Situated on the west bank of Ganges River in Uttar Pradesh state of North India, Varanasi, also known as "Benares" or "Kashi" is mystical and captivating. As one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Varanasi is a place where history and religion form a colorful melange. A Hindu legend passed through millennia states that Lord Shiva (the destroyer, transformer, and protector of the city) founded Varanasi five thousand years ago, though contemporary scholars agree to be around three thousand years old. For Hindu devotees, a journey to Varanasi has the same significance as the Muslims pilgrimage to Mecca or the Christians to Jerusalem. It is believed, that taking a bath in holy Ganga River has the power to wash away one's sins. Due to the large distances and poverty in India, for Hindu followers, this sacred pilgrimage is often ones in a lifetime trip.
What makes Varanasi even more fascinating, is its spiritual meaning for another religion- just 13 km outside of the city is Sarnath, one of the four holy places for Buddhism.
My friend and I arrived at the modern and well-connected Varanasi Airport (VNS) and during our drive to the hotel, located in the new part of the city, we couldn't help but noticed how clean were the roads compared to New Delhi and Agra. Our guide shared with us the reason: the Indian Prime Minister Modi favors Varanasi and there is a continuous stream of financial resources.
Where to Stay
Varanasi is divided into Old and New City with the majority of the international hotel chains (Taj, Sheraton, Ramada) located in the new part.
Travel Tip: For Travelers feeling adventurous and seeking an authentic experience you might consider a stay at Brijrama Palace, 18th Century Palace converted into a 4-star hotel located in Old Varanasi, right on the banks of Ganga River.
Use a Local Guide
In a city with a million population and the lack of public transit getting around on your own can be challenging. During our stay, we used a prearranged local guide & driver. Our driver helped us to maximize our time by navigating us through traffic. Our guide Shasha, born and raised in Varanasi gave us an inside of the local traditions, beliefs, took us to the Ghats, Hindu Temples, local restaurants and off-the-beaten-path tour of the Old City.
Sunrise Boat Ride on Ganges River
In the Old City, the 8th km stretch of the River is accessed by man-made stone steps called Ghats. Majority of them were built in the 18th Century to provide an entry for the pilgrims seeking a holy dip or to perform religious rituals. Today about 80 of the Ghats are functional and have primary bathing and cremating purposes. Despite our early morning (6 am) start, upon our arrival, the Ghats were already brimming with all kind of activities- praying & bathing ceremonies, locals washing clothes and hotel sheets, flower sellers and beggars. Along the banks of the river are also a number of Hindu Temples, lower-end, privately run hotels and "moksha guesthouses" used as the last resting place for dying people. Hindu people believe that dying in Varanasi will help them to attain Moksha- instant liberation from the circle of life and death.
Travel Tip: Despite being a holy river, sadly, Ganga is one of the most polluted rivers in the world and drinking/bathing is not advisable.
Attend Ganga Aarti Ceremony
In Hinduism, Ganga River is a Goddess and Ganga Aarti Ceremony is a sacred ritual devoted to Mother Ganges. This daily ceremony takes place after sunset at Dashashwamedh Ghat- the main Ghat where according to a myth Lord Brahma "created" Lord Shiva and welcomed him. Although today the ritual is thought to be in a certain degree commercialized, Ganga Aarti is still a must-see, powerful Hindu ceremony and attracts thousands of devotees every night. Young priests follow a spiritual ritual performed by brass lamps and mantra chanting. Offerings to the Goddess in the form of conch shells filled with flowers and incense sticks are let to float down the river.
Visit Kashi Vishwanath Temple
Kashi Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, the protector of the city, is one of the holiest Hindu Temples and is located in Old Varanasi, in close proximity to the Ghats. There is no certain period when the original construction began, but throughout the centuries, the temple has been destroyed and reconstructed many times. In the 17th Century, the Moghul Emperor Aurangzeb defiled the sacred Hindu spot and erected a mosque on it, which is today the reason for numerous religious conflicts and rigid entrance security. On a daily bases, Kashi Temple receives 3,000 devotees and the number goes up on certain holy festivals.
Take a Guided Walk in the Old City
Walking around Old Varanasi feels like stepping back in time. Following our guide, my friend and I passed narrow muddy alleys, centuries-old houses, Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Shiva, local shops selling souvenirs and offerings for the temples and of course cows!
Travel Tip: At the end of your walk, stop to a local Masala Tea Shop.
Visit Sarnath, a Holy Place for the Followers of Buddhism
Located a short 13 km drive outside of Varanasi is the historical complex of Sarnath, one of the four holy places for the followers of Buddhism. This "Mini City" is comprised of a few Buddhist & Jain Temples and an archaeological site with the remains of Buddhist Monastery and Dhamek Stupa built in 500 AD to replace an earlier structure commissioned in 3rd Century BCE by the great king Ashoka. It is said that Dhamek Stupa marks the spot where in the 5th BCE Buddha gave his first sermon to his disciples after attaining enlightenment.
Are you ready to plan your journey to India?
A recent trip to India inspired this blog- hope you find it useful. Fascinated by Ancient History, GQ Travel mission is to bring world heritage sites to life through travel.
