Varanasi India has long been a sought-after destination for native Indians and foreign visitors alike. Not only is it one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, but it is sacred to people of the Hindu faith. Often the draw of travel to Varanasi is not to see specific sites, but to experience the city as a whole in its daily life and practices.
The city of Varanasi, known also as Banaras and Banaresor Kashi, has rested on the banks of the sacred Ganges River for an estimated 3,000 years. Hindus believe the waters of the Ganges, flowing from the Himalayas, are healing, and many undertake a pilgrimage to bathe in its waters at least once in their lifetime. They also believe the city of Varanasi India itself is sacred and that to die within it is to escape the chain of reincarnation. For this reason, funerals and cremations are very common on Varanasi's crowded Ganges banks.
A fascinating aspect of Varanasi travel is the chance to witness daily life along the city's meandering alleyways and Varanasi ghats. A ghat is a series of steps leading down to the river used by bathers and pilgrims. These riverside scenes are the heartbeat of life in Varanasi India. The edge of the city that clings to the bank of the Ganges is a continuous stretch of Varanasi ghats, each of which serve a specific purpose that should be respected. Many are for bathing, but keep in mind that some are for cremation and funeral service.
It is generally possible to walk from ghat to ghat along the river, but the best way to view the more than 100 Varanasi ghats is to charter a boat and see the spectacle from the water. There are several that should not be missed on any travel to Varanasi. These include Dasaswamedh Ghat, considered by many to be the main ghat of Varanasi and the site of a large evening Hindu ritual called an aarti; Kedar Ghat, which is a stunning bathing ghat with brightly painted stripes; Assi Ghat, which is near many Varanasi hotels, restaurants, and internet cafes; and Manikarnika Ghat, the main cremation ghat, where bodies are cremated before their ashes are thrown in the Ganges; photographs and loud talking are not allowed out of respect.
Built above the steps of the ghats and scattered throughout Varanasi's many alleyways are countless temples and holy places, most of them Hindu. The Vishwanath Temple, also known as the Golden Temple, is the most notable. The Nepali Hindu Temple is appreciated for its beautiful Nepali architecture. While in the city, you might take advantage of the panoramic view at Alamagir Mosque, overlooking Panchganga Ghat, or you can escape the hustle of the alleys in the peaceful campus of Banaras Hindu University, also called the Oxford of the East. Visitors interested in the city's history might visit Ram Nagar Fort, the former fort of the King of Kashi. Since much of the Varanasi travel is religiously minded, it's worth visiting during one of the many holy festivals, such as Diwali in October or November, and Shivaratri in February or March.
Varanasi Airport is approximately fifteen miles from the city center and offers flight services to and from many major Indian cities, as well. However, the easiest way to travel to Varanasi is by rail, with multiple daily trains to major cities including New Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata. Within the city, walking is the best way to get around. Taxis do exist, but the traffic and alleyways make them impractical for Varanasi travel most of the time. Rickshaws are advised for longer trips across town. English-speakers will get some assistance navigating the city as many hotel and restaurant names, as well as directions to ghats, are painted on the walls in the Roman alphabet.