A trip to Varanasi on Dev Deepawali 2022 (curated & organised by Shagufta Siddhi, founder of Ganga Jamuni). Part 1 of 2

In a nutshell : A five day visit to Varanasi during Dev Deepawali, organized by the multi talented art historian Shagufta Siddhi, founder of Ganga Jamuni. What’s incredible about her trips (including this) are the unique experiences one gets seamlessly, experiences that google searches do not ever reveal and most importantly meet amazing like-minded people, many of whom become friends for life. When google search does not yield good results about immersive cultural travel experiences, we ask Shagufta.


 Please find below the contents – so that you can skip sections that do not interest you & go straight to the more interesting sections:

  1. About Ganga Jamuni , the organization who created this experience
  2. About Varanasi – past
  3. Varanasi today
  4. The concept of Dev Deepawali – past & present
  5. Activities that we participated in:
    1. conversations with Rana P.B.Singh ji, a professor of Geography & an expert on stories & history of Banaras
    2. Zari making at the workshop of Shyam Sundar Jaiswal ji
    3. A musical session with Dr Revati Sakarkar, Performer & professor of music, a ‘Poorvi ang’ specialist
    4. A visits to the haveli of Bharatendu Harishchandra, the father of modern Hindi literature
    5. Dev Deepawali morning on a boat
    6. Evening of Dev Deepawali on a boat – millions of earthen lamps on both banks, experiencing stunning fireworks (light) from the boat in the middle of the river.
  6. Places that we visited
  7. Where we stayed – Hotel Ganges view, Diamond Hotel
  8. Food & beverages during the trip
  9. Books on Varanasi that we loved reading since we planned the trip – Dekho hamari Kashi, Benares, Banaras reconstructed
  10. Other unrelated stories:
  11. Reinforcement of the realization of the only truth


Detailed Description:

  1. About Ganga Jamuni , the organization who created this experience

Our trip to Varanasi was organized by the multi-talented art historian Shagufta Siddhi, founder of Ganga Jamuni. What’s incredible about her trips are the unique experiences one gets seamlessly, experiences that google searches do not ever reveal and most importantly meet amazing like-minded people, many of whom become friends for life.

Read about our earlier trips with Shagufta here : Tonk, Bundi, Narnaul

Ganga Jamuni, an organization that explores the cultural layers, food, traditions etc & documents them for the future. They also do regular tours to such culture & history rich places. To get updates on their upcoming tours, you can follow them on Instagram, Facebook or contact them on WhatsApp.

Meaning of ganga Jamuni – in short it talks about harmonious co-existence of Hindu & Muslim populations.

Ganga jamuni is not just any other regular travel agent. If you are expecting 100% water tight professionalism in all interactions, I would suggest that you skip travelling with them.

If you want them to respond to you at 3 am coz you are feeling like having Maggi, I suggest, look for the usual folks. However, just an indication about, say, a medical challenge will be taken care of, as if you are at home, with family.

If there were 10 things on the list, maybe we did 8, skipped 2 or something shifted from one day to the other. However, amazing things also got added which were totally unexpected.

In both our trips, promised schedules were not adhered to. The tour leader went with the flow. She let people enjoy more, when people were enjoying – rather than pushing them off to the next item on the list. She would wrap up from a place if it did not appeal as much. She also changed schedule at times as she came up with probably a better idea. That led to extreme chaos at times & also some momentary disappointments . However, Finally everyone left very happy, saying they look forward to another trip.

‘Tick box’ was not the agenda of the team leader. Genuine enjoyment by the guests was the focus here.

It’s a one person show & I would say the result was incredible, fabulous & way beyond expectations.

We, team YUMMRAJ, always travel on our own – just two of us. The trip to Bundi Changed that. Both in Bundi & Varanasi trip, the conversations were so rich. The bunch of strangers we met in the trip had a common passion of art, travel, history & hence bonding with others was fast & easy. I guess we made some very good friends who would remain connected for many more years.

