The world’s oldest living city, Varanasi, enchants and surprises its visitors in the same breath. Find out how to explore this ancient, multi-layered city in a day’s time. By Gustasp & Jeroo Irani
5.30 am – Attend The Ganga Aarti
The hour-long Subah-e-Benaras aarti on the Assi Ghat gently nudges the sleeping city awake. See a row of richly garbed priests swirling lit snake-hood lamps to the sonorous chanting of vedic shlokas that waft heavenward as the sun rises over the holy River Ganga.
7.30 am – Sail Through The Ganges
In Varanasi, life revolves around the ghats. Get on a boat to watch the 80 ghats abuzz with activity: meditating orange-robed sadhus, kids and adults bathing in the holy Ganges; women washing saris even as pundits perform sacred ceremonies. Or, capture the numerous temples and palaces that line these ghats on camera.
8.30 am – Enjoy A Desi Breakfast
Varanasi is famous for its chaat. Hop into an auto-rickshaw and stop for a traditional breakfast at one of the streetside joints in Thatheri Bazaar. Devour aloo kachori, coupled with a dash of spicy and sweet chutney. Round it off with hot jalebis or kulfi.
9.00 am – Watch A Game Of Mud-Wrestling
Walk along the serpentine lanes near the Tulsi Ghat to arrive at Tulsi Akhada, where young men wrestle under the watchful gaze of their master. One of the oldest known akhadas, it was started by Goswami Tulsidas, who wrote the Hindi version of the Hindu epic Ramayana.
11.00 am – Visit The Iconic Kashi Vishwanath Temple
One of the 12 jyotirlinga temples (shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva), the Kashi Vishwanath Temple is the most popular attraction in Varanasi. Rebuilt over the centuries, it features 800 kg of gold plating on the tower and dome. The temple shares its walls with a mosque, and has been an icon of communal harmony.
1.00 pm – Eat. Shop. Repeat.
Refuel at Open Hand Café & Store with a light meal (sandwiches, salads and pastas), delicious coffee and baked goodies. Browse the shop for custom-made garments, household linen, and leather and canvas merchandise. Or, stop at a local store to shop for brass and silverware.
3.00 pm – Buy The Famous Benarasi Sari
Among the finest saris in India, Benarasi sari is known for its gold and silver brocade, fine silk, and opulent embroidery. Visit Deendayal Hastkala Sankul (Badalalpur, Lamhi, Varanasi), a trade facilitation centre for handicrafts, and shop souvenirs. Or, navigate through the labyrinthine lanes of Chowk to get a good bargain with any of the wholesale dealers.
5.00 pm – Explore The Weavers’ District
In the atmospheric weavers’ colony in the Pilikothi neighbourhood, one has to navigate noodle-thin lanes alongside ambling goats and cows. Weavers spin webs of magic—rich Benarasi silk saris—against the clickety-clack soundtrack of looms in cramped homes. Saris produced by these weavers fetch anywhere up to a whopping INR2,00,000 in the market!
6.00 pm – Attend The Evening Aarti
Head for the Dasashwamedh Ghat, located fairly close to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, to watch a row of young priests in silk saffron-coloured kurtis and white dhotis perform the 45-minute-long aarti, twirling lit lamps in superb synchrony. The boats bobbing on the water with camera-festooned tourists resemble beached ghost ships.
8.00 pm – Sip On Some Blue Lassi
In the heart of the old city, glug some creamy Benarasi lassi. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better place to taste lassi than the century-old Blue Lassi (CK 12/1 Kunj Gali, Kachaudi Gali), a minuscule outlet near the Manikarnika Ghat (The ‘Burning Ghat’ where the dead are cremated). On offer here are different unparalleled flavours of Benarasi lassi—from mango to pineapple.
9.00 pm – Dine At A Palace Restaurant
Bring on the night in the 19th-century Brijrama Palace whose sandstone walls are cantilevered over the Darbhanga Ghat and the glimmering Ganga. In the elegant frescoed confines of its multi-cuisine vegetarian restaurant, Darbhanga, savour a Benarasi thali or Indian, Chinese, Italian or Thai delicacies. Later, taste the Benarasi paan for a truly local experience.