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.
Set upon the eastern banks of the River Ganges is the imposing Ramnagar Fort which was built from red sandstone and marble in the 17th Century by Maharajah Balwant Singh. The sprawling complex also includes a couple of temples which enjoy expansive views of the river and of melancholic sunsets which get further compounded by silhouettes of the water buffaloes trudging along forlornly in the distance. A museum within, captivates visitors with its collection of Rolls Royce cars, hunting rifles and palanquins which were used by members of the erstwhile royal family. The Maharajah of Varanasi lives here in his palace which is off-limits to casual tourists. The best time to visit is probably before sunset as this is one of the few attractions in Varanasi which affords visitors sunset views. Entrance to the fort complex itself is free but charges apply for museum entry.
Alternately known as Aurangzeb Mosque or Dharahara Mosque, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)- protected Alamgir Mosque enjoys a superb location along the relatively quieter Panchganga Ghat which is sacred to Hindu bathers. A steep climb will lead you up to one of Varanasi's most celebrated landmarks which pretty much defines the skyline with its spectacular brown minarets. Built by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb upon the site of the Bindu Madhava Temple, legend has it that this structure was actually much taller than its present state, and the Emperor enjoyed views all across to Delhi! While there is no way of verifying this, there remains no doubt that this mosque is a must-visit especially for its unusual architecture manifesting both Hindu and Mughal elements. Its proximity to the nearby Shri Laxmi Narayan Mandir and the newer Bindu Mahadev Temple reflects the co-existence of 2 major world religions - Hinduism and Islam.
Run by a city local named Monu, Monu Tours organizes, bout tours, tuk tuk tours, car tours and walking tours for those keen to explore the sacred city's rich culture and heritage. Boat trips usually happen during sunset or sunrise and take visitors through the beautiful and serene Ganges. Walking and tuk tuk tours let one visit the various markets, temples and the Ghats, rightly labeled as the soul of the city. During each of these tours, visitors also get to devour local grub served at food stalls dotting various narrow lanes and streets.
Curated by travel enthusiasts who pride on their ancient roots and tradition, Roobaroo Walks takes visitors through the narrow by-lanes of the holy city. Visitors also explore the sacred Ganges and swarming alleys serving up delectable street food as a part of the guided walk. Moving beyond the famous city landmarks, Roobaroo acquaints one with the heart of the religious city, even as one visits the various akhadas (wrestling area), local shops and natural attractions.
The Deer Park in Sarnath was where Lord Buddha gave his first discourse while sitting amongst the Brahmins of Kapilavastu. Not much seems to have changed even now in these tranquil confines where one can spot the occasional deer frolicking in the foliage, blissfully unaware of the world outside. Reminiscent of the days gone by, one is almost taken back to the history class text book chapter, 'Sermon in the Deer Park'. The word Sarnath actually comes from Saranganath which means 'Lord of the Deer', a nickname given to Buddha.
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.
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!
Located on Shitala Ghat just by the side of the more outstanding Dasashwamedh Ghat is the Shitala Temple. Whitewashed and stark, this temple is dedicated to Shitala Devi who is known to be the Goddess of Smallpox and Chickenpox. Staunch Hindu devotees believe that she protects them from these diseases. Nearby is also a small shrine dedicated to Santhoshi Maata - the Mother of Pleasure.
Chausatti Devi Temple lies very close to one of the most famous budget guest houses along the riverfront - Sita Guest House. The temple is dedicated to Goddess Chausatti who looks after her faithful devotees who come to Varanasi for worship. The bright yellow walls are somewhat marred by scribblings and random writings however, this takes nothing away from the intensity of this place. Do not miss out on the idol of the ferocious tiger that welcomes visitors.