Varanasi, the holy city of India, is also known by the name of Kashi and Benaras. Varanasi is the most popular pilgrimage point for the Hindus. One of the seven holiest cities, Varanasi city is also one the Shakti Peethas and one of the twelve Jyotir Linga sites in India. In Hinduism it is believed that those who die and are cremated here get an instant gateway to liberation from the cycle of births and re-births.
Considered as the abode of Lord Shiva, Varanasi is situated on the banks of River Ganges, which is believed to have the power of washing away all of one’s sins. As pundits here will tell you, whatever is sacrificed and chanted here or given in charity reaps its fruits thousand times more than those good deeds performed at other places because of the power of that place.
Places to Visit in Varanasi
Varanasi is the oldest city of the world. Varanasi is more than 3000 years old and is famous as the city of temples.. Jyotirlinga Visvanatha Temple or Golden Temple, rebuilt in 1776, is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The Jnana Vapi well (meaning ‘Well of Wisdom) is believed to have been dug by Lord Shiva himself. It is believed that the majestic Alamgir mosque has replaced one of the most ancient shrines known as the temple of Bindu Madhava. The thirty-three hundred million shrines fill one with awe and wonder with sheer numbers.
Ghats of Ganga are perhaps the holiest spots of Varanasi. The Ganga Ghats at Varanasi are full of pilgrims who flock to the place to take a dip in the holy Ganges, which is believed to absolve one from all sins. There is a great tradition of Yatras in the holy city of Kashi and the most sacred path is that of Panchkoshi Parikrama, the fifty-mile path with a radius of five miles that cover 108 shrines along the way, with Panchakoshi Temple as its main shrine.
There are number of temples on the bank of the Ganga river in Varanasi. It is believed that people are cleansed physically, mentally and spiritually at Ganga Ghats. It is at the Ganga Ghats where we see life and death together. For thousands of years people have been thronging these Ghats to offer their morning prayers to the rising sun. There are more than 100 ghats along side Ganga in Varanasi. Some of the prominent and popular Ghats at Varanasi are the Dasaswamedh Ghat, Manikarnika Ghat, Harischandra Ghat, Kabir Ghat and Assi Ghat.
Other popular pilgrimage route is Nagara Pradakshina, which covers seventy-two shrines along the way. Since time immemorial Varanasi is a great center of learning. The holy city has been a symbol of spiritualism, philosophy and mysticism for thousands of years and has produced great saints and personalities like Guatama Buddha, Mahavira, Kabir, Tulsi Das, Shankaracharaya, Ramanuja and Patanjali.
The Alamgir Mosque, blend of the Hindu and Mughal styles of the architecture, is another important attraction of Varanasi. Some of the most important temples of Varanasi are Durga temple, Vishwanath temple, Sankat Mochan temple, Tulsi Manas temple and the Bharat Mata temple. The Bharat Mata Temple houses a huge relief map of the whole of Indian subcontinent and Tibetan plateau. Other attractions of Varanasi are the Benaras Hindu University (BHU), the Archaeological Museum, Sarnath, Bharat Kala Bhavan and the Buddhist Stupas and temples at Sarnath.
Excursions in Varanasi
There are a number of historical and religious places and towns around Varanasi that are worth visiting. Some of the important and famous are Sarnath, Chunar, Jaunpur, Kaushambi, Kushinagar and Vindhaychal. Sarnath is about 10 km from Varanasi and is famous for being the place where Lord Buddha preached his first sermon after getting enlightenment. Sarnath is an important pilgrimage place for the Buddhists as it was here that the wheel of dharma was set in motion. Sarnath also boasts of a number of monuments and edifices ranging from the Ashokan period to the 12th century.
