Varanasi is a city where the sacred and the profane, life and death, antiquity and modernity converge. On the banks of the sacred river Ganges, the succession of Ghats or steps that unite the built city forms an atypical and special urban piece, where traditional architecture has much to teach contemporary urban planners. Public life, sacred rituals, traditional festivals, and tourists from all over the world converge on these stone paths with views of some of the most extraordinary temples of Nagara, Mughal, and Indo-Saracenic style architecture. Forts and mosques complete the urban profile made up mainly of Hindu temples, thus telling us part of the rich and unique history of India.
Ghats of the Ganges | Places to Visit in Varanasi
Undoubtedly, the urban piece that gives spiritual meaning to the city of Varanasi is made up of the succession of Ghats on the banks of the Ganges River. These are steps, made of stone, that accompany the geological fall of the consolidated city towards the river. As atriums, they are found at the entrances to temples, public and private spaces. They symbolically make the urban connection between the sanctity of the river, the religious beliefs of the region, the city and the profane world. They were built in the 18th century, and purification rituals and, in some cases, cremation are performed in them. Also, on the more than one hundred ghats that make up this unique urban piece in the world, festivals and collective rituals are held.
Kashi Vishwanath Mandir Temple
The Kashi Vishwanath Mandir temple is the most recognized in Varanasi and is located on the west bank of the Ganges. It is considered the spiritual center for millions of Hindus and pilgrims from all over the world. The current form of the temple was built in 1780, although it underwent multiple reforms and extensions in subsequent years. It is also known as the Golden Temple, since in 1839 Maharaja Ranjeet Singh, ruler of Punjab, donated the resources to bathe its domes in gold. The view of this temple from the river bank will give any traveler, especially those interested in architecture, a unique opportunity to reflect on the importance of this discipline on the sacred space and its interaction with the profane city.
Annapurna Temple | Places to Visit in Varanasi
This temple is close to the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir temple, so it is reasonable to visit them on the same day. In this case, the temple is dedicated to Annapurna, the protector goddess of the city of Varanasi and food. It was built in the year 1729 during the government of Baji Rao I. It was designed in the Nagara style, typical of North India. This is recognized by its shikhara, its domes, and the complexity of its ornamentation. However, the Nagara style must always be understood as part of the spirituality that makes up the temples and pavilions, and not so much as a rigid or formally defined style. As in the West, the tallest tower pointing to the sky represents divinity, although, on the contrary, the central spaces remain dark and are artificially lit.
The Tilted Temple – Ratneshwar Mahadev Mandir Temple
Unlike the two previous temples, this one is located at a very low level, on the last steps of the Ghat on the river. This results in much of the year being partially by water. It is built with a succession of distinguished Nagara-style shikhara. Its obvious feature, as a great attraction for tourists visiting Varanasi, is its striking inclination. Although there are many theories about the cause of its inclination, there are even those who affirm that it is intentional in design, it is well preserved and its integrity is not at risk. The coexistence with the water of the Ganges makes it an essential icon of the urban profile of Varanasi.
Tulsi Manas Temple | Places to Visit in Varanasi
Almost two hundred years after the construction of Kashi Vishwanath or Annapurna Temple, the Tulsi Manas temple was completed in the year 1964. There is a consensus that this temple stands on the original site where Goswami Tulsidas wrote the famous Ramcharitmanas. For this reason, we will find on the walls covered in marble, both in the temple and in the extraordinary surrounding gardens, verses of the said epic poem composed in the 16th century. Clearly, due to the date of the execution of this temple, the influence of modern architecture can be appreciated on its facades, with hints of Wright, together with elements of the typical architecture of Hindu temples.
Durga Kund Temple
A short distance from the Tulsi Manas temple, we will find another jewel of the sacred architecture of the city, built in the 18th century. The style of its construction is Nagara, as in most of the temples of Varanasi. Its verticality stands out, although its contrast with the formal rigidity of the horizontal base is particular and extremely interesting. Said verticality is made up of a succession of intertwined Shikhara, with a curved edge, typical of the Nagara style. The horizontal plinth is made up of classic frames. It is dedicated to the divinity of Durga (associated with motherhood, strength, and war). For this reason, the temple surprises with its intense red color, with some ocher tint, reflecting the characteristic colors of the divinity.
Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple
We mentioned that Goswami Tulsidas wrote his Ramcharitmanas on the site where the Tulsi Manas Temple stands today. The Hindu poet and saint supposedly had a vision of the divinity and vanara Hanuman at the site where today we find the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple. This place of worship, much simpler and smaller than those described above, will give us an idea of how spirituality in architecture is not always achieved with great gestures and resources, but on the contrary, with the transmission of sensations and sensuality in its spatiality.
