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Varanasi, also known as Benares, Banaras or Kashi, is an Indian city on the banks of the Ganga in Uttar Pradesh
Varanasi, once known as Benares or Banaras and Kashi, is a historical city in northern India. The city is sacred to Hindus and Jains and also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. In many ways Varanasi epitomizes the very best and worst aspects of India, and it can be a little overwhelming. However, the scene of pilgrims doing their devotions in the River Ganges at sunrise set against the backdrop of the centuries old temples is probably one of the most impressive sights in the world. Some people believe that Varanasi is a must see destination on any trip to northern India. Others do not find it particularly interesting to see Hindus bathing themselves in the Ganges, and are turned off by the feces that floods the Ganges and covers the alleys of Varanasi.
The River Ganga is a sacred river for the Hindus. Here, traditional rituals and practices still continue millions still come from all over the country to bathe on sacred days. On the Eastern banks, the River Ganga is flanked by a 300 metre wide sand belt, beyond which lies a green belt, a protected area reserved for turtle breeding. The western crescent-shaped bank of the River Ganga is flanked by a continuous stretch of 84 ghats along 6.8km, marked by lofty palatial buildings and temples that have been built mostly by kings and feudal lords from different parts of India between the 18th and 20th century.
The city can be scorching hot in the summer months so, if possible, time your visit to fall between October and March, and bring something warm to wear for chilly days and nights, instead.
Varanasi is well connected by train and bus, with multiple of each heading in every direction daily. The trains and buses are filthy and overcrowded by Western standards. However, those are the only mode of cheap transport and the travel itself will give you special experience and feel that you are really heading to Varanasi.
Trains are the easiest way to reach Varanasi, with multiple daily services to cities including Delhi, Agra, Lucknow, Mumbai and Kolkata.
Varanasi is served by two major railway stations. Many trains arrive at Varanasi Junction (IR station code : BSB) in the heart of the city, and many others arrive at Mughal Sarai Junction (IR station code : MGS), about 15 km east of the city (Rs 20, 45 min in a rickshaw).
Here is a list of useful trains to reach Varanasi:
Also see Rail travel in India
There are daily buses to the Nepali border and other points around northern India. Local buses leave from the main bus station near the train station, almost every hour in the morning and one in the evening, to Gorakhpur (5-6 hrs, Rs 120), from where buses leave to the Nepali border at Sonauli (3 hrs, Rs 56).
There are buses run by state government from Lucknow (8 hrs), Kanpur (9 hrs - Rs. 195) and Allahabad (3 hrs - Rs. 88).
Varanasi Airport (IATA: VNS) is about 25 km from the city center. Indian Airlines, Jet Airways/JetLite and SpiceJet all have daily flights to Delhi and there are daily flights to Mumbai on JetLite, Indian Airlines and SpiceJet.
Allow plenty of time to get to the airport, it can take an hour or more depending on traffic. A taxi (from the pre-paid stand just outside the terminal) should run around Rs 400-500 (plus Rs 40 parking toll) or about Rs 125 in an auto-rickshaw, but most drivers will want to charge double since they will likely be coming back empty. If it suits your schedule there is a daily bus at 10AM that leaves from Hotel India and costs Rs 50.
Many of the sights are in the tiny narrow winding alleys of the waterfront. Rickshaws are only useful for longer trips across town or to the train stations. A cycle-rickshaw from the Junction train station to Dasaswamedh Ghat (or Godaulia if the road is closed) should cost Rs 20, an auto rickshaw about Rs 70. From Godaulia to Assi Ghat is Rs 10.
Varanasi is not a city with distinct tourist destinations as such: instead, the experience is in watching the spectacle of life and death on the river and meandering through the alleys of the old city. Three monuments on the Gnaga riverfront ghats are protected by the Archaeological Survey of India: ManMandir observatory on the Manmandir Ghat; Dharhara Masjid on Panchaganga Ghat; and Lal Khan ka Roza on Rajghat.
While the use of ghats for cremation is well known, they are also used to give last rites to those who do not need cleansing by fire to purify their soul, including young children and pregnant women. Instead, their bodies are wrapped in cloth, weighted with stones and deposited into the Ganges. However, it is fairly common for the ropes to give way, resulting in putrefying corpses washing up on the east shore across from the city. Steer clear if squeamish.
A ghat is a series of steps leading down to the river, used by bathers and pilgrims, and riverside Varanasi consists of a long sequence of these. It's generally possible to walk directly between them, though near Manikarnika Ghat you'll have to navigate your way up and around through the alleyways. The best option for viewing the ghats is to charter a boat and see them from the river.
Hindus consider it auspicious to die in Varanasi, so some ghats are known as burning ghats, where bodies are cremated (in full view) before their ashes are placed in the Ganges.