Chunar is about 40 km from Varanasi and is known for the Chunar fort. The Chunar fort looks beautiful upon the Kaimur Hills that provides a fantastic view of the meandering Ganga River. This is the same ‘Churnargarh’, on which the famous Hindi classical novelist Devinandan Khatri based his renowned work ‘Chandrakanta’. Another important and historical place around Varanasi is Jaunpur. The Tughlaq ruler, Feroz Shah built Jaunpur in 1360. It was built to guard the eastern frontier of the kingdom. The town still has some of the beautiful monuments of that period.
is about 90 km from Varanasi and is one of the several Shaktipeeths in India, which is believed to be the abode of Goddess Durga. Besides these cities and towns, one may also visit the Kaimoor Wildlife Sanctuary spread over an area of 500 sq km and the Chandra Prabha Wildlife Sanctuary. Chandra Prabha Wildlife Sanctuary is situated in the Chandauli district and has rich flora and fauna. Kushinagar is yet another important excursion point around Varanasi. Lord Buddha breathed his last at kushinagar.
Rishikesh is a sacred city located on the foothills of the Himalayas in the state of Uttarakhand.
Here Ganga leaves the mountains and joins the plains for her long journey. It is an important pilgrimage centre, and considered to be one of the major seats of Hindu philosophy.
Rishikesh is located on the right bank of the Ganga, surrounded by scenic beauty of the hills, 40 kms from Dehra Dun. Rishikesh is also the gateway to the Garhwal Himalayas and the access point for the Char Dham pilgrimage to Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri. It is well known for several Himalayan Ashrams or religious retreats and for the availability of treatment for a variety of stress-induced ailments using meditation practices and ancient herbal techniques. Rishikesh is also famous for ashrams teaching Yoga so this place known as ‘World Capital of Yoga’. Rishikesh is also an ideal base camp for adventure sports such as White River Rafting and Trekking in the nearby Himalayas.
What to see:
5 kms north of Rishikesh, is the spot where Sri Laxman is said to have performed tapasya. The Laxman temple was built in his memory This suspended iron bridge built in 1939 is said to be a replacement of the jute rope bridge built by Lakshmana to cross the river. Seeing its immense popularity among the tourists, Ram Jhula, another suspended Iron Bridge has been constructed between Shivanand Ashram and Swarg Ashram recently.
Neel Kanth Mahadev
Situated at an altitude of height of 5,500 ft 12 km from Rishikesh, on a hill above Swarg Ashram, Neelkanth Mahadev is one of the most venerated temples of Rishikesh. . The trek up to the temple gives a wide-angle view of the Himalayan peaks, Babhar forests and the plain below. This is believed to be the place where Lord Shiva drank the poison churned out of the cosmic ocean. lt turned his throat blue which is why he is also called Nilakanth. The temple is located in the top of a hill accessed by a 10 km walk or a 32 km drive.
The black statue of Vishnu in the temple have been consecrated by Sri Sankaracharya in the 9th century. This event is commemorated every year during Vasant Panchami to mark the onset of spring. In the surrounding it holds number of images associated with the worship of Lord Shiva.
It is regarded as the most important religious ceremonies place in Hrishikesh, it is believed that the Ganga is joined here by the Yamuna and the Saraswati rivers. The aarti performed at sunset at the Triveni Ghat is touching and visually appealing . As the sun begins to set, temple bells ring and chants rent the air. A row of religious celebrants hold plates of flaming ghee, moving them in a circular salutation to the River Goddess. Devotees also release flower-filled leaf boats carrying small diyas and let them float downstream towards Haridwar. It is a ceremony of worship, remembrance and hope. The cool breeze from the river and serenity of the aarti ceremony is a divine experience.
People believe that this temple situated in the place where the Chandrabhaga merges with the Ganga
It is situated on the way to Haridwar , this temple has been mentioned in ancient scriptures.
White Water Rafting
The adventure lovers love to venture white water rafting in the River Ganges here and brave the challenge of mighty, violent river that rush from the icy heights of the Himalayas and run across meandering boulder-strewn beds, cutting deep gorges and breaking into silvery-white rapids.
Trekking into the Garhwal Himalayas is another popular activity of Rishikesh. One can chose from a number of options of religious, scenic, botanical and altitude treks, the two most popular trekking root are from – a) To Neelkanth from Swarg Ashram, and b) To Kunjapuri Temple from Tapovan. Both the temples are perched on a hilltop.
