Experience Varanasi: Culture, Food & Wrestling

Nomad Garima knows exactly how to experience the culture in Varanasi. Here, she takes us beyond the ghats and into temples and Buddhist sites, to see wrestling matches, and taste lip-smacking street food.

Known as Banaras or Kashi to locals, Varanasi is the holiest of all religious places of worship for Hindus. It’s also one of the oldest continually-inhabited places in the world.

Here are a few ways you can get the most out of your trip.

The Ghats & Ganges: A Cultural Experience

Dashashwamedh Ghat: A view from a boat. Photo Credit: Garima Garg

There are 87 ghats (riverfront steps or stairwells along the banks of river Ganges) in Varanasi, and the best way to explore all of them at once is to take a boat ride.

If you wish to soak in the Hindu culture of Varanasi, spend some time at the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the main ghat that’s always buzzing with activity.

The star attraction here is the evening aarti (prayer) ceremony. It’s a spectacular event, and is best viewed from a boat.

Another popular ghat, Assi Ghat, is also worth visiting as people perform a lot of their daily rituals and meditations there.

Women conducting rituals on the Assi Ghat. Photo Credit: Garima Garg

Finally, the most enigmatic of all ghats, Manikarnika Ghat, where Hindu cremations take place.

Hundreds of pyres are lit every day, after which the ashes are flown into the river Ganges. Such a cremation – known as Moksh, meaning ultimate liberation –holds a special significance, as Hindus believe it frees the soul from the cycle of birth and death.

While at the ghats, you’ll also see many people bathing in the river Ganges. That too is an act of religious belief, signifying absolving of one’s sins.

Visiting the Hindu Temples

Kashi Vishwanath Temple is the main temple, drawing thousands of Hindu devotees to the spiritual city every year. You should also visit one of the oldest Shiva temples in Varanasi, the Kaal Bhairav Temple.

The presiding deity at both temples, as well as Varanasi itself, is Lord Shiva. Keep in mind valuables like cameras and cellphones are not allowed inside the temples, so put these away while you’re inside.

Varanasi Is Important for Buddhism, Too

The Dhamek Stupa at Sarnath. Photo credit: iStock

While Varanasi is undoubtedly important to Hindus, it also has a major significance for Buddhists.

Less than an hour’s drive from Varanasi, you can visit Sarnath. This is the place where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon, and is one of the four pilgrimage sites of Buddhism.

Something Fun? How About Wrestling?

If you enjoy wrestling, you should head over to the akhadas. These are traditional wrestling houses found in parts of north India.

There are many akhadas along the ghats and each has its own tradition and style.

The bouts take place early morning at 8am, and in the evening around 5pm. It’s good fun to watch, and offers a great opportunity for photography enthusiasts to get some offbeat frames of Varanasi.

Wrestlers at an Akhada at Tulsi Ghat. Photo Credit: Garima Garg

The Markets, Street Food & Bhang

Right outside the Dashashwamedh Ghat, you’ll find the main market of Varanasi. Here, you can buy the traditional Banarasi Sari, or buy local artificial jewelry.

An artificial jewelry shop in Varanasi. Photo Credit: Garima Garg

Or, forget about shopping and get your fill of lip-smacking street food instead.

The main places to cover are Deena Chat Bhandar for their delicious tamatar chaat (spice tomato soup), and Ram Bhandar for savories like samosa, kachori and sweets like jalebis.

Your trip to Varanasi is also incomplete without eating a banarasi paan (betel leaf filled with sweet syrups and spices) and a malaiyo (whipped cream dish).

Finally, avoid the intoxicating bhang drink – made with cannabis leaves, as the effects can take days to wear off, depending on the amount of the drug.

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