Varanasi is another sacred Hindu city with a very old history. Known as the city of Lord Shiva, the god of creation and destruction, it’s believed that anyone who dies here will be liberated from the cycle of reincarnation. Even a wash in the Ganges River is said to cleanse away all sins. A visit to Varanasi, formerly known as Benaras or Benares, or as Kashi (meaning “resplendent with light”), is an experience unlike any other. This is the epitome of a holy city, inundated with religious pilgrims and sacred cows, yet it is also a city firmly grounded in the commerce and reality of day-to-day existence.
The fascinating thing about this mystical city is that its rituals are revealed openly to along the many riverside ghats, which are used for everything from bathing to burning the bodies of the dead. Yoga, blessings, massages, shaves, and games of cricket are among the other activities you’ll find performed along the river edge. Here are top 8 things to do while in Varanasi:
1. A Boat Ride along the Ganges
A dawn rowing boat ride along the Ganges is a quintessential Varanasi experience. The early-morning light is particularly inspiring, and all the color and clamor of pilgrims bathing and performing puja unfolds before you. An hour-long trip south from Dashashwamedh Ghat to Harishchandra Ghat and back is popular, but be prepared to see a burning corpse at Harishchandra. Early evening is also a good time to be on the river, when you can light a lotus flower candle and set it adrift on the water before watching the nightly ganga aarti ceremony at Dashashwamedh Ghat directly from the boat.
2. A stroll through the Ghats
Spiritually enlightening, Varanasi is at its brilliant best by the ghats, the long stretch of steps leading down to the water on the western bank of the Ganges. Most are used for bathing but there are also several ‘burning ghats’ where bodies are cremated in public.
About 80 ghats border the river, but the main group extends from Assi Ghat, near the university, northwards to Raj Ghat, near the road and rail bridge. Every Ghat has its own meaning and use. Some Ghats are “reserved” for washing clothes and doing laundry. For example Assi Ghat is a prominent bathing Ghat, while others are dedicated to worshiping, and some are for cremation like Manikarnika Ghat.
The best time to visit the ghats is at dawn when the river is bathed in a mellow light as pilgrims come to perform puja to the rising sun, and at sunset when the main ganga aarti (river worship ceremony) takes place at Dashashwamedh Ghat.
3. Holy Vishwanath Temple
There are temples at almost every turn in Varanasi, but this is the most famous of the lot. It is dedicated to Vishveswara – Shiva as lord of the universe. The current temple was built in 1776 by Ahalya Bai of Indore; the 800kg of gold plating on the tower and dome was supplied by Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore 50 years later. On the northern side of Vishwanath Temple is the Gyan Kupor Well. The faithful believe drinking its water leads to a higher spiritual plane, though they are prevented from doing so by a strong security screen. Non-Hindus are also not allowed to enter here, and here the rule is enforced more strictly.
4. Around Ramnagar Fort & Museum
This crumbling 17th-century fort and palace, on the eastern bank of the Ganges, isn’t worth coming out to if you only have a few days in Varanasi, but it is a beautiful place to watch the sun set over the river. It also houses an eccentric museum. There are vintage American cars, jewel-encrusted sedan chairs, a superb weaponry section and an extremely unusual astrological clock. The current maharaja, Anant Narayan Singh – still known in these parts as the Maharaja of Benares despite such royal titles being officially abolished in 1971 – continues his family tradition of attending the annual month-long Ram Lila drama festival held in the streets behind the fort.
5. A trip to Sarnath
A side trip to Sarnath, around10 kilometers from Varanasi, is worthwhile. This is where Buddha preached his famous first sermon here after he achieved enlightenment at Bodhgaya. In contrast to the hustle and bustle of hectic Varanasi, it’s a peaceful place where you can wander around the grassy gardens and ruins of Buddhist stupas.
6. Festivals and Events
Don’t miss Diwali in Varanasi. The city is especially spiritual and magical at this time, when the river banks are lined with the glow of small lamps, people chant, and bathe in the river in the early hours. Around Kartik Purnima (October/November), a five day Ganga Mahotsav festival is also held in Varanasi. The focus is on live classical music and dance. Other important occasions in Varanasi include Mahashivratri, Buddha Purnima (Buddha’s birthday), and Dashain. Varanasi is quite famous for the performances of the Ramalila that take place there around Dashain. The Dhrupad Mela music festival is held in March.
7. Exploring the side streets
Of the things to do in Varanasi, it’s more about being there and wandering around. The old town is dotted with small alleys, so just leave the main road, turn left or right and you will come to see some unusual places. Within these narrow alleys and lanes you can find guest houses, restaurants, street stalls, stores and all sorts of businesses. One can spend hours just navigating and exploring these narrow streets of Varanasi. Don’t worry about getting lost, because sooner or later you’ll end up either in front of the river or on a main street.
8. Shopping Around
Varanasi is an excellent place to shop for silk and musical instruments are also a good buy in here. If the deluge of traveler enthusiasm is anything to go by, ‘Baba Blacksheep’ is one of the best places you’ll find for silks, scarves, saris and pashminas located at Bhelpura crossing under the mosque.