Kashi & Sarnath in 48 Hours
It competes with Jerusalem for the tag of the oldest city – but clearly no city can compare with it for its mix of Mythology, Religion, History, Art and Culture. It’s the summer home of Lord Shiva – throw a stone you will hit an ancient temple and walk a furlong you will find an Ashram.
From Baba’s & Aghoris, Saints & Sufi Mystics, Silk Weaving to Shehnai, Pan, Desi Ghee sweets, Good tasty affordable food and lots more – it’s all packed in the 8 km stretch across 84 Ghats and in the narrow by – lanes of this ancient city.
Sarnath is a stone’s throw away – a mere 15 kms. While Varansi the hub of Hindu Religion is steeped in ritual and tradition – Sarnath symbolizes Buddha with its peace and tranquil atmosphere. This is where Buddha after his enlightenment gave his first sermon to his 5 disciples. This is where the first Ashok Chakra was built with the Sarnath Stupa. This is where the 11th Jain Tirthankara was born. Sushruta, the great surgeon and author of the Sushruta Samhita, the Sanskrit text of surgery, lived in Varanasi and practised medicine and surgery sometime during the 5th century BC. Tulsidas wrote his epic poem on Rama’s life called Ram Charit Manas in Varanasi. Several other major figures of the Bhakti movement were born in Varanasi, including Kabir and Ravidas. Guru Nanak Dev visited Varanasi for Shivratri in 1507, a trip that played a large role in the founding of Sikhism.
From Shiva to Buddha, the Jain Tirthankara’s, Kabir, Lahiri Mahasaya, Dr Lal Bahadur Shastri, Pt Ravi Shankar, Shehnai Maeestro Bismillah Khan , Pt Madan Mohan Malviya (Founder of IT BHU) and many more – the city definitely has contributed a lot. And all of that comes from the rare energy that the city possesses.
Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev explains this beautifully in his video on Varanasi – Benares is not a city it’s a Yantra. There is a science by which the temples were built in a certain pattern to accentuate the energy. On the banks of the holy Ganga the city was designed in such a manner that anyone who came here never wanted to go back. He even says that it’s a celestial city that sits on Mahadevs Trishul – in a different plane from most cities.
But sadly a lot of that is lost. The beautiful architecture of the rock temples is covered with gaudy layers of paints, the city chokes in its crowded by lanes and you really need to dive deep past this muck to get a breath of fresh air and feel the energy of the ancient Varanasi. But this energy is so powerful that there are places where it still does touch you and that’s what attracts tourists and pilgrims in droves.
Can you cover all of this in 48 hrs – yes you can and here is a plan to get going.
Indigo has a direct flight from Bangalore to Varanasi. Departs at 11.15 AM reaching at 1.45 – our flight was delayed by 30 min. Our guide Manoj was at the airport to receive us ( and he was a godsend – we owe the success of covering so much ground to him) – the journey from the airport to our hotel near Assi Ghat in Varanasi was a mess. About 30 kms it took us almost 90 min. (Hopefully 2017 should get better as Modi Ji is getting a expressway constructed that should let you zip in less than 30 minutes). Typical E – UP town, small shops, dusty, crowded roads – it’s like how the Durgapur – Calcutta Grand Truck road used to be in the 80’s. it’s a sore sight and I did get a tad worried on what the next 2 days had in store for us.
We reached our hotel – a small boutique property “De Bouginvilla” located in a nice residential area very close to Assi Ghat. It’s a new property less than 1 month old – small and efficient – Rs 3500/- night, inclusive of breakfast & Wi Fi. (P 3/6, Lane no. 15, Ravindrapuri, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh 221005). Suited us perfectly. http://debougainvilla.com. (Other options you could consider as recommended by our Guide – Alka Guest House, Ganapati Guest House & Benares Haveli – all properties with room rates within 5K)
Day – 1 : We started around 4 PM
A quick cup of tea and we were ready to leave. In Dec the sun sets at 5 PM and we were starting out at 3.45. It was cold and in Varanasi you walk – so get yourself a good pair of walking shoes. You share the narrow alleys with Cows, Dogs, Bikers and fellow pedestrians. There will be garbage and dung – so look around as you walk. The city has over 23,000 temples but there are a few that you cannot miss – The Kashi Vishwanath Temple, The Kedareshwar temple , and the Kal Bhairav Temple – these form the 3 Main Temple Complexes. Mythology says that these 3 temples are perched on the 3 points Shivas Trishul.
