Also known at various times in history as Kashi (City of Light) and Benares, this is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities and is regarded as one of Hinduism’s seven holy cities. Pilgrims come to the ghats lining the River Ganges here to wash away a lifetime of sins in the sacred waters or to cremate their loved ones.
Varanasi is the beating heart of the Hindu universe and a vibrant, mystical and magical place, but this holy land it not for the faint-hearted. Here the most intimate rituals of life and death take place in public, and the sights, sounds and smells in and around the ghats can be overwhelming. But the city Varanasi is unique, and a walk along the ghats or a boat ride on the river will live long in the memory.
Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colourful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth.
Considering that the city itself sits along the banks of the holy river and it is this very river that gives Varanasi a.k.a Kashi its very souls, that makes it an inevitable stop along your journey. The muddled waters of the Ganga not only hold moksha for you and all mankind but can be a enjoyed though a quaint boat ride along its snaking twists and turns. A dawn rowing boat ride along the Ganges is a quintessential Varanasi experience. The early-morning light is particularly inspiring, and all the colour and clamour of pilgrims bathing and performing puja unfolds before you.
There are temples at almost every turn in Varanasi, but this is the most famous of the lot. It is dedicated to Vishveswara – Shiva as lord of the universe. The current temple was built in 1776 by Ahalya Bai of Indore; the 800kg of gold plating on the tower and dome was supplied by Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore 50 years later.
On the northern side of Vishwanath Temple is the Gyan Kupor Well. The faithful believe drinking its water leads to a higher spiritual plane.
Varanasi’s liveliest and most colourful ghat is Dashashwamedh Ghat, easily reached at the end of the main road from Godaulia Crossing. The name indicates that Brahma sacrificed (medh) 10 (das) horses (aswa) here. Every evening at 7pm an elaborate ganga aarti ceremony with puja, fire and dance is staged here.
Manikarnika Ghat, the main burning ghat, is the most auspicious place for a Hindu to be cremated. Dead bodies are handled by outcasts known as doms, and are carried through the alleyways of the old city to the holy Ganges on a bamboo stretcher swathed in cloth. The corpse is doused in the Ganges prior to cremation. Above the steps here is a tank known as the Manikarnika Well. Parvati is said to have dropped her earring here and Shiva dug the tank to recover it, filling the depression with his sweat. The Charanpaduka, a slab of stone between the well and the ghat, bears footprints made by Vishnu.
Assi Ghat, the furthest south of the main ghats and one of the biggest, is particularly important as the River Assi meets the Ganges near here and pilgrims come to worship a Shiva lingam (phallic image of Shiva) beneath a peepul tree. Evenings are particularly lively, as the ghat’s vast concreted area fills up with hawkers and entertainers. It’s a popular starting point for boat trips and there are some excellent hotels here.
Ramnagar Fort & Museum
This crumbling 17th-century fort and palace, on the eastern bank of the Ganges, isn’t worth coming out to if you only have a few days in Varanasi, but it is a beautiful place to watch the sun set over the river. It also houses an eccentric museum. There are vintage American cars, jewel-encrusted sedan chairs, a superb weaponry section and an extremely unusual astrological clock. The current maharaja, Anant Narayan Singh – still known in these parts as the Maharaja of Benares despite such royal titles being officially abolished in 1971 – continues his family tradition of attending the annual month-long Ram Lila drama festival held in the streets behind the fort. Boats operate a shuttle service across the river (₹20 return, 10 minutes) between 5am and 8pm, but from October to mid-June, you can also cross on a somewhat steady pontoon bridge
Benares Hindu University
Long regarded as a centre of learning, Varanasi’s tradition of top-quality education continues today at Benares Hindu University, established in 1916. The wide tree-lined streets and parkland of the 5-sq-km campus offer a peaceful atmosphere a world away from the city outside. On campus is Bharat Kala Bhavan, a roomy museum with a wonderful collection of miniature paintings, as well as 12th-century palm-leaf manuscripts, sculptures and local history displays.
(Air India Express flies to and from Varanasi and the Middle East)