When to Visit
The best season to visit, is between May to November.
Road: Rishikesh is 238 km from Delhi by road and 23 kms from Haridwar.
Rail: Haridwar is well connected by rail from Howrah (1438 kms), Bombay (1574 kms), Delhi (199 kms), Lucknow (475 kms), Agra (365 kms).
Air: Jolly Grant airfield,is the nearest airport which is 35 km from Haridwar.
The holy cave shrine of Mata Vaishno Devi is one of the oldest and most visited shrine of India, located at a height of 5300 feet on the holy Trikuta Hills of the Shivalik Hill Range. The Holy cave is 13 Kms from the Base Camp Katra. The Town Katra is 50 Kms away from Jammu and 35 Kms from District HQ Udhampur and is linked by road. The Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine is one of the most popular Shrines of India.
The Goddess Mata Vaishno Devi’s abode is in 100 feet long cave with a narrow opening. The holy cold and crystal clear water washes the lotus feet of the Mata’s “Pindian”. There are three natural pindies representing Maha Sarswati, Maha Lakshmi, Maha Kali, which represent creative, preservative, and destructive aspects of the Super Power. It is an ancient shrine whose reference is found in the Vedas and ancient scriptures.
Vaishno Devi Cave is situated at an altitude of 5200 feet and a distance of approximately 12 kilometers. The only way to reach the Mata Rani shrine is an arduous walk, which offers breathtaking views of the katra city and the snow clad Himalayan ranges. The endless chanting of JAI MATA DI and the devotional Vaishno Devi Mata Bhajans infuse energy and enthusiasm in the devotees and give them perfect mood to enjoy the visit of the VaishnoMata’s temple. Vaishno Devi Yatra includes visit to numerous other shrines and temples like example Bhumika Temple, Kalika Temple, Shiva Goopha(cave), visit cave at Ardha Kuwari, Bharion Mandir and Ban Ganga Temple. To reach Vaishno Devi temple, devotees can also rent a horse or be carried up from Katra.
Goddess Vaishnavi is the manifestation of the collective spiritual strengths of Mata Maha Kali, Mata Maha Lakshmi and Mata Maha Saraswati. It is described in Durga Sapatshati that the goddess was born as a young girl of extraordinary beauty and strength, out of the collectively pooled ‘Tejas’ of various ‘Devtas’ and three lords Brahma, Vishnu and Shankar. The immediate purpose of the creation of the goddess was the annihilation of Asura (Devil) Mahishasura. However another purpose of her creation was that she might usher on earth an era of pious and ascetic life so that the peace could prevail upon the world and she through her penance could rise to higher levels of spirituality and ultimately merge with Vishnu.
The ‘Goddess’ having been created by the Devtas and the three lords ordained the human form in the house of one Ratnakar as his daughter whom the family named as Vaishnavi. The girl right from her childhood displayed a hunger for knowledge which was like a vortex and which no amount of teaching and learning could sufficiently satiate. Subsequently, Vaishnavi started looking into her inner self for knowledge and soon learned the art of meditation and realized that meditation and penance only could bring her close to her greater objective. Vaishnavi thus relinquished all household comforts and went deep into the forest for Tapasaya (meditation). Meanwhile, Lord Rama, during his fourteen years of exile happened to visit Vaishnavi who recognized him immediately as no ordinary being but the incarnation of Lord Vishnu and immediately asked him to merge her into himself so that she could become one with the supreme creator. However Lord Rama, knowing that it was not the appropriate time, dissuaded her by saying that he will visit her again after the end of his exile and at that time if she succeeded in recognizing him, he will fulfill her wish. True to his words, Rama visited her again after being victorious in the battle, but this time he did so in the guise of an old man. Unfortunately, Vaishnavi was unable to recognize him this time and was distraught. Upon this, Lord Rama consoled her that the appropriate time for her being one with the creator had not come and he will eventually do so in ‘Kaliyug’ in his incarnation of ‘Kalki’. Rama also directed her to meditate and set up an Ashram at the base of Trikuta hills to elevate her level of spirituality so as to bless the mankind and rid the poor and destitute of their sufferings and only then will ‘Vishnu’ merge her into himself.