We spent a few hrs walking around the by lanes of the old city and immersing ourselves. Stopping by a chai shop for a warm cup, looking at temples as they popped out in every nook and corner. We walked past the Vedshala – where the young kids were being trained in Yoga and Vedic Sciences and general studies. Right next to it was the ancient Kedareshwar temple and we stopped by for Lord Shiva’s blessings for a successful trip. As per mythology praying at the Kedar temple in Kashi is 7 times more effective than the main temple at Kedarnath.
From here we headed to Dashashwamedh Ghat for the evening Ganga Arti. This is also called the Rajendra Prasad Ghat. The arti starts around 6 PM and continues for about 30 minutes. Fire, Drums, Bells clanging, large crowds – it’s definitely a must watch. No tickets. But come early for a prime spot – you won’t be as lucky as PM Modi and Abe to have a decorated area cordoned off for you.
The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi and the Prime Minister of Japan, Mr. Shinzo Abe witnessing the Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat, in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh on December 12, 2015.
After the arti we walked along and visited the ancient Brihaspati temple (http://varanasi-temples.com/category/shiva-temples/other-shiva-temples-a-d/brihaspateeshwar/) and headed for dinner to “Keshari” near Gadoria Chowk. A sumptuous meal (After our breakfast at home – all we had was an Upma in the Indigo flight and a few cups of tea and we were famished) – and we headed back to the hotel – day 2 was to be a long one starting at 5 AM.
Day – 2 : We start at 5 AM
We were up by 4 AM – had a nice bath and took off on a cold foggy day at 5 AM with Manoj. We had an option of going to Assi Ghat and seeing the morning Arti – which is very different from the evening Arti (Mantras / Music / Yoga etc) or to start with the temple tours. We preferred to start the day with a trip to the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple. One of the 12 Jyotirlingas ( The second one I was visiting within a month after the recent trip to Jageshwar , I missed the Jyotirlinga near Ellora a few months back). This temple has been destroyed a few times by invaders including once by Aurangzeb but has been rebuilt.
Past multiple narrow by lanes we finally reached the temple (you need to leave your bags, belt, cell phone) before you enter the temple. We were lucky – there was no crowd and got a great Darshan of the Swayambu and were able to sit quietly near the sanctum sanctorum for a long time. ( Visual is a Google Image – we were not allowed to take our Phones inside)
The temples in Benares are not large like the S Indian ones. They are small and located in the heart of the city – no open gardens / courtyards. If the temple could have spoken it would have screamed like an American “Give me Space”. Its jammed in the midst of houses, shops, lanes. There have been endowments from Maharaja Ranjit Singh so parts of the architecture have a Sikh design and the main temple pyramid is covered with 900 kg of Gold (Wonder if the ascetic god Shiva would have appreciated that). Fortunately, nobody bugged us – no tickets for special darshan, no Q’s for Prasad – that was a pleasant surprise in all the temples we visited. All the Temple premises are clean and well maintained.
Immediately after this we visited the Annapurna Temple nearby and then as we were heading to Manikarna Ghat we stopped by a beautiful Nepali Temple (Almost all temples in Varanasi are dedicated to Shiva or Devi barring the Sankat Mochan temple which is dedicated to Hanuman). The Nepali temple was originally made of wood with intricate carvings but has now been restored and is a mix of Red Bricks and the original black wood. It’s a beautiful temple with a great view of the Ganges and the rising sun.
