Varanasi in India is not London, New York, Rome or any of the typical urban vacation destinations. It is a very unique city with its own travel itinerary that you will never find anywhere else.
Introduction to Varanasi in India
This is a very old city with traditional charm and stately antiquity. You will find it in the Uttar Pradesh state of North India on the fabled banks of the Ganges River.
Varanasi, India was once known as Benares and again as Kashi and is now one of the seven Holy Cities of India. Words do not describe the cycle of life in this 5000-year-old city.
Here are our choices of the best places to see and things to do during your stay in Varanasi. The first thing on your list must be to visit the Ghats. You will want to do this more than once since they are the heartbeat of the city. Plan both a sunrise and sunset visit to the ghats.
The Ganges has more than 80 ghats leading down to the water. The burning ghats will indeed are unique, but there are many other places and events to discuss as well.
The first step to discover the city is your first boat ride on the Ganges. Go to the steps of the Ghats and you will find plenty of boatmen to take you on your journey.
Riding a Boat Down the Ganges in Varanasi in India
The Ganges River is a sacred place to the Hindus. Riding a rowboat down this river will lead to a deep spiritual awakening that is hard to explain. You will see many things on your trip including the ghats and the people of Varanasi. The ghats are the steps that lead from the top of the city to the river banks below.
During your 2 to 3 hour trip you will become a part of the cities culture. There will be so many photographs to take that you should take a second battery. In 14 years of travel, it is in my top 10 unforgettable experiences.
A dawn boat ride will show you how the people of Varanasi are a part of the river. They wash themselves and their clothes in the river. The go into the water to pray and receive blessings from the holy men. From 5:30 AM to 8 AM the banks are alive with people.
A sunset trip will show you something different. The AARTI ceremony takes place every night. This is a nightly worship ceremony and you should attend at least 1 time. The river will be alive with thousands of candles floating along as a prayer to the gods.
Bathing in the Ganges
The spiritual charm of Varanasi in India comes from the holy Ganges River. The blessed waters offer salvation and purification to all who bathe in them. Pilgrims from every walk of life all over the world make a pilgrimage to the Ganges to absolve themselves of sin and achieve moksha, the liberation of the cycle of birth and death.
There are more than 84 ghats with steps leading to the Ganges. At the crack of dawn, you can see people coming here to bathe while performing chants to appease Ganga, the goddess of forgiveness and purification.
Communing With the Gods at the Temples of Varanasi in India
The temples of the city are the main attraction for Hindus to visit Varanasi. There are many grand temples dedicated to hundreds of Hindu gods and goddesses. They all believe that this site offers a direct rendezvous with the gods. Hindus believe the Holy River flows from the mouth of Buddha.
Kashi Vishwanath Temple is by far the most popular of the temples. Queen Ahilyabai built the temple in 1780. Queen Ahilyabai Holker of Indore ordered the construction. The temple features two beautiful golden domes.
There are many temples you may want to visit including the ones below:
- Durga Temple
- Ankatha Temple
- Annapurna Temple
- >Kalhairav Temple
- Mritunjay Mahadev Temple
- Tulsi Manas
- Bharat Mata Temple
There are hundreds of others but this is a list of the most important ones to Hindus.
Strolling Along the Ghats at Sunset
The most charming sight in the holy city of Varanasi in India is the ghats along the River Ganges. Strolling along the ghats at sunset can be as unforgettable as the dusk and dawn boart rides. You will come face to face with the friendly people of the city going about their daily lives.
Take your time to explore the hundreds of ghats leading to the water. Some are for praying, some are for bathing and some are for that ultimate destination. The Hindu people believe that each of the 82 ghats owns sacred powers.
Aarti Ceremony at Evening at the Ganges River
The nightly AARTI ceremony borders on the surreal. This takes place nightly at the Dasawamedh ghat. We watched it from a boat on the river but you must visit on the banks to appreciated the entire ceremony. Large brass lamps as big as 4.5 kilograms are lit as prayers to the gods. The night continues with prayers, praise, and gratitude to the gods of the five elements.
