12 Best Sights in Varanasi, Side Trips from Delhi

Boat ride on the Ganges

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The quintessential Varanasi experience is a boat ride along the Ganges. The most popular place to hire a boat is at Dashashvamedh Ghat—essentially in the middle of Varanasi, and convenient if you're staying near the water—or at Assi Ghat, the southernmost end of the ghats. It's a good idea to arrange your boat trip the afternoon before, then get up and meet your boatmen early the next morning so that you can be out on the water as the sun comes up. Rates are negotiable, but it should cost about Rs. 125 per person for an hour, or Rs. 500 for a private boat. If you are traveling to Varanasi between July and September, check with the Ministry of Tourism Office first, as boat rides are sometimes prohibited during monsoons for safety reasons. Probably the most popular routes are any that take you past Manikarnika, the main "burning" ghat, though the people and their rituals might be more sightworthy than the ghats themselves.

These are some of the landmarks that you'll see along the way.

Panchganga Ghat. Down below Aurangzeb's Mosque, this is an important bathing point. It's the mythical meeting place of the five sacred rivers, and images of the river goddesses are displayed here.

Aurangzeb's Mosque. The Alamgir Mosque, known as Aurangzeb's Mosque, was built by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb over the remains of the Hindu temple that had previously stood here—when he conquered Banaras, he had ordered the destruction of all temples. The mosque's dramatic vantage point overlooking the Ganges gives it a prominent place on the skyline. The mosque is closed to non-Muslims.

Manikarnika Ghat. This is Varanasi's main burning ghat. At the top of Manikarnika's steps is a small, deep pool, or kund, said to have been dug by Vishnu at the dawn of creation and thus to be the first tirtha—literally, "ford," and figuratively a place of sacred bathing. Shiva is said to have lost a jeweled earring (manikarnika) as he trembled in awe before this place, one of the holiest sites in Varanasi.

Kashi Vishvanath Temple (Golden Temple). This temple, with its gold-plated spire, is easy to spot on the skyline. It's the most sacred shrine in Varanasi.

Chausath Yogini Temple. Just north of Dashashvamedh Ghat, Chausath Yogini is at the top of a particularly steep set of steps by the ghat of the same name. Originally devoted to a Tantric cult that is also associated with an important ruined temple at Khajuraho, it's now dedicated to Kali (the goddess most popular with Bengalis), known here simply as "Ma"—Mother. The worshippers are mainly white-sari-clad widows from Varanasi's Bengali quarter; in the early morning you'll see them coming for the darshan (vision) of Kali after bathing in the Ganges.

Dashashvamedh Ghat. This is one of the busiest ghats, and a good starting place for a boat ride. Every evening at sunset the Ganga Arti prayer ceremony is performed here, with the steps filling with priests and people praying.

Dhobi Ghat. At this ghat south of Dashashvamedh, dhobis (washer men and women) do early morning laundry by beating it against stones in the river.

Durga Temple (aka Monkey Temple). Inland and a short walk from Assi Ghat, it's recognizable by its multitiered spire.

On the eastern side of the river you can see the Ramnagar Fort and Palace.

Assi Ghat. The southernmost ghat, marking the place where the Assi River and the Ganges meet, has a pipal tree with a lingam.

Dashashvamedh Ghat

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At roughly the midway point of Varanasi's ghats, this is a convenient and popular spot, always busy with hawkers and pilgrims, and a good place to hire a boat. It's one of the holiest ghats, the site of ancient sacrificial rite: the name literally means "10-horse sacrifice." Ganga Arti is an arti (prayer ceremony) performed at Dashashvamedh Ghat every night at sunset. Priests clad in saffron and white robes blow conch shells and perform a synchronized ritual with diyas (lamps), flowers, and incense. The steps fill with people singing Vedic hymns, lighting lamps, and praying along with the priests; if you're out on a boat at this time, you can take in the whole scene without having to deal with the crush on the ghat itself.

Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum

No one interested in Indian art should miss this museum on the campus of Banaras Hindu University. The permanent collection includes brocade textiles, excellent Hindu and Buddhist sculptures, and miniature paintings from the courts of the Mughals and the Hindu princes of the Punjab hills. One sculpture with particular power is a 4th-century Gupta-dynasty frieze depicting Krishna (an incarnation of Vishnu) holding up Mt. Govardhan to protect his pastoral comrades from the rain. Have your car or rickshaw wait for you, as transportation can be hard to find on the university's sprawling campus. It's a good idea to go with a guide, since the upkeep of the museum is a bit haphazard and you might need someone who knows his way around and can turn the lights on.

Varanasi, 221005, India
542-230–7621
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Rate Includes: Rs. 250, Closed Sun.

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Chaukhandi Stupa

The first monument you come to in Sarnath, on the left-hand side of Ashoka Marg on the way to the park, is this Buddhist shrine that is believed to have originally been a terraced temple during the Gupta period (the 4th to 6th century). Govardhan, the son of Raja Todarmal (who later became a governor under Akbar's rule), built an octagonal tower to commemorate the visit of Emperor Humayun, the father of Emperor Akbar. The event is recorded in Arabic in a stone tablet above the doorway on the north side.

Sarnath, India

Dhamekh Stupa

Dappled with geometric and floral ornamentation, the stone-and-brick Dhamekh Stupa is the largest surviving monument in Sarnath, at 143 feet in height and 92 feet in diameter at the base. Built around 500 AD, Dhamekh is thought to mark the place where the Buddha delivered his sermon, though excavations have unearthed the remains of an even earlier stupa of Mauryan bricks of the Gupta period (200 BC). An Ashoka pillar with an edict engraved on it stands near the stupa.

