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Varanasi

Varanasi

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Overview

"Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together."  Mark Twain, 1898
 
Varanasi is the most holy pilgrimage site of the Hindus and is the ancient name for the city that is set between the Varuna and Assi rivers.  It is also known as Banaras, the city of masti mauj, meaning fun and frolic, hence Bana (to make) and Ras (the juice of life).  The definitive Jerusalem and Mecca of India with hundreds of thousands of stone steps, called ghats, which make a majestic embankment for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims checking into the sacred waters of the Ganges River. 
 
While one is not sure if Mark Twain's comment above is a compliment or not, Varanasi is really old... Folks, I mean really, really old. It is mentioned in the  Hindu scriptures as Kashi, the city of light, and has been a spiritual power centre for at least 4000 - 6000 years.  As one of the world's oldest living cities it is the beautiful traditions and customs of spiritual pilgrimage, vedic chanting, classical music, temple architecture and street drama that make Varanasi one of the richest heritage sites of the world.  Vedic texts are passed down orally from generation to generation from father to son and guru to disciple by the priestly families of Brahmin pandits.  The Ganges river, better known as Ganga Ma, is considered a living goddess by Hindus who bathe and drink the water to absolve many lifetimes of sins.  Come and work a few out yourself!
 
From yesteryear til today the classical musicians & poets of Varanasi, both Hindu and Muslim, have held court and are the rockstars of the city.  Varanasi is the place where 400 hundred years ago the pandit Goswami Tulsidas translated the story of Ram from Sanskrit to the local lingo and was banished from the city by the preisthood.  His epic translation is now the basis for the Ram Lila, an autumn street drama held across the city in various locations and hosted by the former Maharajah of Varanasi. A famous Muslim weaver named Kabir took a Hindu guru in the 15th century and eventually disdained the hypocrisy in both communities, ridiculing them in course couplets of clever rhyme.  His songs are now a part of the Sikh scriptures. No one can forget Ravidas, a poor dealer in animal hides and despised by the so-called higher castes, who rose against all tradition to become one of the most celebrated holyman of the city. 
 
"Rand, Sand, Seedi, Sanyasi, Inse Bacche to Sevai Kashi." - Saint Kabir
 
As the great poet Kabir says above, "Widows, bulls, stairs and saints, escape them all to reach salvation (Kashi)".  There are many wandering beggers and widows who have come to die in the holy city and the eerie 24 hour fires of the burning ghats testify to Varanasi's title given by Shiva, the Lord of Death, as 'The great cremation ground' where he makes his home.  There are also numerous bulls and cows on the roads, in the lanes, lounging by doors... most are friendly but take care as you step past them!  Lastly, it would seem that in spite of sincere believers, sacred waters and holiness of the city of Varanasi there have always been unscrupulous wannabes and priests who extort money from the pilgrims.  Watch out for them yourself or you may find that a handshake turns into an expensive massage or a blessing and dab of powder on the forehead needs more than a few coins in return!
 
With all of these hurdles to salvation it is no wonder why Banarasi's never take themselves too seriously, or work too hard, and are always ready to stop and drink chai!  After all they live in the centre of the universe, the most holy city in the world and the city of eternal light.
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Places to see

1. The palaces along the 84 riverside ghats.
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2. Sarnath Museum & Buddhist Sites
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3. The evening Ganga Aarti ceremony at Dasashwamedh ghat.
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4. The Burning Ghats at Harish Chandra and Manikarnika ghats.
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5. Ram Nagar Fort Museum across the river.
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Eat and Drink

1. Real Italian Pizza and Jordanian Food at Phulwari Resturant, Bansphatak.
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2. Lassi and chai at Laxmi Chai House, Chowk.
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3. French Press coffee and snacks at Open Hand, Assi.
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4. Pure Veg Thali at Keshari in Dasashwamedh.
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5. Non-Veg Biryani behind Dalmandi & New Market.
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What to do

1. Visit Sarnath and eat a picnic where the Buddha preached his first sermon.
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2. Take a hand pulled boat ride down the Ganga River.
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3. Chill out with students near Birla Mandir in the lovely Banaras Hindu University Campus.
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4. Check out the creepy overgrown Gothic English cemetery in the Cantonment.
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5. Drink Lassi in the summer, Malaiya in the winter and chai all day long.
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Where and what to shop

1. Become knowledgeable about Varanasi at cult hangout Harmony Books, Assi Ghat
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2. Buy some cute handpainted traditional wooden toys near Vishwanath Mandir
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3. Add Traditional brass work to funk out your house from Banaras Art Sculpture, Bhadaini
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4. Get local fabric, trinkets galore and good advice at Naval's Emporium, Vishwanath Lane
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5. Haggle hard in Dashashwmedh Night Market for the latest fashions of Banaras
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Before you go

1. Be prepared to face the devastating power of Banaras Paan, a local betal nut product wrapped in a edible leaf and filled with molassas, rosewater, tutti fruiti, licorice, cloves and poisionous lime paste. Enjoy!
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2. Read some insightful stories by Premchand, the celebrated novelist of turn of Varanasi.
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3. Get artsy and Rent Apusansar, 'The World of Apu', a black and white film made in Varanasi during the 1960's by Academy Award winner Satyajit Ray
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4. Bone up on your Ravi Shankar sitar music then be really cool and try to locate his birthplace in the maze of alleyways.
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5. Learn how to pet doe-eyed cattle, shepherd the flocks, avoid idiotic water buffalos so you can enjoy the farm life meandering the streets of Varanasi.
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