Rocks and ravines, canyons and cliffs, waterfalls and valleys, forts and stupas, pre-historic art, and artisans – there are so many tourist places to visit near Varanasi beyond temples and rivers, ghats, and gullies. There are rugged terrains that hold many secrets. Rocks that tell a story through art. Sacred stupas and silent sculptures add to the hallowed land. Formidable forts, lost ruins, and ancient monasteries create a tableau of stories. I have been to Varanasi quite a few times but I was fascinated by the landscapes around these destinations. For a moment I wondered if I am still in Uttar Pradesh or have wandered into Madhya Pradesh. If you are looking for heritage and offbeat places around Varanasi, then here are five fascinating places to visit near Varanasi that you can explore.
1. Chunar Fort, the land of Chandrakanta
The mystical and historic Chunar Fort, located barely 30 km away from Varanasi and equidistant from Mirzapur tells so many stories. Overlooking the River Ganga, the settlements around the fort date back to 56 BC to the reign of Raja Vikramaditya. According to a legend, the king visited the forests in this region looking for his brother, Bharatthari, who was living here as a recluse and a hermit. The king built a small house here for him and even today, a black stone, worshipped by the locals is believed to be possessed by the spirit of the saint who is invisible and lives around the fort.
Historic records point to the 11th century when the fort was actually built but it was rebuilt later by the Mughals and the British. Battles between Mughal king Humayan and the Pathan, Sher Shah Suri, or Sher Khan have been documented here. Later the British took over the fortress and the inhuman dungeons beneath the barracks were used as prisons. Even today the ghosts of the past and the eerie stories lend it a touch of the mystical and the supernatural.
Mystically however Chunar Fort is filled with legends and is the land of the Chandrakanta novels and is called Chandrakanta Chunargarh. It is also believed that Bhagwan Vishnu or Bawaan Bhagwan, in the “avtaar” of Vamana set foot on this terrain, and hence it is also called Charanadri. When Bhagwan Vishnu asked Maharaja Bali for three feet of land, he readily agreed. Bhagwan placed his foot on the universe, here mythically and symbolically representing the region around Chunar Fort. One of the priests in the small temple in the fort complex said the land around the fort is blessed and we are on hallowed land. Even today it is believed that God lives in the fort and goes to Varanasi for three hours when the fortress is believed to be vulnerable. As a storyteller I love listening to mystical tales and Chunar is literally my kind of destination. It surprised me at every step with the many tableau of stories and layers of history that I peeled as I explored the fortress.
Even today I can see the ramparts built along the river banks although the walls have been breached. The gates have inscriptions from the Mughal era but what really stands out is the beautiful sandstone-carved Sonwa Mandap open pavilion with 28 pillars and arches and a few carvings. The pavilion takes the name of a Nepal princess who apparently used to come here to bathe in the holy Ganges. Amidst the dark and dingy barracks and dungeons, the pavilion stands out as an exquisite monument, a testimony to the skilled local masons of the era. Chunar Fort is one of the places to visit near Varanasi that is thronged by locals but is yet to be developed into a destination.
2. The sundial outside Warren Hastings bungalow
A little further away from the Chunar Fort is another old bungalow that once housed the then Governor General of India, Warren Hastings in the 18th century. It is believed that he along with the troops took asylum in the fort when it was besieged by the local rulers. Even today there are a few tombs here around the fort. While the bungalow itself has nothing much to write about, a 300-year-old sundial stands in the garden outside the bungalow.
The fort and the buildings around it were used as treasuries and armories and even today there are legends of hidden treasures as well. One of the places near Varanasi is still not known to the locals as well, as most tourists only visit the fort and are not aware of the stories around the bungalow.
3. Naugarh Dam, Aurwaratand Waterfalls
Located in the Chandauli district of Uttar Pradesh and part of the Chandra Prabha Wildlife Park, the landscape here is bewitching with rocks and ravines, canyons, and cliffs. The Aurwathand waterfalls create a dramatic drop from the cliffs forming water bodies that flow deep below. While the cascades are breathtakingly beautiful and beckon many an adventure traveller, it is the pre-historic art carved on the rocks that fascinated me. This is one of the destinations that made me wonder whether I am in UP or MP.
Be it storytelling through art or documenting their day-to-day lives, our ancestors wanted posterity probably to know about their hunting techniques as you can see in the paintings etched on the rocks. This is one of the offbeat places around Varanasi that attract both culture and adventure tourists.
4. Rajdari and Devdari Waterfalls
I didn’t expect to see thundering waterfalls in Uttar Pradesh, especially near Varanasi. And while Aurwathand itself was a surprise, the twin waterfalls here were quite a revelation. Barely 30 km from Aurwathand are two spectacular waterfalls – Rajdari and Devdari that form a part of the Chandra Prabha Wildlife Park, located in the Chandauli District. The waterfalls, located barely 700 meters from each other are breathtaking with raw, rocky, and rugged landscapes surrounding them. The waterfalls are hidden gems, although they are regular haunts for the locals.
The wildlife park and the waterfalls are being promoted as one of the places to visit near Varanasi for tourists and are being developed into tourist destinations for travellers seeking an adventurous jaunt away from Varanasi. I am curious to see how they are developed as I would like the raw rugged terrain to be intact as that is the appeal of these offbeat destinations.
5. Sarnath, the Lion Capital
Located on the confluence of the Ganges and Varuna rivers and hardly 10 kms from Varanasi, Sarnath is where Lord Buddha gave his first sermon after his enlightenment. The Dhamek Stupa standing tall at 128 feet high and 92 feet in diameter mark the hallowed area where the sermon was given. Ruins of ancient stupas and monasteries, some dating from the Pre Ashoka era are found here too.
The Lion Capital and the Wheel of Dharma are at the Archaeological Museum which also houses many treasures across eras. I have been here before and personally, I recommend an entire day in Sarnath, which is one of the popular tourist places to visit near Varanasi and is also one of the four main pilgrimage destinations for Buddhists.
There are many more tourist places to visit near Varanasi. Which places around Varanasi would you recommend?