Experiences you should not miss in Varanasi
Varanasi is an ancient city of sages and gurus, travelers and traders that begins and ends with a sacred river – the Ganga (Ganges).
Located in Uttar Pradesh, India, Varanasi or Benares is one of the holiest places in the world and is almost 5,000 years old.
Once known as Kashi, the ancient city was renamed after Varuna and Asi Rivers.
It is famous for its bathing ghats that line the Ganges where Hindus believe that the physical and spiritual worlds converge in Varanasi, therefore believing that Varanasi offers moksha – liberation from the cycle of birth and death. They also believe that bathing in the Ganges is said to cleanse away all sins.
With that, the highlights of any traveling experience in Varanasi is at the ghats where most rituals of the mystical city are practiced openly. Stroll along the riverbanks or go on a boat ride on the Ganges, and observe life flow by the ghats, for you would find people bathing and washing, praying and making offerings to the gods, and burning bodies of the dead.
As much as it seems fascinating yet strange or even shocking to travelers, these are experiences you should not miss in Varanasi:
Boat ride on the Ganges
A boat ride on the Ganges is a must in Varanasi and the best time to go on is early morning between 5:30am to 8am.
During this time, you would get the chance to see the sunrise, panoramic views of the Ganges and Hindu rituals performed by devotees by the riverbanks.
Varanasi has more than 84 ghats with steps leading to the waters.
The boat ride takes you through some of these ghats, and you would learn quite a lot as each ghat has its own meaning and purpose. There are bathing ghats, laundry ghats, praying ghats and cremation ghats. Some people believe that bathing at Tulsi Ghat cures leprosy.
A sunset boat ride is also available especially during the aarti evening ceremony which is just as spectacular.
Stroll along the river
You can take a stroll along the riverbanks during the day, and you would come across various activities taking place by the ghats, other than the ones you have already seen during your boat ride.
Top ghats to visit are Dashashwamedh Ghat, Anandaimai Ghat, Raj Ghat, Munshi Ghat, Manikarnika Ghat, and many others.
Bathe in the Ganges
It is probably not advisable to bathe or dip in the Ganges as the river is quite polluted, but understand that the river is sacred to Hindus.
They believe the Ganges cleanses away all sins, hence you would find many devotees bathing or dipping themselves in the river to be absolved of their sins and to attain moksha.
The bathing ritual in the Ganges typically happens by the ghats at the crack of dawn. You would be able to observe these rituals during your sunrise boat ride or morning walk by the riverbanks.
Since Varanasi is a holy city, temples and religious sites are commonplace. There are temples in every nook and corner of the city, and many still exist as icons of Hindu mythology.
Among the temples worth visiting is the 18th century Kashi Vishwanath Temple which has two golden domes and the Bharat Mata Temple dedicated to Mother India.
Aarti ceremony in the evening
The major attraction of Varanasi happens in the evening when the 1,000-year-old aarti ceremony is performed by several priests by the riverbanks.
You would be spellbound by the sounds of Sanskrit mantras, drums, bells and cymbals, the views of glittering oil lamps, and the smell of flowers and incense.
The ceremony starts at 6.45pm and is performed for 45 minutes every day.
The best place to view the aarti is at Dashashwamedh Ghat. Arrive at the ghat as early as possible to get good seats for you do not want to miss this beautiful and surreal ceremony.
Venture out to Sarnath
Sarnath is located 12km from Varanasi and is a holy site where Buddha first taught the Dharma after his enlightenment. A Buddhist pilgrim site, Sarnath draws visitors for its ruins and relics dated back to 200 BC or earlier.
Take a break from the culture shock and craziness of Varanasi, and venture out to Sarnath where you can wander around the Deer Park gardens and the ruins of Buddhist stupas.
Explore the weavers’ village
Varanasi is known throughout India for its production of very fine silk and Banarasi saris.
The Banarasi saris are made of gold or silver brocade, adorned with intricate designs and fine embroidery that Indian brides prefer to wear Banarasi saris for their wedding.
Make a trip to the weavers’ village in Varanasi to see how they create these beautiful masterpieces.
In recent years, the government launched a clean-up campaign in Varanasi but the city is still very polluted and dirty. As such, many foreigners find the ancient city quite overwhelming and challenging.
Apart from the filth, there are scams to be aware of. You may assume that scams and touts do not exist in a holy city but business is business especially when there are tourists around.
For example, you might be persuaded to donate wood for the funeral pyres which end up costing you 10 times more. If you offer a small amount, they would decline. The best way to get them off your back is to say that you do not have much money or that you are not comfortable to give that much money.
That said, Varanasi is a fascinating city to explore and experience.
If you are afraid to explore the city by yourself, sign up for a guided tour to gain better insights.