To conclude – The team leader managed the show with immense warmth, fun, constantly thinking how to make the guests absorb & enjoy more & most importantly – the insights, nuances & information passed on to the guests, as a trained art historian.

  1. About Varanasi – past:

Varanasi is the land between two rivers Varana & Asi that flow into the ganga. This place is also known as Kashi, Banaras, Avimukta or Anandakanan.

The two banks of the river ganga are starkly different- on one side of the river is soft muddy dark coloured soil, on the other side is sand!! The main habitation is on the side of the muddy soil.

The mud side – full of buildings

The mud side – full of buildings

The sand side – no buildings

The sand side – no buildings

The way the inhabited part has come up on a concave part of the bank, the view from a boat becomes larger. The curve of landscape makes a visual treat.

Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world – 5000 + years. However very little of the earlier settlements remain except for some Shiv-lingas, wells & some other icons from the past.

The place Varanasi has an essence – in terms of various lingas, deities, ponds (pokhar), wells or river. Thousands of these physical places denote tirthas for the devotees – crossing between this world & the other. In Varanasi over the years there has been an attempt to constantly search places that are believed to have divine energy. In short, the city was imagined to be a mini representation of the universe. People have interpreted & reinterpreted this over the ages.

On a similar yet separate note, most temples that we see all across India today were built not earlier than 2000 years. The surge of rock cut monolithic & later built stone temples,  icons in human like form started in 1st century CE & slowly picked up pace by 6th & 7th century. In Vedic times yagyas were performed in open areas or natural habitats or even palaces of kings. The concept of temple for everyone to go did not exist. I was reading the shloka by shloka English translation of the Valmiki Ramayana & there is no mention of a temple or any icon. In place of human like icons were symbols & natural objects like stones, trees etc. 

On the face of it Varanasi looks very unorganized, organic & impromptu. There seems to be no logic of a plan & reasons for sequence of temples, to a tourist or pilgrim. However, there is actually a plan & a logic with which the place was developed, for it to represent a mini universe.

Mahmud Ghori’s army massacred Varanasi & broke many temples in early 1200s. Some temples had their remains. Rest were razed to the ground. In 1400s, skandapurana (Skanda refers to Kartikeya / murugan) was written (there are many books in Mythology under ‘puran’ – Bhagwat (Vishnu) Puran, Shiva puran, Devi Puran etc. that has all stories regarding that god/ goddess). Skandapurana had a chapter called Kashikhanda which mentioned all the temples of the past & their location in detail.

What is fascinating is that reading those details, people (rich business persons & rulers) started rebuilding those temples in almost the same places (they thought they were in the same place but in reality, it was slightly here & there.

There was second round of destruction & a third & a total of 6 raids by Islamic rulers at different points in time, the last being Aurangazeb. The temples kept getting remade & then destroyed. Post Aurangazeb, the construction activity flourished (late 1700s to early 1900s) & most of that is still around.


Throughout the process of destructions & repeated reconstruction, the memory tied to the original site was never severed.


The plan as per Kashikhanda –

  • At the center of Kashi is the temple of Vishweshwara. Kashi Vishwanath temple. The other temples were placed around it as it they were protectors of a realm.
  • The outermost circle had 24 temples dedicated to Vetalas – 3 for each of the 8 directions – north, east, west, south, north east, north west, south east, south west. Examples – Kruralochana, Ugralochana, Jvalatkesa, sakambhari etc.
  • Then there are 96 temples dedicated to Shaktis (the female power/ goddesses). Exa
  • 7 protective concentric circles are formed by 8 Vinayakas (ganesha) temples in each circle, total 56. The number 7 denote the order of the cosmos mirrored in Kashi. Examples – dehlivinayaka, senavinayaka, harshchandra vinayaka etc.
  • A protective layer formed by temples dedicated to dwadasadityas, the 12 Adityas ‘destroyer of darkness & obstacles in Kashi’. The twelve adityas represent the 12 months & together they represent the sun.


