Varanasi: hidden treasures

 Photo by Colors of India. Temple at Bhonsale Ghat.

Varanasi, the holiest city in India, is a city beyond what words can explain. Being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, the sacred essence of Varanasi  reveals itself as soon as you walk through its ghats on the banks of the Ganges.

But is not only about Ganges but also among its intricate alleys you can find magnificent and interesting places from the historical, architectural and religious point of view, which can be a real treasure to discover. Here are some of them.

Lolark Kund

Starting from the Assi Ghat in the South, near the confluence of the Asi and Ganges rivers, is the Lolark Kund, a stepped well and one of the oldest sites in Varanasi located in the Mahabharata (1500 BCE) representing one of the twelve solar deities.

This work of architecture was the work of the King of Cooch, Bihar,  between the middle and the end of the 18th century. The well is accessed from three sides with very steep stairs that go down 17 meters to the pond, the fourth side faces east and is made up of a huge stone wall with an immense and narrow slit that will let in the rays of the rising sun.

One of the legends around the well says that centuries ago a huge meteorite was dropped and since then people believed that a fragment of the sun had fallen here.

Another legend tells that Surya, the Sun God, was captivated by the beauty of  Kashi (Varanasi), and dropped her semen in this precise place. It is likely that before Vishnu and Shiva,  the Sun and the Naga (serpent) were the worshiped gods.

The water from the well does not come from the river as you might think, but it is an underground source known as Paatal Loka, which is attributed healing powers for skin diseases, but above all it is believed that women who bathe in their waters  will be blessed with a male child.

The main religious event happens in September, the month in which Lolark Shasthi is celebrated, a festival dedicated to Surya, in which miles of women and couples will come to perform rituals to conceive a child. According to them, the wife and husband should bathe together, tying their clothes. Some devotees also throw jewelry into the water, which is later recovered by the priests to help finance the maintenance of the place.

Couples who conceived a child should return to the kund with the child to thank and make the baby's first haircut.

A few meters from Assi Ghat is the place where the great poet and philosopher Tulsi Das (1532-1623) is said to have resided, who composed the version of the epic poems of the Ramcharitmanas dedicated to the god Rama. It was here that the poet had a vision (darshan) of Lord Hanuman himself, the monkey-god.

In addition to this place, there is the wrestling camp, called Akhara, a place where a Hindu martial art called Kushti or Pehlwani is practiced only by men and this art is old as the Ramayana and Mahabharata texts themselves. Physical exercise is considered complementary to spiritual. Early in the morning, at about 6 am starts the session which itis preceded with a prayer and burning of incenses for Lord Rama.They exercise their arms with elongated weights of wood and stone, carrying them in front of and behind their backs.

There are men who practice this professionally as Akhara National Championships are held.

Manmandir Ghat and Man Singh Observatory

Passing the Dashashwamedha Ghat, the most famous where night ceremonies take place, comes another very old Varanasi ghat, the Manmandir, notable for its exquisite Rajput architecture.

The King of Jaipur Sawai Jai Singh II of Jaipur, was also an outstanding astronomer and mathematician. In 1586 he began to build his ghat and his palace in Varanasi.

The palace noted for its carved windows and in 1710 an Observatory was added. This is one of the five observatories built by Jai Singh, consisting of giant stone instruments to measure the movement of the sun, moon, stars and other celestial bodies, with an unusual precision for the time. The other observatories, all known as Jantar Mantar, are located in Jaipur, Delhi, Mathura, and Ujjain.

The palace and the instruments of the observatory have been declared of national importance.

Nepali Temple

Continuing North then you reach the Lalita Ghat, where one of the oldest and most famous temples dedicated to Lord Shiva is found, the Kathwala Temple or better known as the Nepalese Temple.

The King of Nepal, Rana Bahadur Shah, during his exile in Varanasi (1800-1804) decided to make a replica of the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, located on the banks of the Bagmati River. During its construction the king returns to Nepal and in assaniated in 1806. His son took over the construction of the temple and it was completed 20 years later.

The temple is made of terracotta, stone and wood, termite proof, it was made by artisans brought from Nepal. It has wood carvings similar to the erotic figures found in the Khajuraho Monuments, which is why it is also known as the "Mini Khajuraho". It is a beautiful and small temple, from the terrace you have spectacular views of the Ganges.

 Many Sanskrit students also stay here.

Elders men and women, are also seen around, since they are staying in a nearby building,  hoping to reach the end of their lives in this holy city. (Read on this topic: To die in Varanasi)

Bhonsale Ghat

Continuing the path, after passing the famous Manikarnika Ghat where cremations are performed, is Bhonsale Ghat, built in 1780 by King Maratha Bhonsale of Nagpur. It is an important stone building with small artistic windows on the top and three heritage temples inside: Lakshminarayan, Yameshwar and Yamaditya.

Once inside the building, you find a very unusual mix, as it also serves as housing for several families, and their cows!

In several places there is the image of the serpent which reflects the tradition of serpent worship in Varanasi in the past and also the existence of Nageshvara, one of the forms of Shiva as the lord of serpents.

This has been in a judicial process since 2013, for a fraudulent sale of the royal family to a hotel chain, investigated by the Uttar Pradesh anti-corruption unit.

Photo by Colores de India

Alamgir Mosque

In Pachganga Ghat, one of the last ghats in the North, is the Alamgir mosque, looking in the direction of Mecca.

Alamgir which means "Conqueror of the world" is the title chosen by Emperor Aurganzeb, son of Sha Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, who deposed his father on the throne and locked him in Agra Fort until his death. He was one of the few Mughal emperors who imposed sharia (Islamic law) throughout the Indian subcontinent.

In 1663 he conquered Varanasi, with the consequent massive destruction of Hindu temples. It was on one that the emperor built this mosque in 1673, for his personal use.

The mosque is a fusion of Hindu and Islamic architectural style. Legend says that Delhi could be seen from this place, as it is believed that this place was higher than in its current state.

In its original construction it had 2 minarets and 3 domes. Each minaret was 49 meters, but one of them collapsed in an earthquake and the other was knocked down by the government for security reasons due to the damage caused by the passage of time.

This mosque continues in activity and cares for some 250,000 faithful. It is open to non-Muslims and visitors are well received.

The mosque is under the protection of the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India).

Kashi Raj Kali Mandir

Leaving the ghats behind, climbing the Kashi Vishwanath corridor until reaching Godowlia Road, it is a beautiful temple difficult to locate, becoming one of the best kept secrets of Varanasi, the Kashi Raj Kali Mandir.

The property was built 200 years ago by the King of Varanasi, Kashi Naresh Ishbari Narayan Singh, as a private temple for the royal family in 1886.

Ancient buildings, an establishment for cows and some cafes surround this magnificent temple in a closed area. 

There is a legend about this place: the King wanted to keep the temple hidden the invaders, so built this one as a distraction, while the real one is in its vicinity, with the lingam  of Shiva.

The temple is a masterpiece of stone sculpture, it is worth admiring this place and discovering every detail finally carved, while enjoying a moment of peace away from the noise. 

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