Varanasi: City of Lights

Take a tour of the sites of this ancient holy city and see the birthplace of Buddhism.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by ePublishing Partners, now available on Google Arts & Culture

Bhairav Nath Shukla by Project FUELProject FUEL

Dive into the spiritual capital of India and get lost among the thousands of revelers in one of the most colorful and enigmatic cities on the planet: Varanasi.

Man Mahal

Varanasi, also called Benares, is an ancient holy city for Hindus located in northern India on the west bank of the Ganges River. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and is believed to have been the site of the Buddha’s first sermon around 600 B.C. 

Although many of the city’s original Hindu temples were destroyed during a brief period of Muslim rule beginning in 1194, relics of its rich history remain to this day.

Ganges River

Hindus believe the waters of the Ganges are sacred and make pilgrimages from all parts of India to bathe here. Ghats, or stone stairways, have been built along the riverbanks and where pilgrims perform their daily prayers and rituals.

The Boats and Boatmen

A boat ride on the Ganges River to Varanasi is now a popular tourist activity. Local fishermen are the guides.

Man Mahal

The palace Man Mahal stands atop the Man Mandir Ghat. It was built by Raja Man Singh I of Amber for his guests around 1600. The palace’s stone balconies, arched windows and decorated doorways exemplify the magnificent Rajasthani architectural style.

Rajghat Excavated Site

In the 1800s, Rajghat was a bustling ferry ghat, or landing site. Now, it is an important archaeological site that has unearthed human and animal figurines—together with pots, coins, beads, and ornaments— that date back to before the Common Era.

These discoveries are evidence that, even in the ancient past, Varanasi was a large urban center.

The Tomb of Lal Khan

Lal Khan was a noble during the Mughal rule of India. One of the lesser known tombs of India, this beautiful structure was built in 1773 to commemorate his life.

The Tomb of Lal Khan: architecture

In this tomb, you can easily see influences of the Mughal architectural style, which blends Islamic, Persian, and Indian elements. The rounded dome, colored tiling, and small kiosk-like towers at the corners are all Mughal features.

The Bridge

The Rajghat Bridge, a massive iron railway bridge crossing the Ganges River, stands in stark contrast to the green manicured courtyard in which Lal Khan’s tomb stands.

Dharahara Mosque

This Muslim center for worship is situated by the Ganges River, high above a sacred bathing spot for Hindus. Steep stairs take you to the pinnacle, where visitors have panoramic views of the city of Varanasi and the Ganges River.

Dharahara Mosque

A temple to the Hindu god Vishnu once stood on this site. The Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb demolished most of the temple in 1673 and replaced it with this mosque, which was later fully completed by the Emperor Shah Alam. 

Dharahara Mosque: architecture

The mosque is a blend of Hindu and Mughal styles of architecture. The outer walls and lower portion of the mosque reveal Hindu design, whereas the remainder of the architectural elements are built in the Mughal style. 

Sarnath

More than 2,500 years ago, Siddhartha Gautama, a young Indian prince seeking the meaning of life, sat beneath a bodhi tree and became spiritually awakened, a Buddha. He then went to a nearby animal sanctuary to preach his first discourse to five disciples. Buddhism was born. 

This is the animal sanctuary today, located about eight miles northeast of Varanasi in the city of Sarnath. It is one of the holiest Buddhist sites in the world.

Dhamek Stupa

The Dhamek Stupa, a towerlike Buddhist shrine, was built to mark the spot where the Buddha was believed to have taught his first discourse. You can see intricate floral designs etched into its base. 

Dharmarajika Stupa Remains

The Dharmarajika Stupa was built by Ashoka to house relics of the Buddha. Today only the foundations remain.

Mulagandhakuti Vihara Remains

The ruins of the Mulagandhakuti Vihara mark the place where the Buddha would meditate during the rainy monsoon season. A modern Mulagandhakuti Vihara Temple has also been built at Sarnath.

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