Varanasi is best known for being home to the Ganges and has a reputation as being a life-changing place to visit, due to its spiritual importance and the fact that life and death are both so visible and prominent here. This Indian city is the ultimate destination for all Hindu pilgrims, who believe that the River Ganges, which starts at the Gangotri Glacier in the Himalayas, was born from the Goddess Ganga and has the ability to wash away all sins, and bring the bather closer to spiritual enlightenment. Many pilgrims visit during the later stages of their lives as it is thought that dying by the Ganges brings salvation.
Throughout Varanasi there are kilometres of ‘Ghats’, steps that lead from the street directly into the water, enabling direct access to the powerful waters of the Ganges. Both pilgrims and locals bathe in the waters, some on a daily basis and feel this is a significant part of their religious practice. On these Ghats, public cremations are an everyday occurrence, and some days up to 200 cremations take place, right in the open air for all to see. The ashes are swept directly into the river and dissolve in the holy waters. This is a part of life for locals in Varanasi, but for travellers, this can be an eye-opening and thought-provoking sight.
Varanasi itself is a historical city; one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world being occupied since around the 11th century BC. Nowadays, the city is a non-stop metropolis full of racing rickshaws, fascinated tourists and chirpy street-sellers. The Golden Temple, thought to have been built by Lord Shiva himself, is the crowning glory of the city and its golden towers stand proudly on the western banks of the River Ganga. Down on the Ghats, music and worship is constant, and holy men and gurus, known as Baba’s, offer blessings to all that share the experience on the riverbank.
As Varanasi is such a prominent place for Hindu’s, it is fitting that it is the centre point for the yearly Diwali or Festival of Light of the Gods, a celebration on behalf of the many Hindu gods and goddesses so intrinsically linked to the city and the river. On this night, with the full moon high in the sky, more than a million earthen lamps are lit and float in the River Ganga, creating an unforgettable spectacle. Thousands of devotees and many more spectators flock to the Ghats on the riverside to participate in the rhythmic drum beating and hymn chanting. Many watch the event from boats on the river itself.
If you prefer to get away from the spiritual side of the city for an afternoon, the best way to spend a carefree hour would be to wander through the locals markets such as the Thateri Bazaar, where Varanasi’s famous silk saris and ornate jewels are sold at bargain prices. Intricate patterns and beautiful colours are aplenty here and it is hard to resist making room in your suitcase for such authentic souvenirs.
Overall, Varanasi is a shock to the senses and most who have visited have described it as a life-changing destination. The city is sure to surprise and delight in equal measure and a visit to Varanasi will certainly make a mark on even the most intrepid travellers. Are you ready to open your soul to Varanasi?