The City of Light
The temple city of Varanasi – previously known as Benares and before that as Kashi – claims to be the oldest living city in the world, with 3500 years of documented history. The Kingdom of Kashi was founded by Khsetravridha; it lost independence in 1194 and was eventually ceded by the Nawab of Oudh to the British Raj in 1775. Then called Benares, it became a state in 1911.
Beginning at the cosmic centre of Kashi, the city of light, this walk explores ancient pathways to the mandirs (temples) and masjids (mosques) of Hindus and Muslims, as well as Manikarnika Ghat, one of the city’s oldest cremation ghats. Hindu mythology teaches that this ghat is especially sacred and that persons cremated here receive moksha – instant liberation from the cycle of births and rebirths.
Northern Bazaars and Hidden Alleys
Varanasi is the holiest city of the Hindu world, filled with temples and teeming with cultural life. This personalised walking tour enables you to experience ‘up close and personal’ one of the world’s oldest living cities.
Few tourists ever wind their way through the numerous bazaars and markets in the northern gullis of the old city, where you will find hidden alleys leading directly through the sacred zone of Benares to the oldest ghats of the city. You will be able to interact with the locals – from shopkeepers to temple attendants – ask questions and sample various local delicacies. This walk, taking you through the mysterious twists and turns of the bazaars to places you wouldn’t have otherwise seen, provides a memorable and personal experience.
Walking the Bengali Tola
This walk meanders through narrow, winding laneways to Bengali Tola, the street of the Bengalis; people from Bengal have been settling in Varanasi for hundreds of years, and have made for a unique spectacle of riverside priests, merchants and many other occupations. This district of Varanasi was featured in the Academy Award winning film ‘Apur Sansar’ (The World of Apu) by one of India’s most celebrated filmmakers, Satyajit Ray. Visit hidden shrines such as that dedicated to the Mother Goddess Kali and take in the fascinating and colourful vistas of life along the riverside. The walk ends at the historic ritual bathing site of Dasashwamedh, the ten-horse sacrifice ghat; rituals performed here originate from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Special interest walks
Courtyards & Courtesans Artisan Walk
A walk focusing on the city’s music, silk trade and unique artistry. The walk begins with a cycle rickshaw drive through the Banaras Hindu University’s crafts museum. From there the rickshaw takes you among the courtyards of the weavers in Varanasi. Then a winding maze of off-the-beaten-path alleys are taken to see the hidden side of local people at work. The walks ends with a stroll through the Muslim Bazaar, known as Dal Mandi, which was formerly was the site of the famous courtesans street of the city until the early 1900?s.
James Princep – a British History Trail
This adventure focuses on James Princep, the city’s most famous British personality, who is largely responsible for how we ‘see’ Varanasi today. Travel with us by rickshaw around the colonial areas of Varanasi and hear the stories of battle, service and empire as you take in beautiful and stark examples of British Indo-Sarcenaic architecture. You will visit churches, graveyards, waterworks, police stations and the town hall. When you exit at Kashi railway station and view the foundation stones of Lord Duffrin’s Bridge (Malviya Bridge), which spans the Ganges river, you will feel you walked back in time!
Dawn boat ride with classical Indian music recital
The dawn boat ride on the Ganes in Varanasi is a wonderful experience. Make it even more special with a short classical music recital.
Every evening, as dusk descends, the Ganga Aarti is performed at holy Dasaswamedh Ghat. A powerful and uplifting devotional ritual, aarti uses fire (made in the form of a lit lamp, and a small diya with a candle and flowers that’s floated down the river) as an offering.
The aarti takes place on a stage facing the river. It commences with the blowing of a conch shell; lamps are lit and circled around by saffron robed pandits (Hindu priests) accompanied by chanting or songs in praise of Mother Ganga, goddess of the most holy river in India. The heady scent of sandalwood permeates the air with the waving of incense sticks and the circling of large flaming lamps creates a brilliant light against the dark sky. A spectacular ‘must-see’ (people start arriving as early as 5:00pm in order to get a good position for viewing the aarti) this tour enables you to view it in all its glory by boat from the holy river itself.
Take an early morning boat ride to Ram Nagar, which lies across the Ganges River from the Hindu pilgrimage city of Varanasi. Spend some time exploring the creamy sandstone Ramnagar Fort, a typically Mughal construction with carved balconies, open courtyards, and picturesque pavilions. It has been the residence of the kings of Varanasi since the 18th century; the present king, Kashi Naresh, still lives here. He is deeply revered by the people of the district, and considered by many to be the incarnation of Lord Shiva. In addition to being a religious head, he is the chief cultural patron and an essential part of all religious celebrations.
The most spectacular of these is Ram’s Lila, a cycle of plays that recount the epic story of Lord Rama. This month long event, known for its lavish sets, dialogues and visual spectacle, transforms the city into a huge theatre. Permanent structures have been built and several temporary structures are also added, which serve as sets, to represent locations during performances. The audience moves, along with the performers, with each episode of the play’s cycle to the next location. Over a million pilgrims arrive annually to participate in these vast processions and performances. (Their date is determined according to the lunar calendar – usually late September/early October).
Most of the walking tours can be combined with a boat ride to give you a longer tour.
Day trips from Varanasi
Chunar Fort Excursion
Take a trip across the Ganges River by taxi and into the countryside of rural India to the historic fortress of Chunar. Filled with myth and legend, the fort is said to be a place where the Vaman (dwarf) incarnation of Vishnu took a step and hence has been called Chunar (footstep) ever since. The current fort dates from Sher Shah Suri’s renovations in the 16th century and houses the Sonwa Mandap Mandir (c1300CE). It is an ideal spot for a picnic on the verandah of a colonial house overlooking the river, which is built inside the fort. A visit to the British graveyard and the local stonemasons situated in the village of Chunar rounds out the journey.
Traditional Chai & Jalpaan
Enjoy a hot Banarasi chai, British tea or a cold lassi, and sample traditional homemade Indian snacks such as kachori and samosa, while conversing on history and culture with one of Varanasi’s eminent personalities. You will love the experience of sitting on the floor of an old home and hearing about the experiences of growing up in the holy city of the Hindus from a local perspective. If you interest in history or religion is more than a casual one, we can arrange a lecture/discussion with a professor from the Benares Hindu University.
We invite you to experience the history of Varanasi through music. You will be given a private concert in a traditional home featuring tabla, sitar and a variety of other instruments. Afterwards the musicians will share stories with you of how their guru shaped and honed them musically in the traditional preceptor-student relationship.