A five-minute walk to Manikarna Ghat (This and the Harishchandra Ghats are the only two Ghats where cremation services can be done). Its messy and not a nice site so see the dead bodies burning. For people who work here its business as usual. Right next to the Manikarna Ghat is a Kund and a small Shiva temple which is almost submerged. This temple is supposed to be older than the Kashi Vishwanath temple – but few come here. (Note that women are not allowed to visit the burning ghats).
We took a boat and crossed over to the other side of the Ganges. Our Guide was worried – hardly anyone does this trip. But I wanted to visit a Aghori – and there were a few camping on the other bank of the Ganges. The Aghoris path to enlightenment can sound gruesome. They worship the Devi, follow Tantric Rites, conduct their prayers at midnight and eat even dead bodies. The Aghori we met was from Tiruchi and he was training a few more – he seemed down to earth and spoke well. The tent was full of skulls and as we were speaking one of the disciples dropped something in the fire – the Aghori explained that was the heart of a Pig which they had sacrificed yesterday and this would form their next meal with rice soaked in the blood of the pig. Each one has his own way to get to Nirvana – clearly this is not my way and I walked out educated and aware of the Aghoris.
The morning was still foggy and it was admirable on how the boatman could get us to Panch Ganga Ghat. The water of the Ganges was surprisingly warm and clean and our guide asked us to cleanse ourselves with the holy water before we headed to the next set of temples.
It’s a steep climb from the Panch Ganga Ghat and we headed to the Kal Bhairav temple.
This is one of the oldest Shiva temples in Varanasi, India. Situated in Bharonath, this temple has great historical and cultural importance in Hinduism. The temple is dedicated to one of the fiercest forms of Lord Shiva and wears a garland of skulls and carries a club of peacock feathers. The word “Kaal” means both “death” and “fate”. It is believed that even death is afraid of “Kaal Bhairava”.
A quick darshan here – again it was empty and nice. By now we were famished and thoroughly enjoyed our breakfast of Hot Jalebis and Kachoris freshly made. (Madhu Jalpan , Keshyam Kanhaiya Chitra Madndali Bas Phatak)
By now it was almost 945 AM and we took a Battery Auto to our hotel for a 15 min rest and to pick up the address for our next destination – the revered Sage – Lahiri Mahasya house. He was the saint who was initiated by Babaji to Kriya Yoga in 1861 at Dunagiri and his family still maintains that tradition. ( 31/158 Madanura Lane, Garudeshwar Mohalla, Chowsatti Ghat)
Lahiri Mahasaya’s house is quiet and empty and is a great place to sit quietly and meditate. Lots of energy here.
Right next to this is a small guest house – Shivakashi Guest House. Very affordable.
Morning was dedicated to visiting Ashrams so from here we headed to the Kabir Mutt ( en -route picking up some Bhang from an authorized Bhang Shop) – a calm and quiet place.
Next stop was the Silk Weavers market or Muslin Market. A great place to understand how the famous Benarasi Silk sarees are made and also to get some great deals.
By now it was noon and we headed to Annapoorna for lunch (J12/16A, Ram Katora) . We had covered a lot of ground since 5 AM – but we still had a few more things to cover which was planned for the last phase.
A trip to the famous BHU – that was on the other side of the city and took us a good 1 hr to get there by Auto. The university is beautiful, green and clean – very well maintained. Right in the heart of the campus is a lovely Birla Temple. We had chai and tried out a very sweet local dish called “Lavang Lata” – it was really sweet.
We could have walked the 3.5 Km from here to the Main Gate or Lanka – but we preferred to take an Auto and headed to the famous Sankat Mochan Temple. Famous recently for the bomb blast from 2011 – because of which there is more security and you need to leave your cell phone / bags etc at the entrance) – This is a Hanuman Temple – the only Non Shiva / Non Devi temple we visited.
And then on the way back to the Hotel the last stop was at the Adi Shakti Durga temple.
We reached our room by 5 PM – and as we summarized with Manoj what we had covered there was a sense of joy that we accomplished a lot in almost 24 hrs.