Vaishnavi, after immense hardships reached the foot of the Trikuta Hills and after setting up her ashram there she began to meditate. As predicted by Lord Rama, her glory spread far and wide and people began to flock to her Ashram to seek her blessings. As the time passed, a Tantrik named Gorakh Nath who had a vision of the episode between Lord Rama and Vaishnavi in the retrospective time frame, became curious to find out whether Vaishnavi has been able to attain a high level of spirituality or not. He, therefore, sent his most able disciple ‘Bhairon Nath’ to find out the truth. Bhairon Nath on locating the ashram started observing Vaishnavi secretly and realized that though a ‘Sadhvi’ she always carried bow and arrows with her and was always surrounded by langoors (apes) and a ferocious looking lion. Bhairon Nath was enamored by Vaishnavi’s extraordinary beauty and losing all good sense he began to pester Vaishnavi to marry him. Meanwhile a staunch devotee of Mata Sridhar organized a Bhandara (Community meal) in which the whole village and Guru Gorakh Nath along with all his followers including Bhairon were invited. During the course of Bhandara Bhairon Nath attempted to grab Vaishnavi but she tried her best to daunt him. On failing to do so, Vaishnavi decided to flee away into the mountains to continue her ‘Tapasaya’ undisturbed. Bhairon Nath however chased her to her destination. The goddess after halting at Banganga, Charan Paduka, and Adhkwari, finally reached the holy cave Shrine. When Bhairon Nath continued to follow her despite the goddess trying to avoid a confrontation, the goddess was compelled to kill him. Bhairon Nath met his ultimate fate when the goddess, just outside the mouth of the cave, beheaded him. The severed head of Bhairon fell with a force at a distant hilltop. Bhairon Nath upon death realized the futility of his mission and prayed to the deity to forgive him. The almighty ‘Mata’ had mercy on Bhairon and gave him a boon that every devotee of the goddess shall have to have the Darshans of Bhairon after having the Darshans of the goddess and only then shall the yatra of a devotee be complete. Meanwhile, Vaishnavi decided to shed off her human form and assuming the face of a rock she immersed herself into meditation forever.
How to Reach:
In order to visit Mata Vaishno Devi Temple, one has to reach Katra; a small town situated around 50 km from Jammu. Katra is the base camp for Vaishno Devi Yatra. The town is well linked with Jammu by good network of roads. Many deluxe coaches, local buses and private taxis ply from Jammu to Katra . The city of Jammu is well connected to all prime cities of India by Air, Rail and Roads.
By Air: The airport closest to the Vaishno Devi shrine is at Jammu. There are several regular flights to Jammu from all key destinations of India. Indian Airlines and Jet Airways operate daily flights from Delhi to vaishno devi Jammu, mumbai to vaishno devi, and bangalore to vaishno devi. Indian also has two flights weekly from Leh to Jammu. Vaishno Devi helicopter service is also provided to the pilgrims from the airport at Sanjhi Chat in Jammu in the morning.
By Rail: The nearest railhead from Vaishno Devi Katra is Jammu Railway station. Jammu is connected to all parts of the country on broad gauge. Numerous express trains, super fast trains as well as passenger trains connect Jammu to important cities across India including Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bhopal, Mumbai, and Hyderabad. A rail link to Katra from Udhampur is being built to facilitate yatris to Vaishno Devi. During peak season, the railways run special trains to Jammu for the comfort of the devotees.
By Road: A good network of roads connects Jammu and Katra with all major cities of Northern India. The National Highway no 1 passes through Jammu towards Srinagar. Many Standard buses, luxury buses of State Transport Corporation and private buses connect Jammu with all important cities and towns of Northern India
Best Time to Travel to Vaishno Devi:
Round the year except during winter. The pilgrims prefer the months of October and February as the best time for Vaishno Devi Yatra.