If asked to come up with a tagline for Varanasi most would agree going with, “Chaotic city scenes made peaceful by the Ghats!” Because that is exactly how this 3000-year-old city unfolds for most of its people. The moment anyone starts talking about the city of Varanasi, people instantly picture a scene by the Ghats with boat rides & yogi babas puffing away clouds of smoke from their chillams & the magical sounds of the evening Ganga Aarti at Dashaswamedh Ghat.
But that’s not all it is about! Varanasi has so much more to offer to anyone who is not afraid of getting lost in this age old city & is therefore open to exploring & experiencing Banaras beyond the Ghats! In this article that’s exactly what we are going to do. Help you explore the spiritual capital & culturally rich city in India.
1. Banaras ki Galliyan
Banaras ki galliyan are in a stark contrast from the vibe of its main roads which would always be overcrowded with tourists, locals, rickshawallahs, bulls, tuk-tuks always honking non stop like their lives depend on it. But if you thought the by lanes of Mumbai were confusing, then you need to tryout the alleys of Banaras which like a confusing set of maze, makes the by lanes of Mumbai look like a child's play! It almost feels as if these lanes are specially designed to make you feel lost at each turn because you will have no idea where you will end up at, which is the whole point behind taking them. If you are lucky enough you might even stumble upon the lesser known temples & kunds of Banaras which are a lovely spot to spend the afternoon unwinding with your thoughts. In these lanes you will actually get to see the lives of the people who call this city home unwind in front of you. Don’t be surprised if the locals end up inviting you into their homes for chai! The possibilities of what you see & experience in these lanes are endless which is why when in Banaras its always best to ditch the main roads every once in a while! And just when you think you have seen enough you can ask people around for the direction to the Ghats that will get you back to the busy main roads & if that doesn’t work out, you always have Google Maps to your rescue!
2. Salivate for Salvation
A promise of salvation of the soul is one of the reasons why Varanasi is so popular among the Hindus. It is believed that anyone who is cremated in this city will directly attain moksha & be eternally free from the cycle of rebirth. But if you believe in Salvation as being a moment of pure bliss then look no further than the street food of Banaras! Being a food paradise for vegetarians, even the fussiest person will end up loving it! When in Banaras one should not miss out on any of the dairy products because the milk here is to die for! Banaras has the largest variety of flavored lassi & end number of shops will be selling them. But for the best lassi experience one should head out to The Blue Lassi shop near Mannikarnika Ghat. On the way back from your evening aarti at Dashaswamedh Ghat don’t forget to stop at Kashi Chaat Bhandar that opens only in the evening for people to gorge non stop on their chaat. Definitely try the famous tamaatar chaat that you only find in Banaras. This will definitely get you salivating for salvation. Some might find it a bit spicy but there is no spice that can’t be handled with a plate of dahi vada or gulaab jamun! For those early risers there is nothing better than kachodi-puri-sabzi & mallaiyu for breakfast on the roads. For a taste of the special veg thaali or litti chokha look no further than Baati Chokha or Keshari Restaurant in Godowlia market. But wait that’s not it. How can you talk about Banaras & not mention chai. Though almost every chaiwallah has secretly mastered the art of making the perfect chai but still one should definetly go try the special “Liquor Chai” from Tinku Chai walla at Assi ghat. Im not giving any more spoilers on what to expect here. It is something that you should find out on your own. Lastly its almost a sin not try the Apple pie at Vatika Pizzeria in Assi ghat if you are in Banaras & while you are at it, try out their Italian pizzas as well.
3. Lallapura Weaver’s Colony
Now we have all heard & seen the fine craftsmanship of the Banarasi silk sarees & brocade. So how can you visit the original hub of this craft & not visit the weaver’s colony. In order to truly appreciate Indian textile one has to experience the dedication, passion & long hours of hard work that goes behind the expert craftsmanship of weaving one yard of silk.
Being a Muslim colony in a religious city of Hindus, Lallapura will change your perception of Varanasi completely & make you fall all the more in love with it! From the moment you walk into the colony you can see how different yet same this neighborhood is from the rest of Varanasi. Ask around for Farooq Sheikh’s shop near the madarsa. He manages the one of the production & export house of silk products from Banaras. They are always open to taking people on a free guided tour of the weaver’s colony, showing the whole process from design to end product! The sight & sounds of the looms with its silken threads weaving beautiful pure brocade textile is something that always leaves one awestruck! This place is a must visit for people interested in documenting the weavers or in shopping for some silk sarees & dupattas at decent affordable prices. This place is also a street photographer’s paradise where the subject himself stops you to come take their photo & offers new visuals of one of the most photographed city in India.
4. Go back in time & explore the birthplace of Buddhism with a day trip to Sarnath
Just a half hour bumpy drive leaves behind the crowded, loud and dusty roads of Banaras & brings you to Sarnath, the place where Lord Buddha gave his first sermon after attaining enlightenment, a place where Shreyansanatha, the 11th Jain tirthankara was born along with also being associated with an important benchmark in our Indian history with Mauryan Emperor Ashoka being deeply moved by the place’s sense of peace and building the famous Ashoka Pillar at the spot which can now be visited in Sarnath along with the Ashoka Chakra.
Apart from this Sarnath is also an important Buddhist Pilgrimage destination among monks from worldwide visiting the various modern Buddhist temples, Japanese monastery & stupas built around. Sarnath is also visited to explore the sacred ruins that this small town has to offer while taking a long stroll in the beautiful, serene gardens which also happens to be a well preserved archeological excavation site housing what remains of a monastery, stupa & Jain temple. Which is why a day trip to Sarnath while watching the sunset & monks walking around chanting Buddham Saranam Gachhami. Dhamam Saranam Gachhami. Sangam Saranam Gachhami,” (I seek refuge at the feet of the Buddha. I seek refuge in reality. I seek refuge in the order of monks.) is just what is needed for those unable to find peace & solace in the tourist & pilgrim flooded Banaras.