Some of the main ghats, from north to south:
Varanasi is famous for its fine silk - it's on offer everywhere, but shop around and bargain hard!
There are numerous food outlets and a very dynamic range in quality. The restaurants closer to the ghats cater more to foreign tourists, with variable success. To get really authentic Banarasi Khana you're going to have to get to the main market area or, better, to have a banarasi friend inviting you at home. Benares Dum Aloo is a local specialty, and the city is also known for its desserts. You can't go away from Benares without eating local specialities as aloo chat and pani puri and, in general, the street food. Paan, a betel nut mixture usually containing tobacco, is not really food, but is something Benares is famous for all over India.
Possibly due to a high influx of tourists from Israel, a number of Middle Eastern restaurants have opened in Varanasi, all of which serve very similar food, cater to a predominantly tourist clientÃ¨le, and charge a little over Rs 100 for a thali.
The most interesting area to stay is around the ghats. This is where most foreigners hang out - and with good reason. In addition to the ghats and river, Varanasi's most famous temples and main market are all located in this area. Another choice is Sarnath, about 8 km from Varanasi. It is a little removed from 'the action' but much safer and calmer than Varanasi.
Some budget accommodations advertise free morning and evening boat rides along the river. Technically, it is not free. The boat will take you half-way along the river and then let the boat-load of passengers know that for the second-half there is a fee of 60 rupees per person. Those who do not want to continue can get out of the boat and walk back to their lodging.
Beware that Varanasi, particularly during summer, is prone to many hours of power outages a day. It is best to double check that your fan of A/C is run from a backup generator, or you may not have it for much of the day.
Violent crime is rare, but still do be careful in the lanes after dark. Carry a lamp; power outages are extremely common, and the alleys are hard enough to navigate in daylight, let alone in pitch dark, because of their broken paving stones and cows common.
Women especially need to dress conservatively and to be careful. Even taking precautions, expect to have the odd local young man try to quickly grope you and run away. Respond aggressively and loudly to try to discourage this behavior as much as possible.
Rickshaw/taxi scams are a norm in Varanasi, and the driver will inevitably tell you that the hotel that you wish to go to has burned down, is flooded, or closed. Don't believe him. Drivers receive commission from hotels for bringing in new guests, and this is one way to trick newcomers to going to these places. Don't get annoyed, but see the exchange as playful banter and part of the Varanasi experience. However, if the driver continuously refuses to follow your instructions, threaten to get out of the rickshaw. If after all this you still end up to a different place, just refuse to pay until you arrive at your hotel. The same procedure will need to be followed when sight seeing, as drivers will inevitably try to take you to handicraft stores, from which they receive commission. If calling for a pickup from a more resepctable hostel, be wary that other taxi drivers may listen in to your phone conversation then tell another taxi driver who will pick you up pretending to be your hostel, then take you to a commission charging hostel.
As you approach Manikarnika Ghat you will probably be ushered toward a plain concrete building to view the funeral pyres. The person that leads you there will say that he is a volunteer at the hospice center and will tell you how he takes care of poor people that don't have enough money to buy wood for their funerary burning. He'll tell you that wood costs 300 rupees per kilogram (it's actually closer to 5 rupees per kilogram) and that most foreigners donate between 5 and 10 kilograms of wood to his center, at which point he'll ask for a donation from you. If it isn't obvious already, this is a scam. Either tell him you have no money or that you don't feel comfortable donating at the time.
There is, rather understandably, some resentment at tourists traipsing up to the cremation ghats for raucous sightseeing at the funeral ceremonies of loved ones. Behave respectfully and do not take photographs of cremations, even from the river.
You can take photographs if it is from a distance, most do not mind. There are touts who for a fee will "stop minding". Note that if it is the family that objects then you have to respect it but not if local riff raff object in the interest of extracting money. Offer the money and if they seem ready to accept, withdraw it and photograph ! Call the police if necessary.
also as this city is full of temples you will have to take off your shoes/sandals at every point. So wear a flip flop which is easy to take off.
BSNL, Reliance,Idea, and Airtel are the most popular cell phone services in the region. If you bring your GSM cellphone from home, you can get a cheap connection and cash card from Idea or Airtel from anywhere in India and call within India and abroad.
Internet is widely available, especially in the lanes between Dasaswamedh Ghat and Assi Ghat. Price is usually Rs 20-30/hour. Several branches of Iway BROADBAND (Rs.15-20) are sprinkled around town as well.
Calling abroad is cheap from Iway branches.
Nowadays, it is not so easy to get a new sim card because of security reasons. Normally the shopkeeper will ask for identity as well as address proof for the sim card. He will ask for photograph also which is the standard procedure.
Before giving access to internet, shopkeeper will ask for Identity proof and he will note down your details. In some cases, he will take a photostate copy of your identity proof and will keep photostate copy with him. This is as per the instructions of authorities.