cremation.
My boatman has a bucket of small fishes on the boat which he wants me to pay him to free them. He was literally begging me to be merciful. I didn’t pay to free as they will be caught in future any way. However, he seemed happy when I tipped at the stop with Rs.150.
Other Tourist attractions of Varanasi city
I didn’t want to miss the evening part of Varanasi. But I didn’t go to any Ghat directly. Instead I wanted to explore street first and then move towards river from the same Ghat – Dasashwamedha Ghat.
I have heard that the best quality brocades and silks, which were once popular way across China and Europe, come from Varanasi.
Buddhist people also have a belief that brocade used in covering the body of Lord Buddha after he entered into Parinirvana at Kushinagar was from Varanasi. Therefore, I wanted to see few samples of brocades and silks.
The street corner small shops sell varieties of sweets, flower garlands, paan masala, brass and trinkets. On my way to Varanasi, I met a teacher who is from Varanasi. He was suggesting me to visit a university BHU – Benaras Hindu University. He said that it represents a harmonious combination of Varanasi’s great tradition and modern education.
He told that there is a collection of artifacts and other medieval miniature paintings for visitors. Tourists also visit Vishwanath Temple in the BHU campus and also a museum that is few meters across the river.
Evening attraction or beauty of Varanasi city
This city offers many wonderful things at evening (dusk) as it offers at morning (dawn). When people gradually retire to their night lives, butter lamps start glimmering with religious hymn. People walk to Ganga River to sail their butter lamps and thank almighty for letting them live a day.
Otherwise busy wooden boats will be silently floating ashore. Tourists are busy getting on those boats to take photos. Some will be at ease resting on the steps gazing at distant, lost in their thoughts.
In corner, group of people will be dancing along with classical Indian music. Some are playing live. Yet some are from tape recorders. I also couldn’t help but join the crowd absorbing their musical duets and dance moves. On my personal level, they seem to represent an inimical blend of spiritualism and worldliness.
Do you need to travel Varanasi?
When you travel Varanasi, you aren’t travelling to a modern tourist destination that has modern bungalows, swimming pools, breath-taking skyscrapers and super fast transport system.
But you are in one of the ancient civilizations that has survived thus far when his cousins Nineveh and Babylon are nowhere. You are in a city that connects modern with ancient. It’s a city that lets you experience things of past as well as the present.
Travel Varanasi to wash away your sins to giant holy Ganga and to feel the exquisite textures of Varanasi silks and brocades. Some are to follow the footsteps of Buddha to feel the essence of his first teaching about Four Noble Truths.
Some people consider Varanasi as Lord Shiva’s favourite city, his Garden of Bliss. But it’s up to you on what purpose you want to travel. Personally, if you don’t travel Varanasi at least once in lifetime, you are missing one important thing – the joy of living those lost times.
Recommend to read following travel experiences and exciting stories from India:
- Rewalsar Lake – Guru Padmasambhava met his consort Mandarawa.
- India Travel – Expectations & Experiences of first time Tourists.
- Manikaran – paradise of good hot springs in Himachal Pradesh.
- Lotus Temple of New Delhi, a symbol of Unity and Tolerance.
- Bodh Gaya – Place where Gautama Buddha attained Enlightenment.