Traceable India history dates back to the third millennium BC when flourishing Indus civilization together with Mesopotamia, Pharaonic Egypt and Yellow River Valley formed the Four Cradles of the Ancient World. The fertile plains of Indus Valley were home to thriving major urban centers like Harappa and Mohenjo Daro that left their mark in the history. It is believed, that sometimes during the Bronze Age Hinduism came to existence and dominated the religious life of the populous until the 6th Century BC when the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama branched off from the mainstream and gave birth to the Buddhism. The Great Empires of Ancient India (such as Maurya & Gupta) bloomed until 8th Century AD when series of Muslim invasions weakened and led to the decline of the region. A new page in Indian history was written with the arrival of the Mughals and the founding of the Mughal Empire in 16th Century AD. In the span of three Centuries, Moghuls established multiple capitals in India, Pakistan, and Afganistan, including New Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, Jaipur, Kabul to name a few, and left a remarkable cultural and architectural legacy that can be seen today in their well-preserved palaces, tombs, and forts. The mid of 19th Century marked the arrival of the British Raj which lasted until 1947 when India got its independence.
Traveling to India feels like traveling back in time- Mystic religious practices are still performed in Ancient Hindu and Buddhist Temples, Mughal Forts, and Palace complexes continue to amaze visitors with their beautiful structures, laborious ancient arts and craft works passed through centuries are still practiced within communities and on display in local workshops.
Today Hinduism is the predominant religion in India, with 80% of the population identifying themselves as Hindus. The rest of the country adheres to other religions (Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Jainism)
To enter India, you need a valid passport, return ticket and, if your visit purpose is travel for a period less than 30 days Indian Visa prior arrival (Electronic Travel Authorisation ETA)
Arrive in India with Pre-Planned Program
Whether you decide to travel with a partner or in a group, it is imperative to plan your entire stay in India a few months in advance with a travel advisor specializing in a cultural immersive travel. This will secure your airport transfers, preferred hotels, arrange your local guides and save your time in the destination.
Traveling with an organized small group or with a private guide/driver is highly recommended. Why? You will rarely see Western Tourists walking on the streets! The major Indian cities are densely populated and chaotic, the traffic is bad and driving rules/signs virtually non-existent. To make the driving experience worst, domesticated animals such as cows, dogs, goats are let to roam free on the streets and even can be seen on the highways. Fortunately, important highways connecting driving distance cities in the Golden Triangle( such as New Delhi, Jaipur, Agra) are modern, fast and efficient. As an alternative, India Railway system is cheap and trains, mainly preferred by the locals connect the entire country. When embarking on a train, one must be prepared for frequent delays and confined compartments.
Travel Tip: If you do like to experience how the locals get around the city, hop on a rickshaw ride!
Where to Stay
For the sake of comfort and hygienic purposes, staying at 4 or 5-star hotels is vital. In reality, due to local customs and traditions, you cannot simply get out of the hotel and walk to a store/supermarket/restaurant. A nicer hotel will provide you with a complimentary supply of bottled water ( The tap water in India is not drinkable), a clean room, Western Breakfast & various amenities. Majority of this properties are located in a close proximity to historical points of interest.
Travel Tip: If within your budget, staying at a Heritage Hotel displaying Indian History will completely transform your experience. Today, many former maharaja palaces are converted into luxury hotels.
Where to Eat
Eating at random street stands and restaurants is not advisable. India is a third-world country and the locals have poor hygiene in preparing street food. Unless your body is used to the local bacteria, you risk getting sick. However, buying peeled fruits from the street vendors is safe and you can enjoy tasty organic apples, bananas or coconuts.
Travel Tip: Unless your guide takes you to a trusted local restaurant that is known for its good hygiene, you will have no other choice than taking all of your meals in the hotel and unfortunately to pay Western Prices. On the positive side, a reputable hotel will serve a variety of Indian and Western dishes.
Travel Tip: Consult with your doctor for preventive medicines/vaccines you might need to get.
What to Buy
Support the local economy by purchasing locally made fabrics (such as silk, cotton), gemstone jewelry, marble & house goods, organic tea. Every city specializes in a particular art & craft. Your local guide will take you to cooperative workshops, where you can see the art of handmade goods in action, passed through generations and have an opportunity to purchase. New Delhi is famous for its Pashmina Shawls, Arga for its marble and leather goods ( local workshops employ the same inlaid marble technique used in the building of Taj Mahal), Jaipur is a world center of gemstone jewelry, Varanasi famous for its silk. These workshops are supported by the Indian Government and often an entire village is involved in the production and makes their living. The laborious, long and handcrafted process dictate almost Western prices, but you are buying with the peace of mind that you have helped to feed a local family and the uniqueness and quality are assured. Buying souvenirs or clothes from street vendors will be cheaper, however, a majority of the goods are Chinese manufacture and of low quality.
How to Dress
Dress modestly. Avoid wearing tidy shorts, short skirts or tank tops. Adopt loose cotton pants, long light dresses and a shawl to cover up your shoulders (especially when you enter a temple)
Travel Tip: Most of the temples require taking off your shoes. If you don't feel comfortable to do so, bring a pair of socks with you.
Cash & Tipping
If most of your trip is prepaid ahead of time, you don't need to carry a lot of cash with you. Established and brand name hotels, restaurants and stores accept credit cards. You will mainly need small Indian Rupees bills (INR) to purchase offerings for the temples you visit, for restrooms (20 INR) and to tip pretty much everybody that provides a service for you(guides, drivers (on your discretion), hotel/ restaurant staff, room cleaners, bellboys 100-200 INR)
Travel Tip: Always carry with you a package of tissue paper/wet-naps, most of the restrooms don't have toilet paper!
Are you ready to start planning your journey to India?