Concept of parikrama (circumambulation), panchakoshi yatra – Over the centuries people have been walking on foot for days visiting all these temples mentioned above, before they finally go to Kashi Vishveshwar mandir. The distance of this walk is about panch kosh (5 krosh, about 17km). When one does the parikrama of panchkoshi, they also, in a way, end up doing parikrama of Kashi Vishwanath, since it is located in the center.

In 1800s, a temples named panchakoshi mandir was built, which mentions all the temples to be visited, in niches of its wall, not written, but carved out through symbols that depict the temple. A unique physical map.

Kashi shetra / Avimukta is the inner realm, closer to Kashi Vishwanath Temple. It is believed that lord shiva never leaves this area.

On the main Riverfront of Varanasi, the oldest buildings mostly were built in the 1800s – kings from different parts of the country commissioned temples, palaces of & other institutions. Others buildings in the rest of the city are at most few hundred years old. Many Land grants were given by the government for building temples during pre-Aurangzeb Mughal period.

The Temples of Kashi were made in different architectural styles based on the style prevalent in the kingdom of the patron king. So Varanasi is one of those few places where in one frame you might see a North Indian style, a South Indian style & even a Himalayan style temple!!!

As of today, there are 84 ghats. Many stone Ghats were built during Mughal period. End to end concrete ghats were built post-independence.

All thousands of shivalingas have a different name – of a god/goddess or a person who set up the temple.

Varanasi saw many new Vaishnav themed temples come up during the bhaki movement. Like our tour leader said, ‘Bhakti is a concept of adoring one’s god like a person – much easy to practice, easy to digest, DIY (no set strict rules) kind of devotion.

Influential Women from outside of Varanasi, have had an impact on Varanasi – ladies from royal families like Ahalyabai holkar, Rani Bhabani (renovated the Durga kund). The royal ladies had a Sense of agency. They were Widows themselves & had access to money. Among other activities, they also did set up institutions to support the widows, education for women & more.

Jhansi ki rani (real name Manikarnika, nickname manu) was born in Varanasi. We went to see her birthplace – there stands a beautiful memorial.

Kashi was also famous for tawaifs & singers who had great power & money, thanks to their influential patrons. The Courtesans contributed a lot of money to fund the 1857 sepoy mutiny.

The main Kashi Vishwanath temple was plundered & broken 6 times in the last millennia & it was rebuilt from scratch every time. The current temple was commissioned by Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar of Maheshwar, current Madhya Pradesh.

Varanasi has a huge Tantrik, Shaivaite, Buddhist followership & followers from across the country and the world come here.

Varanasi also had a Strong Sufi influence. Currently there are about 1400 Muslim monuments in Varanasi.

Sant Kabir whom we all know from his writings on philosophy & harmony, was from Varanasi.

  1. Varanasi today


  • The inner city roads are cleaned regularly. Garbage keeps adding though.
  • The newer areas have wide & good roads
  • Connectivity to other cities & to Lucknow & Delhi have been dramatically improved.
  • In the vicinity of Kashi Vishwanath Temple many roads are only for pedestrians.
  • Infrastructure has been consciously improved. Of course there is scope for more.
  • Some structures have been over–modernised & they have replaced the simpler smaller buildings earlier. One ghat now has a newly built fort-like structure that awes some & is an eye-sore for the others.
  • Rickshaws & small means of transport are aplenty on land & so are boats on hire. Do not remember seeing much buses or public boats though.
  • Varanasi has a normal small time 90s style airport but a huge international airport is coming up.
  • The Vishwanath temple at BHU campus, built post independence, is very well maintained. We were surprised to see strange interpretation of sanatan dharma by the authorities here – ‘do not cut cake here. It is against hinduism’, written on a signboard

  • The concept of Dev Deepawali – past & present

The occasion was Dev Deepawali – like we humans have our Deepawali, the belief is that on the day of Dev Deepawali, the the Devs (gods & goddesses) descend to Varanasi to celebrate Deepawali. The entire city & riverfront is lit with Diyas & of late, fireworks (visual) have also become a part of celebration.

