Some say that a visit to Varanasi is an experience of self-discovery and eternal oneness of body and soul—however this magical city affects you, it can be agreed that Varanasi offers everyone a unique and breathtaking experience.
Varanasi or Benares is one of the world’s oldest living cities and one of the seven Sapta Puri, or holy pilgrimage cities in India. Located on the banks of the Ganges, Varanasi has been a cultural center of North India for several thousands of years.
Known as the spiritual capital of India, this chaotic and colorful city draws huge numbers of pilgrims, worshipers and tourists alike; to wash away sins in the scared waters of the Ganges, cremate their loved ones or just absorb the magic of this mystical city.
The Ganga Ghats, embankments of stone steps leading down into the Ganges, are the most popular pilgrimage spots in Varanasi. Here you can witness the most intimate rituals of life and death take place in public. The sights, sounds and smells here can be both shocking and overwhelming but no doubt will live long in your memory. Varanasi has at least 84 ghats; the most noteworthy are Dasashwamedh, Manikarnika, and Harish Chandra (where Hindus cremate their dead).
The Varanasi Ganga Aarti, a highly choreographed ceremony, takes place every sunset at holy Dasaswamedh Ghat. Though some consider it to be too showy and artificial, it’s definitely a must-see because of what it represents in a spiritual context. The aarti is performed on a stage by a group of young scholars, clad in saffron colored robes. The blowing of a conch shell marks the beginning, followed with the waving of incense sticks in elaborate patterns, and circling of large lamps that radiate light into the night sky. You will be enchanted by the synchronized movements of the lamps with the rhythmic chants of hymns and clang of cymbals.
Near Dasaswamedh Ghat you will find Kashi Vishwanath Temple, another must see stop in Varanasi. Kashi Vishwanath is one of the most famous Hindu temples, receiving around 3,000 visitors daily. The temple is one of the twelve Jyotirlingas, devotional objects representing the god Shiva. The best part of the temple is the 15.5-meter high gold spire and gold dome. There are three beautiful, breath-taking domes each made up of pure gold—a feast for the eyes.
A stroll (if you can call it that) through the labyrinth of narrow alleys and streets that make up Varanasi’s “Old City” is a must. Though it can be disorienting, there you will find all of the popular hotels, restaurants, roadside shops and myriad of Hindu temples. Varanasi is also renowned for its rich tapestry of music, arts, crafts and education, evidence of which can also be found along these crowded streets.
Silk weaving is the principle manufacturing industry in Varanasi, with most of the weaving done in the home. Throughout India, Varanasi is known for it’s very fine silk and exquisite saris, which are usually saved for weddings and special occasions. For generations they have passed down their craft, hand-weaving silk on room-sized foot-powered looms. This high quality silk is made into the saris that most Indian girls dream of wearing on their wedding day.
A trip to Varanasi wouldn’t be complete without at least two boat rides on the Ganges: one at dawn while the rays of the sun shimmer and dance across the sacred water and one at dusk to the opposite side of the river bank to take in the magnificent and historical architecture as the setting sun illuminates it. Combine those sights with the hazy smoke from cremation fires, the smell of incense, and the sounds of hymns and chants are bound to stir up something deep inside even the staunchest of atheists.
Though technically outside of Varanasi (13 kilometers north to be exact), the city of Sarnath should definitely be included in your trip. The deer park in Sarnath is the site where Buddha first taught the Dharma after his enlightenment. It is one of four holy Buddhist sites sanctioned by the Buddha himself for pilgrimage.