An ancient settlement on the banks of the Ganges in Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi is India’s spiritual capital and important among numerous faiths.
Formerly known as Kashi or Benares, Varanasi is one of the oldest living cities in the world – evocatively described by Mark Twain as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend” – and has been a religious centre of northern India for several thousand years.
For Hindus, it is on the original ground created by Shiva and Parvati, the holiest of the seven sacred cities, and it is thought that death in the city will bring salvation, making it a major centre for pilgrimage. Buddha is believed to have founded Buddhism when he gave his first sermon in nearby Sarnath, and Guru Nanak Dev stayed in the city collecting writings on his path to founding Sikhism.
Varanasi’s 84 ghats – stone embankments that step down into the Ganges – are its most iconic sight. Most are crowded with pilgrims performing ritual ablutions in the river waters while a few are used solely for cremation. Sublime and sometimes shocking to visitors, the whole experience is utterly unforgettable.
The rest of city is home to some 23,000 temples, the sandstone Ramnagar Fort and numerous centres of education, philosophy, music and art. Small-scale industries and household production employ most of Varanasi’s residents and its winding alleyways are one of the best places to find fine silks, carpets and crafts.
When to go
The best time to visit is between October and March. September and April are considered the shoulder months when it is very hot in the middle of the day but mornings and late afternoons are lovely. From the end of December until the middle of January, mornings and evenings can be foggy and nights cold, but during the day the weather is great for sightseeing.
What to do
- Take a boat ride along the River Ganges
- Experience the evening Aarti prayer, one of the most important and popular ceremonies of the Hindu faith
- Explore the labyrinth-like old town