  • Activities that we participated in:

a) Rana P.B.Singh ji, a professor of Geography & also an expert on history of Banaras, joined us on our boat in the first evening & told us about stories of Banaras. That was one of the most informative sessions we have had about any place, in a long time. He spoke about his amazing research on topology of Banaras & about a book named ‘benares’ by Neils Gutschow, with whom he collaborated. We were so enthralled with Rana ji’s talk that we ended up buying the book from none other than Harmony Books.

We bought the book ‘benares’ & read it over almost two months. Deep. Insightful. Outstanding explanation & representation.

b) We went to see Zari making at the workshop of Shyam Sundar Jaiswal ji. Real zari is made from real silver metal.

We saw the whole process right from the solid slabs of silver being converted to rods, then the process of Beating it to make strips, Splitting the strip, passing the strips through a small metal hole (in tension) to make it thinner, twisting.

Gold zari is made by real gold plated silver thread & orange thread intertwined. We also got to know that some customers order real Gold zari sarees as well – the price runs close to many lakhs.

Different weavers (professional competitors, including hindu & muslim weavers) fiercely compete with each other for sarees but they all come to Shyam sundar Jaiswal ji for zari. We were told that ‘He is the ‘sutradhar’’.

We also saw weaving of banarasi sarees at Jaiswal ji’s workshop. 72 times weaving leads to 1 inch of cloth!


We ordered a saree in a colour of our choice & the motif of our choice. As we write this piece, that saree is being woven at Jaiswal ji’s factoy.

c) A stunning event of the trip was a musical session with Dr Revati Sakarkar, Performer & professor of music, Poorvi ang specialist. We were spellbound.

She spoke so well in such a beautiful language, in addition to the songs she explained & sang. Some such gems-

Kashi me rehke iska mauj ko samjhenge

Sahaj baat me gehrai hai

Do tarah ke Sadhak – Kuch maun rahe, kuch mukhar rahe

ठुमरी ठुमकती हुई आई साज बाज के साथ, आयी नीयम के बिना

d) A visit to the haveli of Bharatendu Harishchandra, the father of modern Hindi literature was a very special occasion. The family told us stories about Bharatendu ji & showed us around the haveli. They showed us some of the personal belongings of Bharatendu ji.

The family also treated us with impeccable food cooked at home.

e) Dev Deepawali morning on a boat was beautiful. Shagufta asked us to remain silent to experience the sunrise & the general energy of the place. We followed the instruction. It turned out to be a memorable morning – we in the middle of the ganges, boat engine turned off, sound of waves, no other sound, sky changing colour from dark to light, sunrise, silence.

On Dev Deepawali day the ladies conduct a ritual with certain vegetables

f) The evening of Dev Deepawali on a boat was beautiful, with lakhs of Diyas on both banks, all temples lit up on the bank, millions of devotees and some tourists on the banks & an amazing visual display of fireworks when we were in the middle of the river. The fireworks happened when we were away from the busy ghats, no distraction, no other sound. It was surreal.

  1. Places that we visited

Kaal Bhairav mandir – Currently people talk about kaal bhairav to be the guardian to Kashi. This temple is less than 2 centuries old & enjoys immense popularity & reverence. We heard that many government officials who assume office at Varanasi first go & offer prayers here & then join work.

Kashi Vishwanath temple – The temple which was broken multiple times & was rebuilt, has now been restored by the current government & almost ‘fortified’. All belongings need to be kept outside, before entering the temple (including wallets, phones, cameras etc). So we could not click any pictures for you.

The queues are always long & entry tickets can be booked in advance on internet. There is an option of premium ticket to beat the queues.

Subah e banaras – Every morning, at assi ghat, a music program is held – Indian classical music. This is followed by a yoga class for the public. We were pleasantly surprised to see the enthusiasm of people of all ages while participating in the class. We however thought that the microphones were just too loud & badly messed with the serenity of the morning.