On the opposite bank to the great temples of Varanasi, we will find a different typology. This is the Ramnagar fort, which rises extraordinarily over the city of Varanasi, and can be seen from multiple angles, generating different appreciations of the construction. It was built in 1750 by Maharaja Balwant Singh. Its function was to be the fort, government house, and residence of the king. It can be said that it is a clear example of the Mughal style in Varanasi, although its domes do not have the importance or size of other constructions of its style in other regions. The influence of Islamic architecture stands out especially in the porticos at the entrance to the fort, in the interior balconies, and the design of its exterior spaces. Currently, it can be visited almost in its entirety, since it is an interesting museum of weapons, books, manuscripts, and furniture.
In 1664 the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb completed the construction of the Gyanvapi Mosque where the Kashi Vishwanath temple once stood. This construction gets its name because the source of knowledge (Gyanvapi) was located inside the aforementioned temple before it was razed to the ground by Emperor Aurangzeb. In a style inspired by the Islamic architecture of the Mughal, the imposing 72-meter-high minarets and the facade inspired by the Taj Mahal stand out.
Alamgiri Mosque | Places to Visit in Varanasi
The same emperor also ordered the complete demolition of the 12th-century Vishnu Madhava Temple. In its place, he erected the Alamgiri Mosque, named in his honor. For its construction, the foundations of the previous temple were used, and perhaps that is why its two high-rise minarets have fallen. In the 19th century, they were restored by the English governors of Varanasi, but again they failed and one of them fell in 1948. The other was later demolished, to avoid further tragedies. The mosque has a Mughal style, that is, a combination of classical Hindu temple architecture and Islamic architecture.
Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum
Built in 1962, it is a clear exponent of architectural eclecticism, taking styles, pieces, and meanings from different styles and periods. Close to the University of Varanasi, it has multiple galleries with temporary and permanent exhibitions. Within the permanent collection, we will find more than one hundred thousand pieces, such as books, manuscripts, sculptures, paintings, and all kinds of artifacts from the history of India, Buddhism, and Hinduism. It also has unique archeology pieces in the world and a rich collection of textiles. It is one of the oldest museums in the country and a must-see in the city.
Banaras Hindu University | Places to Visit in Varanasi
The University of Varanasi began its construction in 1916. Its campus is in the shape of a semicircle with intersecting radial streets. It is five and a half kilometers square long and is consequently one of the largest universities in India. Its interest for the visitor, in addition to the aforementioned museum, lies in the pavilions and their extraordinary architectural value. These stand in an Indo-Saracenic style, also known as Indo-Gothic or Neo-Mughal. This is because it is the conjunction of all these elements together and more.
It is the style developed during the British occupation during the 19th century, where British architects believed that Gothic would be the western style that would best suit Asia. This, coupled with classical Hindu temple architecture and the influence of Islamic architecture, produced a unique style, with some exceptional examples and others of dubious success. In the case of the university, the beautiful pavilions of the Department of Electrical Engineering, the Department of Physics, and the Faculty of Art stand out.
Shri Vishwanath Mandir Temple
Within the same university, we will find the Shri Vishwanath Mandir temple, along with other smaller temples. It is one of the main temples of Hinduism and one of the main tourist attractions in the city of Varanasi. It is dedicated to the divinity Shiva and it is the reconstruction of the same temple after its multiple demolitions and reconstructions in the years 1194, 1447, and 1669. It is built mainly in marble and has the tallest tower in India. It reaches seventy-seven meters in height, thanks to a succession of Nagara-style shikhara. Its architecture was inspired by the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir temple (number two in this review).
Returning to the bank of the Ganges, we will find the temple dedicated to Vishalakshi. Unlike the other temples we visited in this review earlier, this one has a South Indian style. In this way, the temple stands with unique architecture in Varanasi. Its general conformation, its railings, terraces, and inscriptions reinforce an astronomical metaphor, together with the location of the sculptures of the divinities. Made up of ascending circular rings, it marks a clear contrast with the architecture of the temples and mosques in the rest of the city.
Paths, streets, alleys, fairs | Places to Visit in Varanasi
As in any city, but especially in Varanasi, in any tour of a city to know, you cannot miss simply visiting its streets and avenues. Get lost in the secondary streets, look for less crowded places, and mingle in the popular fairs of the place. Varanasi was and is a trading center for textiles of all kinds, muslin, and silk. Its colorful and peculiar fairs are a must. On the other hand, in a city where there are thousands of temples, on any tour that is carried out it is possible to find an atypical sacred construction outside the tourist circuit.