Known as Banaras or Kashi to locals, Varanasi is the holiest of all religious places of worship for Hindus. It’s also one of the oldest continually-inhabited places in the world.
Here are a few ways you can get the most out of your trip.
There are 87 ghats (riverfront steps or stairwells along the banks of river Ganges) in Varanasi, and the best way to explore all of them at once is to take a boat ride.
If you wish to soak in the Hindu culture of Varanasi, spend some time at the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the main ghat that’s always buzzing with activity.
The star attraction here is the evening aarti (prayer) ceremony. It’s a spectacular event, and is best viewed from a boat.
Another popular ghat, Assi Ghat, is also worth visiting as people perform a lot of their daily rituals and meditations there.
Finally, the most enigmatic of all ghats, Manikarnika Ghat, where Hindu cremations take place.
Hundreds of pyres are lit every day, after which the ashes are flown into the river Ganges. Such a cremation – known as Moksh, meaning ultimate liberation –holds a special significance, as Hindus believe it frees the soul from the cycle of birth and death.
While at the ghats, you’ll also see many people bathing in the river Ganges. That too is an act of religious belief, signifying absolving of one’s sins.
Kashi Vishwanath Temple is the main temple, drawing thousands of Hindu devotees to the spiritual city every year. You should also visit one of the oldest Shiva temples in Varanasi, the Kaal Bhairav Temple.
The presiding deity at both temples, as well as Varanasi itself, is Lord Shiva. Keep in mind valuables like cameras and cellphones are not allowed inside the temples, so put these away while you’re inside.
While Varanasi is undoubtedly important to Hindus, it also has a major significance for Buddhists.
Less than an hour’s drive from Varanasi, you can visit Sarnath. This is the place where Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon, and is one of the four pilgrimage sites of Buddhism.
If you enjoy wrestling, you should head over to the akhadas. These are traditional wrestling houses found in parts of north India.
There are many akhadas along the ghats and each has its own tradition and style.
The bouts take place early morning at 8am, and in the evening around 5pm. It’s good fun to watch, and offers a great opportunity for photography enthusiasts to get some offbeat frames of Varanasi.
Right outside the Dashashwamedh Ghat, you’ll find the main market of Varanasi. Here, you can buy the traditional Banarasi Sari, or buy local artificial jewelry.
Or, forget about shopping and get your fill of lip-smacking street food instead.
The main places to cover are Deena Chat Bhandar for their delicious tamatar chaat (spice tomato soup), and Ram Bhandar for savories like samosa, kachori and sweets like jalebis.
Your trip to Varanasi is also incomplete without eating a banarasi paan (betel leaf filled with sweet syrups and spices) and a malaiyo (whipped cream dish).
Finally, avoid the intoxicating bhang drink – made with cannabis leaves, as the effects can take days to wear off, depending on the amount of the drug.
Watch the sun rise and set in the south, or find solitude in the far northern Himalayas. Our local insiders show you how to find peace among India’s chaos.