Floral scents and the lamps fuelled by ghee lend even more to the AARTI ceremony. Traditional songs accompanied by gongs, bells, and cymbals add to the transcendent atmosphere.
Shopping in Varanasi, India
You will want to take a nice souvenir of your trip home. This will give you a physical memory from the trip to the Holy City. Silk is the most famous product from the city and you should take a trip to the silk district while in Varanasi. You will find Saris, and scarves throughout the silk district.
Vishwanath Lane, Thateri Bazaar, Chowk, and Godwillia are the main shopping areas. Visit them if you prefer a jeweled souvenir.
Festivals and Events in Varanasi in India
Time your visit for one of the many culturally enriching festivals that happen in Varanasi, India.
In October and November, Bharat Milap celebrates the homecoming of Lord Ram after 14 years in exile. This is also a good time to see Ramleela, a reenactment of the Ramayan.
Maha Shivratri is held in late winter to honor Shiva, the Hindu god of both creation and destruction. It attracts thousands of devotees every year.
Buddhists celebrate Buddha Purnima (Buddha's birthday) falls in April or May, though sometimes in June. It is marked by a fair in Sarnath.
The Dhrupad Mela is a five-day music festival held in March. It is performed on the Tulsi Ghat and attended by the most renowned artists in India.
But of course, the best time of year to be in Varanasi in India is during Diwali, the Festival of Light.
Diwali, the Festival of Light
Diwali or the Festival of Lights celebrates good overcoming evil. Thousands of candles are lit each year to celebrate the occasion. This is the Hindu celebration of New Years. People pray to Lakshmi the goddess of wealth and Ganesh the god of wisdom. They hope this will bring them a prosperous and successful year.
This is the biggest event in the Hindu calendar. Sikhs and Jains have similar festivals at the same time as Diwali.
When is Diwali Celebrated?
Holidays in India go by the Hindu lunar calendar, so the exact date changes every year. Generally, it falls between the middle of October and the middle of November. The festivities last for a period of five days with the main event happening on day three.
How do People Celebrate Diwali?
Diwali means “rows of lighted lamps”, so expect to see a lot of these. The people have lights and more lights to celebrate the occasion.
There will be lots of bright lights and fireworks displays. People will decorate their homes with earthenware candles called “diyas”.
Shops and other public areas likewise will also have the same decorations. People hope the lamps will guide the goddess Lakshmi into their homes and places of business.
Windows are open so that Lakshmi can get in and bring some wealth with her.
Adding to the local color are bright rangoli artworks on floors and courtyards. These intricate patterns, with the lotus flower being a favorite.
When is the Best Time to Visit Varanasi, India?
The absolute best times is between October and March. The temperature is between a nice cool 41 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit. This is also when you can join in the celebration of Dussehra, Bharat Milap, and Diwali. The Ganga Festival falls in November when all come to pay homage to the cleansing river goddess.
Now Let's Talk About the Ghats!
The Kedar Ghat can be located where the Ganges River meets the Assi River. It's not as crowded as other ghats due to its location at the southernmost border.
Hindus find it important as a place to bathe and praise Lord Shiva in the form of a lingam under a nearby pipal tree. You will find many interesting shops and cafes in this area.
Vaatika Cafe is a good place for people who like pizza, pasta, and breathtaking views. Dasaswamadh Ghat is only a 30-minute walk away.
Chet Singh Ghat
Chet Singh Ghat is a place of historical significance. Maharaja Chet Singh built a small fortress here to fight the British. the ruler of Varanasi, India in the 18th century. He lost the battle. After his capture, this clever and resourceful man escaped by using a rope made of turbans.
Don't forget your camera when you come to Darbhanga Ghat! The architecture is incredible and the views make great photographs.
You can stay at the majestic Palace Hotel nearby. The hotels date back to the early 1900s and are in the Munshi Ghat. Narayana Munshi had the Munshi Ghat constructed in 1912. He was the finance minister for the state of Darbhan.
Dasaswamadh is the heart of the entire Varanasi river area. This is the central attraction of the Varanasi area.