Sarnath, India

Durga Temple

This 18th-century shrine, dedicated to the goddess Durga, Shiva's consort, stands beside a large, square pool of water due west about 1 km from Assi Ghat. The multilevel spire (five lower ones, and one on top) symbolizes the belief that the five elements of the world (earth, air, water, fire, and ether) merge with the Supreme. The shrine is also called the Monkey Temple because there are monkeys everywhere, and they'll steal anything (keep all food and water out of sight).

Durgakund Rd., Varanasi, 221002, India
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Rate Includes: Daily sunrise–noon and 2–sunset.

Kashi Vishvanath Temple

Known as the Golden Temple because of the gold plate on its spire—a gift from the Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab in 1835—this is the most sacred shrine in Varanasi. It's dedicated to Shiva, whose pillar of light is said to have appeared on this spot. Foreigners are only admitted through Gate 2, and are required to bring passports and register prior to entering. Various forms of the arti prayer ceremony are performed outside at 2:30 am, 11:30 am, 7:30 pm, and 11:30 pm, though times can change depending on the season, so it's best to confirm directly. It's located in the Old City above the Ganges, between Dashashvamedh and Manikarnika ghat; to get here, walk from Dashashvamedh Road down the relatively broad, shop-lined lane (Vishvanath Gali, the main sari bazaar) to Vishvanath Temple. The lane turns sharply right at a large idol of the elephant-head god Ganesh, then passes the brightly painted wooden entrance to the 1725 Annapurna temple (Annapurna was Vishvanath's consort), on the right. On the left, look for the silver doorway, which is usually manned by a police officer—this is the entrance to the Kashi Vishvanath Temple. The present temple was built by Rani Ahalyabai of Indore in 1776, near the site of the original shrine, which had been destroyed by the emperor Aurangzeb. Nearby is the Gyanvapi Mosque, built by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb after he destroyed the temple that stood here; the building's foundation and rear still show parts of the original temple. As a result of Hindu revivalist attempts to reconsecrate the site of the former temple, the area is usually staffed with police and fenced with barbed wire. It's normally very sedate, however, and is an important starting point for Hindu pilgrims. Nonpilgrims aren't allowed into the inner sanctum.

Vishvanath Gali, Varanasi, India
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Rate Includes: Daily 4 am–11 pm

Mulagandha Kuti Vihar Temple

Built in 1931 by the Mahabodhi Society, the temple joins the old foundations of seven monasteries. The walls bear frescoes by a Japanese artist, Kosetsu Nosu, depicting scenes from the Buddha's life, and relics of Sakyamuni Buddha are enshrined here. On the anniversary of the temple's founding—the first full moon in November—monks and devotees from all parts of Asia assemble here. The temple is behind a separate gate just outside the park.

Sarnath, India

Ramnagar Fort and Palace

Across the Ganges from the river ghats is the 17th-century, red sandstone palace of the Maharaja of Varanasi, who still lives here (if the flag is up, he's in residence) and performs ceremonial and charitable functions. Inside, there are some interesting collections—stop at the Durbar Hall and the Royal Museum—but the place is sadly run-down and the objects are not well maintained. It's sort of fascinating, though, to see the state of decay: a case full of beautiful black musical instruments, for example, is so completely white with dust and the case so covered with grime that it's almost impossible to see anything, and the royal costumes are ratty. Still, there are palanquins and howdahs in ivory, goldplate, or silver (completely tarnished); old carriages and cars; furniture; portraits of maharajas; and arms from Africa, Burma, and Japan. The palace was built to resist the floods of the monsoon, which play havoc with the city side of the river. (It should cost about Rs. 1,200 to take a taxi here and have him wait for an hour or two; negotiate beforehand.) Note that the fort is closed to visitors during monsoon season if the weather is bad.

Varanasi, 221002, India
542-250–5033-tourism office
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Rate Includes: Rs. 150

Sankat Mochan Temple

One of Varanasi's most beloved temples—as well as one of its oldest—Sankat Mochan (Deliverer from Troubles) was built in the late 16th century. Though the city has encroached all around it, the building still stands in a good-size, tree-shaded enclosure, like temples elsewhere in India. (Most temples in Varanasi are squeezed between other buildings.) Although most of the city's major shrines are dedicated to Shiva or various aspects of the mother goddess, Sankat Mochan belongs to Hanuman, the monkey god, revered for his dedicated service to Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu whose story is told in the Ramayana. The best time to see Sankat Mochan is early evening, when dozens of locals stop for a brief visit at the end of the workday, and on Tuesday and Saturday—days sacred to Hanuman—when worshippers come in large numbers to pay their respects.

Durgakund Rd., Varanasi, India
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Rate Includes: Daily 5 am–noon and 3–9

Sarnath Archaeological Museum

At the entrance to this excellent museum is Ashoka's Lion Capital, moved here from its original location in the park. The museum represents the oldest site in the history of India's Archaeologial Survey. Other beautiful sculpture is here as well, including lots of Buddhas; still more of Sarnath's masterpieces are in the National Museum, Delhi, and the Indian Museum, Kolkata.

Ashoka Marg at Dharmapal Marg, Sarnath, India
542-259–5095
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Rate Includes: Rs. 5, Closed Fri.

Shitala Temple

This unassuming but very popular white temple near Dashashvamedh Ghat is dedicated to Shitala, the goddess of smallpox, who both causes and cures the disease. Despite the eradication of smallpox, Shitala is still an important folk goddess in North India.

Shitala Ghat, Varanasi, India
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Rate Includes: Daily sunrise–sunset