The word ‘Varanasi’ is derived by joining together the names of two rivers, Varuna and Assi. It is also known as Banaras, the city where the juice of happiness (rasa) is forever ready (bana) in life. The city has a total of 87 ghats.
While one could spend a lifetime discovering and exploring the many facets of this fascinating city, if you’re pressed for time like most travelers, then in two days there is plenty you can do!
Here’s how to make the most of your precious 48 hours in the city.
We chose to stay at the Welcomheritage Jukaso Ganges—located strategically between Bhosle and Ram Ghat, and it proved to be an excellent choice. We started the day with the enchanting morning aarti that takes place daily at the Assi Ghat. Known as Subah-e-Banaras, it is a relatively new feature. Most hotels offer an early morning boat ride that gets you to the ghat. We were advised to reach before sunrise—at about 5:30 am—and a good decision that was, as we managed to grab a good seat upfront amid the crowds of tourists who showed up to watch this spectacle on the banks of the sacred river.
It was quite an experience to view the offering of prayers to the Sun God. The show consisted of a sequence of events, comprising morning ragas, the chanting of Vedic mantras, classical music performances and yoga for cleansing one’s body, mind and soul.
After that delightful treat, we headed to enjoy local cuisine for breakfast at Shri Rajbandhu restaurant at Kachori gali, Chowk. Here, we got a chance to sample some of the local street food, like khasta kachori, khasta samosa, mathri and Rajnigandha, an indigenous sweet.
A visit to the Kashi Vishwanath temple was high on our list of things to do, as it’s the most revered temple in the city. Since crowds of pilgrims throng outside standing in long lines, the best way to enter is to go with a pandit. Even though the opportunity to see the temple is a lifetime wish for many, we were a tad disappointed as all we got to experience was a split-second darshan before the main idol!
We next went to have lunch in the city. Someone suggested a small, hole-in-the-wall eatery called Blue Lassi at Kachori gali, Chowk. The bohemian joint turned out to be quite popular with backpackers. A special delicacy of Varanasi, the blue lassi is made with yogurt milk and sugar, fresh seasonal fruits and no artificial preservatives. One can choose from a variety of exotic flavors, including apple, pineapple, papaya, mango, strawberry, blueberry pomegranate, coconut and chocolate banana, and saffron with almonds.
After that, we continued to stroll and window-shop around town. The narrow, craggy streets of this ancient holy city are counted among the oldest heritage walks in the world. As you walk around the market, you realize that dogs, cows, monkeys, pedestrians and two-wheeler vehicles all happily coexist here—surrounded as they are on either side by small, quaint shops selling everything from kachoris, lassis, paan, and even the famous Banarasi silk sarees!
On the way, we made a stop at Jawahar Stores in Rani Kuan, Chowk Pathak. Here, one can try many varieties of dried paans and suparis. The gulab paan is special, as it is made of dried rose petals!
Back at the hotel, we promptly booked a boat ride to Dashashwamedh Ghat. Overlooking the sunset, the evening aarti at the ghat is an experience not to be missed. The entire city comes alive, as they watch from their boats this magical procession of music, fire and prayers.
After a light dinner at the hotel, we called it a night.
The next day, we spent some more time to soak in the sights, sounds and flavors of the city. We stopped by the Manikarnika Ghat. The primary cremation ghat, it’s where the burning of hundreds of dead bodies takes place 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It is the dream of thousands of pilgrims from across the country to visit the place once in their lifetime, and if possible, to die here in order to attain salvation. In fact, often when people are told by doctors that they have no hope for survival, they come to Varanasi in anticipation of their death as a final desire to be cremated here.
It’s ironic that even though this is a place several come for their last rites, life still goes on in Varanasi. A sea of humanity is seen bathing, washing and cleaning in the ghats early every morning.
We decided to go see another of the city’s celebrated sites, the Banaras Hindu University. The institution has a huge campus housing buildings of different colleges, faculties, auditoriums and libraries. One of the buildings worth going to is the Bharat Kala Bhawan museum, where one gets to learn about the history of the city and see some of its earliest pictures, sculptures and paintings. We noticed that yoga training centres are another rage all over the city, and are a big draw especially for foreign tourists.
For lunch, we went to another quaint local café. Brown Bread Bakery on Sonarpura road at Pandey Ghat that serves mostly organic food and has a live concert every evening. With a diverse menu ranging from pancakes, smoothies, burgers, salads, pizzas, fondues, Italian, Continental, Thai, Chinese and Indian, you can easily be spoilt for choice! The restaurant even runs a school and provides local women employment by producing jams, pickles, muesli and tahini.
After lunch, we spent the evening walking around some of the other smaller temples. Since there are so many places of pilgrimage in Varanasi, you have to choose which ones you want to see. The Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple is one such if you have the time. There’s also the Tulsi Manas mandir, famous for being the spot where Tulsidas wrote the great Hindu epic, the Ramayana.
If you want to fit in a few extra hours of sightseeing, then I would recommend going to the airport about an hour earlier. That way, you can make time for Sarnath. Located at a convenient distance of 10 kilometres from Varanasi towards the airport, it is another religious place. The difference here is that rather than being a pilgrim place for Hindus, it is a paradise for Buddhists. Some of the major temples to see here include the Thai temple, the Sarnath museum, and the Tibetan monastery (Stupa), as well as the Srilankan and Burmese temple (Mulgandha Kuti Vihar).
At the end of my trip, I felt cleansed, humbled and blessed to have been here. All in all, a visit to Varanasi is an unforgettable feast for all five senses!
Travel tip: The annual Dev Deepawali, which falls 15 days after Diwali, is the best time to visit Varanasi. During this time, all the ghats are lit up with a thousand diyas. The day honours Lord Shiva’s victory over three demons—Vidyunmali, Tarakaksha and Viryavana. Shiva destroyed the three cities built by the demons. It is believed that on this day, the gods descend on the banks of the Ganga to Shiva’s town Kashi.