Alamgir mosque commissioned by Aurangazeb is imposing & can be seen from a distance. The mosque is very well maintained. The views from it’s river facing wall are stunning.

Bindu madhav mandir was super crowded. Somehow made it till midway & had to come back due to excessive panic pushing by some people.

Tailangaswami shiva temple was commissioned by a saint from South India, named Tailangaswamy. The saint’s idol is also present in the temple. Photography not allowed. The movement of devotees inside the temple was very well managed by the management.

Gopal mandir – we went to this temple located inside a haveli . It was common in parts of Aurangzeb period to make temples inside houses so that they don’t attract attention of iconoclasts.

Pashupatinath Mahadev mandir, also known as Nepali temple also completely stood out from the rest due to its Himalayan wood & stone architecture, the slanting roofs & the bright red walls. We were stunned to see the intricate wood carvings at this temple. A policeman onway to his office, spoke to us out of the blue & took us at the rear side of the temple & showed us many more outstanding carvings. Thankful to him for this generosity.

Tripura sundari temple – We visited this devi temple on the day of solar eclipse. The temple is intricately carved & immensely beautiful. We were surprised when most people we asked (including at the nearby police post) could not tell us about this temple. An old priest finally did.

Due to the eclipse the main idol was covered. We could not take a look.

Harmony book store

Harmony books at Assi Ghat belongs to a diminishing set of booksellers in India who are genuinely interested in books, reading & tend to be experts in some domain. Unlike the modern book stores, Harmony is not full with international fiction bestseller paperbacks or chhota bheems. Many rare books, books about Varanasi & in general books on art & Indology are the focus here. Chatting with the owner, Rakesh ji was enriching, due to his knowledge n subjects related to Varanasi.

Agarwal toy emporium

Located next to Harmony, near assi ghat is an old toy shop that still makes wooden toys the way they used to make a century ago. The gentleman at the store patiently explained how the wooden toys are made & at a point also offered to take us to his factory. We unfortunately did not have the time.

In addition to the popular deities, they had idols of Ravana, Ganga ji, Yamuna ji, animals, common people & quite some unusual options. We got home a hanging wooden idol of Ganga ji riding a crocodile.

  1. Where we stayed – Hotel Ganges view, Diamond Hotel

Hotel Ganges view is a hidden gem – a century old beautiful haveli converted to a boutique hotel / guest house. The common areas & the rooms are full of hand crafted artifacts that are among the best in class. The visual delight of just roaming around in the building is immense.

However the place is not just about beautiful inanimate objects. It’s the people. The warmth is unreal, the feeling is like going to a relative’s house.

The owner & his family stay in a part of the haveli. It’s quite an experience to have a conversation with this very well read, knowledgeable gentleman.

The food served to the guests is the same food that the family & the staff eats. Absolutely home-like, home-made, delicious.

  1. Food & beverages during the trip

Will be published in travelogue part 2 of 2

  1. Books on Varanasi that we loved reading since we planned the trip – Dekho hamari Kashi, Benares, Banaras reconstructed
  2. Other unrelated stories:
  • Bhang is famous in Banaras. Someone who has not experienced it at least once while in Varanasi has missed something
  • Everyone in Banaras talks about the river Ganga as Ganga Ji only. Like a living person.
  • The whole city has been painted with Graphiti . Earlier there were few. Now there seems to be many & new ones seem to be continuously getting added.


  1. Reinforcement of the realization of the only truth:

Conceptually there are only few things that are true. More things that we think to be truth might not actually be.

Beauty of Varanasi – pyres burning next to celebration of Dev Deepawali

The only truth that I feel is above all for humans – WHOEVER IS BORN SHALL DIE.

We visited many temples, mosques & shrines in Varanasi. The place where I stood in silence watching what was happening, was Manikarnika ghat where cremation happens 24 hours. This place is awake 24 hours. The place has the power to convey the ultimate truth – whoever is born, has to die. Whatever you accumulate, will be irrelevant after a point. Destination is fixed, let’s enjoy the journey.







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