It’s difficult to describe Varanasi in words alone; Varanasi is intoxicating aromas, vibrant colours, centuries-old traditions and the fusion of modernity and antiquity. Above all, Varanasi is a spiritual destination, where the intricate workings of life and death are laid bare. Not a place for the faint-of-heart, a trip to Varanasi is considered a must-do for those with an interest in Hinduism or spirituality.
It is said that bathing in the Ganges, the sacred river that runs directly through the city, will leave the bather cleansed of all sins and that taking your final breaths in the city of Varanasi will grant eternal peace and release the deceased from the never-ending cycle of reincarnation. Whether you’re a believer or not, if you travel to Varanasi you cannot escape the pull of spirituality and the sacred atmosphere of the place.
One of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, Varanasi sits on the banks of the River Ganges in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. It’s the holiest of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism and Jainism and a major centre of pilgrimage. If you like the idea of experiencing the heart of Indian spirituality, you cannot beat a visit to Varanasi.
At the core of Varanasi’s spiritual life are the riverside ghats, stone platforms used for a range of ceremonial activities including offerings to the goddess Ganga, sin-cleansing baths and even the open-air cremation of the deceased. Life in the city revolves around the River Ganges and a trip to Varanasi is incomplete without a sunrise boat trip on the river or an afternoon spent people-watching on the ghats. A guided tour of Varanasi is the best way to get to know the intricacies of this special place and learn about the do’s and don’t when it comes to witnessing the rawest expressions of spirituality upon the ghats. The best way to get around whilst in the city is on foot, as the narrow alleys and cobbled streets are somewhat labyrinthine. Bicycle rickshaws are another good option if you tire of walking.
It’s good to have a plan if you travel to Varanasi as its bustling streets, filled with devoted pilgrims and funeral marches, can seem overwhelming to some travellers. The ghats of Varanasi are the highlight of most trips to the city. These stone steps, leading down to the sacred Ganges are world-renowned and there are at least 84 different ghats in Varanasi alone. Some of the most popular ghats include Dashashwamedh and Manikarnika, the former of which is the primary site for Hindu cremations. In fact, over 150 people are cremated on Varanasi’s ghats every day, out in the open and for all to see. For westerners, this can be an eye-opening and moving sight and it’s best to visit the cremation ghats with a guide to gain a better understanding of the rituals and beliefs at play during these unique ceremonies.
The ghats come to life at dawn and at dusk, as this is when the daily Aarti Ceremonies take place. Located on Dashashwamedh Ghat, the dusk ceremony is particularly popular and is an elegant display of Hindu spirituality. Offerings in the form of ‘diyas’, containing candles and flowers, are placed in the River Ganges in honour of Goddess Ganga and float softly away into the distance, creating a beautiful spectacle of hundreds of twinkling lights, reflected in the water. Viewed either from the ghats or onboard a boat on the river itself, watching an Aarti Ceremony is one of the highlights of a tour of Varanasi. Boat trips on the Ganges are among the most popular things to do in Varanasi and frequently depart at both dawn and dusk, just in time for the Aarti ceremonies. Furthermore, watching the sunset or sunrise over the River Ganges is one of those special, once-in-a-lifetime experiences that all travellers desire.
When it comes to the city itself, which takes somewhat of a back seat in comparison to the Ganges, there’s a good range of things to see in Varanasi besides the activities of the ghats. Kashi Vishwanath Temple is a must-visit as it’s the most famous and important Hindu temple in the world. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the current structure dates back to the 1780s, but its thought that the original temple dated back to ancient times. Without a doubt, one of the most important things to see in Varanasi, be sure to follow in the footsteps of the pilgrims and pay a visit to this huge temple complex on the west bank of the Ganges. Other sightseeing highlights to explore on a tour of Varanasi include the fascinating Jantar Mantar Observatory and the 18th-century Ramnagar Fort, on the east bank of the river.
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