Spiritual. Sacred. Beautiful. Intense. All apt descriptions of Varanasi, the spiritual soul of India and one of the oldest inhabited cities, built around the 10th century BC. Many Hindus come on pilgrimage to this sacred city of winding alleyways, colorful houses and towering temple ghats stretching along the River Ganges.
Varanasi is known as the holiest of all tirthas, or crossing-places, and it’s here that many Hindus come to perform cremation rituals and scatter the ashes of their loved ones in the Ganges.
There’s so much to see and do in Varanasi it can be overwhelming. So, I’ve put together a Varanasi travel guide to help you organize your trip.
The River Ganges
Every evening after sunset, at around 6:45pm, a special aarti ceremony is performed on the banks of the Ganges, outside the Dashashwamedh ghat. Devotees chant mantras and clap whilst priests blow on conch shells and light incense sticks. The ceremony can be observed from a boat on the River Ganges but I recommend arriving at least an hour early to get a place.
The Ganges is lined with ghats, each with steps leading down to the river. Many Hindus come to the Ganges to wash away their sins and each morning these steps are lined with devotees who perform prayers and take a bath in the sacred waters. It’s a fascinating sight to watch, but I don’t recommend getting in yourself!
Instead, take a boat trip along the Ganges. The best times are in the quiet light of dawn or once the sun has set, when the city flickers with the light of cremation fires.
This is one of the main burning ghats where the religious cremations take place. The dead body, wrapped in a sheet, is carried into the ghat on a bamboo stretcher where the amount of sandalwood needed for the cremation is carefully enumerated. The pyres in this ghat burn 24/7, every day of the year. At night time, when the flames leap high and funereal chants are sung every hour, it’s an intense but compelling experience.
You are able to watch the cremations (you may be asked for a donation towards firewood) but be respectful in your behaviour.
Kashi Vishwanath Temple
There are many temples in Varanasi but one of the most exquisite is the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva. The temple has been demolished and reconstructed numerous times in its long history – the most recent structure was built in 1780. This temple is renowned for its intricate architecture and its most distinctive features are two pure gold domes.
This temple is a must visit for those looking to learn more about Hindu religion and culture.
Varanasi is renowned for its exquisite brocade silk and handicrafts. If you want a little downtime I recommend heading out to Urban Haat for some souvenir shopping. At this colourful market complex local artisans display their wares. Not only can you find clothes and silks but also traditional clay toys and brassware. It’s the perfect place to while away a couple of hours.
Varanasi is full of wonderful little restaurants and street food stalls. To navigate these, I recommend taking a guided gastronomic walk through the winding alleyways and markets of this fascinating city. Try delicious local foods such as thick yoghurt lassi and sweet jalebis under the guidance of a knowledgeable local.
This quick guide to Varanasi has only just scratched the surface of a fascinating, complex city. For further information check out this handy Expedia guide to the region. I hope you enjoy your stay in Varanasi!