All this would have not been possible without Manoj. You cannot do Varanasi without a Guide and if you are planning a trip give a call to Manoj Yadav at + 91 9935956290. He was a godsend. I had initially booked Varanasi Tours – they were charging Rs 1600/- person for a 3 hr walking tour. We would have paid double and not covered even half of what Manoj showed us with the Varanasi tours. I am so glad that they cancelled in the last minute and I was able to connect with Manoj by pure luck.
A nice warm shower and then we strolled out to ” Kshir Sagar” the most famous sweet shop of Benares to sample a few . On the way back stopped by a local Pan shop and picked up a few ” Original Benarasi pan” and headed back to the hotel for a simple dinner. We slept like a log that night.
Day – 3 : We start at 630 AM
The last day was dedicated to Sarnath. About 20 km from our hotel. The driver was there promptly by 6 and we headed out on a very foggy morning with visibility less than 20 feet. On the way stopping by for a simple meal of Kachuri & Jalebi ( Cost us Rs 75 for 3 people). We are at Sarnath before 745 AM.
Sarnath is a Village – its green and quiet. No hustle & bustle of Varanasi. This is where the enlightened Gautama gave his 1st sermon to his 5 disciples. There is a main temple built by the royal family of Ceylon at this spot. The place also has a pipal tree similar to the one at Bodh Gaya.
Right adjacent to this is the Sarnath Stupa – a massive structure of solid bricks and rock with a lot of carving. This was built by Ashoka and this complex was excavate in the early 1900’s and renovated by ASI. Its in excellent shape – large gardens , very calm and quiet , very well maintained. The same complex also had the Ashoka Chakra which is now housed in a. well maintained museum next door.
Sit down in a. corner and go back 2500 years to visualise the splendour of this place. This is not Mythology this is History.
The Thai’s, Japans, Nepalese, Burmese , Sri Lankan Governments have also built a few beautiful temples in Sarnath and they are worth a visit. Especially the Thai and Japanese ones and the Bajra Vidya temple. The Thai temple has a 180 feet Buddha statue – the tallest in India.
And the Japanese temple which is made of wood
Next to the Sarnath Stupa and the main temple is a Digambara Jain temple dedicated to the 11th Jain Tirthankara and thats definitely worth a visit.
You can complete all this and the Museum comfortable by 11AM and head back to the Airport. Most people stay at Varanasi and drive to Sarnath as its so close. We were back in Benares by 12 noon for a rushed lunch at the Taj Vivanta at Cantonment (All the big hotels Taj / Radisson etc are located in the Cantonment area which is a good 7 – 8 kms from the Ghats) and made it to the airport just in time at 115 to catch our 2.15 PM back to Bangalore.
We reached at 2.45 on Saturday and the return flight was on time – in 47 hrs we had covered a lot of ground and there was a sense of satisfaction – Mission Accomplished. It was great to have my Brother In law for company and I hope we can do more of these in the years to come.
Other Points to Note
- Best time to travel is Nov or Feb / March ( Dec / Jan can be very foggy and cold, and summers can be very hot, during the rains the river swells up massively)
- At the Kashi Vishwanath temple there is a 630 PM Saptarishi Arti – which is supposedly great – try attending it, we couldn’t
- We hunted for some classical program, Quawali / Mehfil etc – unfortunately none of that exists. So beyond temple hopping , street food and walking – entertainment options are limited
- Its a friendly and warm city and the people are nice – though the dialect is rough and tough. We found the place safe.
- Trivia – how did the name Varanasi emerge from Kashi & BenaresTraditional etymology links “Varanasi” to the names of two Ganges tributaries forming the city’s borders: Varuna, still flowing in northern Varanasi, and Assi, today a small stream in the southern part of the city, near Assi Ghat. The old city is located on the north shores of the Ganges, bounded by Varuna and Assi.In the Rigveda, an ancient Indian sacred collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns, the city is referred to as Kāśī (Kashi) from the Sanskrit verbal root kaś- “to shine”, making Varanasi known as “City of Light”, the “luminous city as an eminent seat of learning”. The name was also used by pilgrims dating from Buddha’s days.