Named after Varuna, the Vedic god of water and the sea, this river is a small tributary of the mighty Ganges. The river flows into the Ganges at the northern side of Varanasi, and there are believable theories that the city got its name because of the convergence of two rivers Varuna and Assi. This small and gentle river carves a simple landscape in the northern neighborhoods of the city before reaching out for the confluence.
Pointing to a time when horse sacrifice was common, the translation of the name Dasashwamedh says 'the place where ten horses were sacrificed'. Hindu mythology says the creator Brahma did a sacrifice here to let Lord Shiva get back to Varanasi; and thus it is one of the most auspicious sites for Hindus all over the world. This is the site of the stunning Ganga Aarti, which is performed daily on the raised platforms on the ghat with seven priests doing choreographed ritualistic offerings to mother Ganga. Considered as the most important ghat along the banks of Ganga, a large number of guesthouses and restaurants are located around the area. The main burning ghat, Manikarnika is towards the north. One of the most ancient sites in the city, Dasaswamedh Ghat is a legendary sight filled with tourists and pilgrims.
The exalted Kashi Vishwanath Temple finds itself mentioned in ancient Hindu scriptures, and was actually built in 490 CE but fell prey to successive demolitions by the Mughal invaders all through the centuries. The present temple was built in 1790 by the warrior queen Ahilyabhai Holkar who was aggrieved by the wanton destruction of age-old sacred structures. Hindus believe that a dip in the river Ganges and a visit to this temple serves to break free from the cycle of rebirth. Also referred to as Golden Temple because of the spire which was made from pure gold donated by Maharaja Ranjith Singh, this temple is a must-visit. The main deity here is a black lingam upon which devotees pour blessed water. Foreigners have to register their passports to enter the premises as security has been beefed up in recent years due to the looming terrorist threat. Mobile phones, cameras and bags of all visitors have to be deposited at any of the shops that line the entrance, while police urge crowds to hurry and keep moving. The experience is most intense, intriguing and divine.
One of the most prominent sites in Sarnath, where Gautam Buddha gave his first sermon after attaining enlightenment, the original structure of Dhamek Stupa was built in 249 BCE by emperor Asoka. This structure was later replaced in 500 CE. Still withstanding some parts of the original build, this is a stunning sight and visited by pilgrims and tourists from all parts of the world. Beautiful stone carvings are visible at the base of this massive 43.6 meter (143.044 feet) structure, which was much taller in its original form. Part of the complex of Ancient Remains, the adjacent compound has a Jain Temple. Archeological Museum, Deer Park and Modern Reception Center are also nearby.
According to Hindu tradition, people cremated at the Manikarnika Ghat after death will be freed from the chain of life and death. That explains the chaos, mystery, indifference, noise and everything surrounding this area which is said to be the abode of Lord Shiva. The name Manikarnika goes back to the story where Shiva dropped his earrings at the well here during his transcendental dance and it came to know as Manikarnika Kund. The cremations take place without break and fills the air with the smell of burning flesh which is surprisingly not repulsive. Foreigners from all around the globe watch the activities here with much intrigue and the locals take it with compassion though not without a fragment of disdain. The apparent indifferent face of death is reinforced with the underlying philosophy of material transition and is something that has to be experienced.
This is the unofficial yet lionized home of long-term backpackers, researchers and students who have chosen to stay on for extended periods of time in Varanasi. The southernmost ghat on the long stretch of ghats, life at Assi is as indulgent as the water buffaloes who wallow around for hours on end in the Ganges. Despite its distance from the main burning ghats, travelers head here for a break from the intrusive touts, guides, fake holy men, beggars, boat men, masseurs and even children who participate with great fervor in the contrived chaos. Assi has a large Jewish community and this is reflected through the hotels and cafes with names such as Haifa and Yafah which serve up typically Middle Eastern dishes like hummus, falafel, baba ghanoush and kawwah (Arabic Coffee). Assi Ghat has been mentioned in the ancient Indian Vedic texts and commands the respect of Indian pilgrims too who arrive here in boats or on foot for a holy dip.
The ingenuous design of St Mary's Cathedral was the handiwork of architect Krishna Menon who successfully conceptualized and executed an architecture which would not be typically Christian but which would also allude to elements of Indian architecture. As opposed to the traditional spire that's common to European cathedrals, this one has a number of sloping roofs tiled with red mangalore tiles. An aerial view presents an interesting geometric pattern that represents a many-sided star. This Roman Catholic church is popular with tourists who often stop by at the basement to view the permanent collection of religious art work.
If there was ever a word to describe the concept and layout of Bharat Mata Mandir, it is INIMITABLE. This one isn't an ode to the legacies of Laxmi, Shiva, Ganesha, Hanuman or Ram; it is the ultimate tribute to Mother India (Bharat Mata). Upon entering, one is stunned into silence with the sunken-level three-dimensional relief map of undivided India, carved from marble and with every proportion in place. The range of Himalayas protruding upwards particularly catches the eye, so do the smaller mountain ranges and oceans along the west coast. Brainchild of the artistic duo of Babu Shiv Prashad Gupta and Shri Durga Prashad Khatri, this matchless work of art was built in 1936 and inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi.
Kabir Chaura Math Varanasi is a composite collection of the immortal memories of the 15th-century mystic Kabir. The highlight here is the Samadhi-Mandir, a temple where the mortal remains of the saint is kept. Kabir-Hut and Kabir Chabutara, two platforms where the saint used to talk to his followers, is another sight visited with reverence here. Beejak Temple, has a collection of Kabir's scriptures and Neeru Teela, has his parents' remains preserved in a temple-like atmosphere. The complex also has a library and sculptures around a beautifully curated garden. The atmosphere is serene and evokes an interest to go deeper into Kabir's teachings.
The lesser-known Dundi Raj Ganesh Mandir lies just a few minutes away from the acclaimed Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Heavily armed policemen are the first thing you will encounter at the entrance, and they will fiercely ward off anyone trying to take photographs even from the entrance. Though this may seem a bit much to foreign travelers, the reasons are more to prevent terrorists from conducting a recce rather than preservation of sanctity. The main deity of this revered temple is Lord Ganesha who is the son of Shiva.
Located along the busy Dasashwamedh Road is the beautiful sandstone Guru Brihaspathi Mandir (temple) whose entrance is lined with shops selling saffron garments sporting ancient Sanskrit verses, Hindu religious symbols or simply the word 'Kashi' (ancient name for Varanasi). Legend has it that Lord Shiva revealed himself to Guru Brihaspathi thousands of years ago here, and till date Hindu pilgrims consider this temple a must-visit. Thursdays are auspicious and getting past the teeming crowds can be a task but if witnessing spiritual fervor at its height appeals to you, go for it!