This is the oldest and holiest of the ghats where the famous Ganga Aarti takes place every evening. According to Hindu mythology, this very ghats construction by Lord Brahma to welcome Lord Shiva. Brahma performed a sacrificial horse ritual before the sacred fire.
The ghat is always busy and is full of priests, holy men, pilgrims, flower sellers, and beggars. You will spend hours here it is such an amazing place.
Like Manmandir Ghat, Mansarovar Ghat was built by Raja Man Singh of Jaipur in 1585. The king also added a pool nearby called Mansarovar Kund.
It was believed that the water in the pool gave equal merit as the sacred Lake Mansarovar (in Tibet): thus the nearby ghat was also given the name Mansarovar.
If tranquility is what you're looking for, Scindhia is the place to be. There is a Shiva Temple near the water's edge. Some of the temples lie partly under water. Construction of the ghat in 1830 caused the temple to sink.
If you are adventurous walk the narrow maze of alleyways in Siddha Kshetra. You will find some of Varanasi's most important temples. This area draws thousands of tourists each day.
This distinctive looking ghat, built in 1780 by Maratha King Bhonsale of Nagpur. It is a massive stone building with small, captivating windows on top. It has three heritage temples; Lakshminarayan Temple, Yameshwar Temple, and Yamaditya Temple.
This ghat has a controversial past. The controversy concerns a fraud case in 2013 of fraud over the sale of the ghat. This controversy involves the royal family.
This is one of the three famous burning ghats. No other ghat shows your mortality in such an “in your face” manner. The majority of the dead in Varanasi are cremated here.
Hindus believe the cycle of birth and death can stop in the Ganges. There will almost always be fires burning, kindled by the stacks of nearby firewood. The bodies, wrapped in cloth and delivered to the ghats by the lowest caste in India. The doms carry the bodies to the ghat and cremate them. This process goes on 365 days a year.
Should you want to see a cremation, the priests will allow you to watch from a nearby building for a small fee. I was able to get a much closer look at the process as my photos show. That may be more than you would want to see. Tours like Heritage Walk can give you insight into the subject.
Varanasi In India Is Easily My Most Unforgettable Moment
Nothing can prepare you for what you'll see in Varanasi, India. The pollution is bad, the traffic is worse. Most of India is organized chaos, Varanasi, India is chaos and more chaos with alleys reeking of urine.
Visiting the ghats, you will be covered in human ash and to see bloated bodies floating in the river. The pollution does not bother locals and you will see them bathe in the river daily. The Puja is part of their daily life.
People are more accepting of death here. Bodies taken to the ghat will by the doms and carried through the streets then cremated with the family.
Varanasi in India is a city of contradictions. It is moving and yet disheartening to the spirit.
It is terrifying and exciting all at once. Some parts are very beautiful, and some places are very sordid.
The Cultural Difference
Each of the 84 ghats in Varanasi has a specific purpose. Some for cremations, some for bathing and washing laundry and some for prayer. Do your laundry in your room by hand.
Many Westerners find the ghats a difficult place to be. Particularly the ones where body disposal takes place. Those who have come to terms with such things may actually find it peaceful.
The ceremonies are a learning experience and the pujas are powerfully beautiful. Firewood for the cremations is a very expensive burden for most families. You will see many people begging to get enough money to cremate a loved one.
Words to describe watching a body dipped in the river for purification and the cremated I find hard. Death and life here are so much different than a place like my home.
There is an average of 80 cremations a day in the three burning ghats. Babies and pregnant women are too holy in Hindu eyes to cremate.
They're often thrown in the river tied to weights. The weights will later slip off and the body floats to the surface. It is almost a guarantee you will see one on a sunrise tour.
If the thought is a little stomach turning for you, you may decide to opt for the sunset tour. Small bits wash up on shore and become food for the feral dogs. You should avoid these animals.
This could be one of the most heart-wrenching places you will ever visit. Please do realize that every culture has its ways and traditions.
After all, many Hindus may find your weekly trip to McDonald's abhorrent. The diverse world we live in is rich in culture. Mine, for example, may be different than yours and we must learn to accept both.
Learn from the people you meet and help make the world a better place for us all.