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.
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