Varanasi Travel Guide

Varanasi © McKay Savage

One of the ancient seats of learning in India, Varanasi is situated between Delhi and Kolkata, at a bend in the sacred Ganges River. Home to some of the most ancient and revered monasteries in the world, Varanasi remains the place where scholars come to learn the ancient knowledge of the Vedas and hold court on the nature of God.

For more than 2,000 years it has been the religious capital of India, more revered and sacred than all the other places of pilgrimage put together. Hindus believe that to die in Varanasi is to be forgiven every sin, to receive instant enlightenment and to immediately be admitted to heaven, no matter who or what you are. As a result, the elderly flock here to end their days, and cremation is big business on the ghats beside the Ganges.

There are more than 100 bathing and burning ghats (literally 'steps') at Varanasi, but the most sacred is the Manikarnika Ghat, which is the most auspicious place that a Hindu can be cremated. Outcasts, known as chandal, carry the bodies through the alleyways of the old city to the sacred Ganges on a bamboo stretcher swathed in cloth. At the top of the Ghat visitors will see large piles of firewood, with each log weighed on giant scales to calculate the price of the cremation. Tourists who wish to watch the cremations are tolerated, but should dress conservatively and leave their cameras behind. Tourists should also be aware that, although witnessing a ceremonial cremation is considered a 'must-do' activity in India, it can be quite a harrowing and emotional experience, and one that shouldn't be undertaken lightly.

The Dasaswamedh Ghat (the 'ghat of ten sacrificed horses') is said to be the spot where Lord Brahma made a sacrifice to pave the way for the return of Shiva - and is one of the best ghats from which to take in the riverside activity. Crowds of people congregate here not only for a ritual bath, but also to do yoga, get a massage, offer blessings, buy flowers, play cricket or work on their karma by giving money to beggars. It is also a good place to arrange a dawn boat trip, to watch the beauty of Varanasi manifest as the sun rises over the city. Dotted around the ghats are numerous temples, the highlight being the Golden Temple, with its resplendent towers.

Apart from its religious significance, Varanasi is also the hub of many traditional industries and is world-famous for its silks, and silk brocades in particular. The town does a roaring trade with pilgrims and tourists alike, although, regrettably, this has resulted in Varanasi developing a bit of a reputation for pick-pocketing. One of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the entire world, there is a real sense of culture about Varanasi. The city is home to many poets, musicians, novelists and philosophers and visitors are strongly encouraged to spend some time in the city's tea-houses and local restaurants, where they are guaranteed to be embroiled in some fascinating conversations.

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