Your friendly neighbourhood guide to Banaras.
Ishita Chaudhary is constantly overfed, underslept, and having spent her first 18 years in Banaras, is a firm believer in ‘Banarasi Bhaukal’.
First things first; what is there to see in Banaras?
From the mute fieriness of Harishchandra and Manikarnika to the quiet solitude of Meer, 84 ghats line the western side of the Ganga. Can’t brag about the cleanliness of the river, but it does provide some wonderful views. If spirituality or architecture is your thing, visit Sankat Mochan, Kashi Vishvanath or any of the hundred other temples around the city. I strongly recommend Ramnagar ka killa where the royal family of Kashi still reside. Or pack a picnic spread and travel to the Buddhist temple at Sarnath, the site of Buddha’s first sermon. You could also check out the hundred-year-old Vishwanath Temple – a youngster by Kashi standards, also the local college hangout/last minute study spot.
Wake up before dawn, clamber over the ghat steps and watch the city rise with the sun. Or take a boat and chat with the nauwara while you get ferried across to the other side of the river to laze on the empty dunes. Time travel as you wander the centuries-old gallis of Godowlia. Meander along trails so narrow, you’re almost always in someone’s living room or garage or both. Keep following the noisy alleyways to Chowk and discover a colourful riot of people, cows and deities, co-existing under the shadow of crumbling havelis. A day in Banaras ends how it started; alongside the serene Ganga waters. Watch the waning light and tune into the aarti as the nightly pujo happens at Dashashwamedh Ghat.
Start with the famous tamatar chaat at Ram Bhandaar or Dina Chaat Bhandaar and move onto gol gappe and aloo papri chaat. Frequented by awara students and families, these khao gallis are truly the gastronomical essence of Mahadev ki nagri. Langda Aam, a popular variety of mangoes available during summer, and the famous Banarasi paan are local specialities you have to try. As you may have figured out by now, Banaras is not really big on sit-down meals. Enjoy the Kabab platter at the Great Kabab Factory if you’re meat-craving. Spend an evening at Pizzeria – the open cafe at Assi ghat – eating their famous Apple Pie, Ganga-gazing and contemplating first world problems.
Try the famous chai toast and Dwarikapuri Lassi at Chowk or the garma garam chai at Laxmi Tea House in Godowlia. Can’t live without filter coffee? Try Ayyar’s Café. Pahalwaan at Lanka is your go-to-guy for the best lassi (malai marke) and rabri during summers and the sweetest garam doodh with longlata for winters. If you’re in the mood for something sweet (er), hop over to the jalebi-rabri and kachouri shops at Chowk or Lanka.
Party spots? Maybe not.
Clubbing in Banaras is as easy as meditating in a Mumbai local during rush hour. There are bars in Banaras but not ones you’d go to, because who would want to drink alcohol with ‘Lagavelu Lipistick’ playing in the background. Actually, who wouldn’t? Grab your heftiest guy friends and proceed to Toxic, Sol or Blue Bar (as sad as their names suggest) for spirits and sheesha (legal and trending). But if you’re brave enough to do this, you might as well shake a (well-covered) leg at Disco Agni on Bhojpuri chart-topping tracks.
Lankating: the act of lazily strolling and shopping in Lanka. If you’re crazy for curios, check out Vishwanath Gali for glass beads and bangles, brass figurines, silk scarves and pashmina shawls. The world-renowned Banarasi sari, known for its intricate weaves and zari borders, is a coveted heirloom-in-the-making and can be found in the centuries-old shops at Chowk, Thatheri Bazaar and Madanpura. Not a fan of the sari? No problem. The finest hand-knotted Mirzapuri carpets, embroidered wall hangings, delicate lamp shades and intricately carved stone inlay work await you at the family-run shops at Godowlia, Gyan Vapi and Golghar.
Generations of tourists have flocked to Banaras – from the post-Eat Pray Love newbies, to those who came here years ago to learn Sanskrit or pottery or something equally esoteric and stayed on. To not stick out like a fish out of water, dress conservatively and brush up on your Bhojpuri. Apart from that, bargain like every 10 Rs hurts your bank balance and try to jugaado your way out of things. Don’t try to one-up anyone, be cautious and stay friendly. Try cycle rickshaws or autos for getting around. Avoid taxis – renting a scooter or a bike would make more sense. Banaras, like the rest of UP, is not safe for travellers, especially women or minors travelling alone. It is always better to have local insight and support including your Chachaji ka source and Harish Uncle ka bhanja. Be well-informed, plan your days beforehand and avoid making impromptu decisions.
When to visit
The city is refreshingly cool between January and March. At other times of the year, you can dehydrate in the dry, desert-hot lu of the summer or freeze in the foggy winter.