India’s spiritual capital, the holy city of Varanasi sprawls along the banks of the sacred River Ganges. A hectic mix of worshippers, bathers, bazaars, funeral pyres, astrologers and temples, this is India at its most evocative.
As well as being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, this north Indian city is deeply spiritual and one of the seven holy pilgrimage sites for Hindus. Here, dotted all along the banks of the Ganges, are burial ghats and shrines. Pilgrims travel here from all over the world to cremate their loved ones and wash their sins away in the river’s sacred waters. It’s an intense place, but one of the most captivating in the country.
Rise early for a boat ride along the river, a chance to watch a magical sunrise over this most sacred of pilgrimage sites. As you drift past the ghats you’ll see pilgrims gathering on the steps to perform their daily rituals in the misty dawn light. Later in the day, you’ll be able to witness the sunset Ganga Aarti ceremony at the colourful Dashashwamedh Ghat, a daily ceremony conducted by Hindu priests in honour of the river goddess. Expect prayers accompanied by cymbals, incense, camphor, flowers and thousands of earthen butter lamps.
Away from the river you can take a walking tour of the old city's winding streets to uncover street food and markets selling silk, carpets and beautifully carved woodwork. You’ll also come across an impressive array of temples, the most famous of which is the Kashi Vishwanath, dedicated to Lord Shiva and gilded in 800kg of pure gold. Other attractions include the 18th-century Mughal-inspired Ramnagar Fort, a former palace and now a museum housing vintage cars and weaponry.