Put this city on your must-do list. Actually, make it the must-do-again list. There is no place like Varanasi. Once you visit it, you will want to come back again and again.

Varanasi. Benares. Kashi. Anandvan. Whichever name you prefer to refer it to, this mystical city in India has no equal on the planet. Simultaneously spiritual, exhilarating, colourful and calming, it defies description. Mark Twain said of Varanasi: “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”. He certainly did not exaggerate. Varanasi is considered to be one of the oldest cities in the world, with some putting its age older than Babylon.

Dawn over Ganga River in Varanasi.
Dawn over Ganga River in Varanasi. Copyright: Eeraj J Qaisar

It has been an important center of Hindu faith for centuries and considered the holiest of the seven holy cities in Hindu faith. It represents the best of India with its numerous temples, churches, Buddhist shrines, Gurudwaras and mosques. The city has received special attention from India’s Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi and the results are clear – the famous “ghats” and narrow streets are cleaned throughout the day and walking around is extremely safe. His another gift to the city is “Subah-e-Benares”, a cultural event held in the morning.

Colourful buildings line the ghats.
Colourful buildings line the ghats.

The two key draws of Varanasi are its “ghats”, the famous riverbanks with steps and historic buildings and the narrow alleyways and streets.

People and animals alike, navigate the paths here with amazing dexterity. You will enjoy these one of a kind historic treasures that have no equal anywhere in the world.

One marvels at the buildings with intricate designs next to the ghats, their charming architecture and the engineering that went into building them. Take it slow and easy as these are rare specimens, not be found anywhere. Their gorgeous colours, intricate carvings and the fact that they rise as if defying gravity are a joy to behold.

Beautiful Architecture along the ghats
Beautiful Architecture along the ghats

The government must take a special note of their historical and cultural importance and allocate more funds to their upkeep and restoration. These are national treasures to be cherished and cannot be replicated once gone.

There are several ghats with Dasaswamedh, Assi and Manikarnika being the most visited and famous. While it is possible to cover all ghats by walking, I highly recommend (in addition to a walking tour) taking an early morning AND late evening boat ride as the perspective is very different than you get by walking. Be prepared to be overwhelmed by the evening “aarti” (the daily prayer held at the ghats) is a must do.

Varanasi Evening Aarti
Varanasi Evening Aarti (Prayer)

The aarti at Dasaswamedh is the grandest, followed by that at Assi. Get there early evening for the best views.

Varanasi early morning colours
Varanasi early morning colours

Assi Ghat’s morning “Subah-e-Benares” (Benares Morning) with Ganga aarti, yoga and Indian classical singing is a must do. Again, start early in the morning to get there.

Manikarnika Ghat is where the (Hindu) cremation happens and multiple funeral pyres are seen lit all day, every day, at every hour. Life and death at this ghat is so closely intertwined that it can be shocking to outsiders. Just be respectful and observe silently. You will not remain the same after visiting this ghat. It is very humbling to see that there is no loud mourning at these funerals and people take life and death as it comes.

The city comes to life early morning before sunrise with devotees performing morning prayers and general humdrum of life can be heard from 4AM. It is amazing to see the strong faith and discpline of people who come here everyday to perform prayers and yoga early morning.

Varanasi - Boats ready for early morning rides
Varanasi – Boats ready for early morning rides

The “ghats” are not all that is there to this great city. The food is great too. Mouthwatering puris, jalebis, kachoris, chai and numeorus other items can be found all over the city. Varanasi is also famous for its narrow streets in the old part of the city that are chock-full of interesting shops, houses and most important of all, friendly people. It is worth spending a day just exploring them.

Varanasi - A holy man catching up on news early morning
Varanasi – A holy man catching up on news early morning

In case you think Varanasi is an old city with just ghats and narrow streets, you may want to rethink. It is also home to a well respected university, Benares Hindu University (BHU), a bustling economy and a modern airport that makes it easy to fly into this city. Flight from New Delhi is a mere 90 minutes!

Varanasi - You will find plenty of great tasting street food
Varanasi – You will find plenty of great tasting street food

Travel tip: Stay close to the ghats in one of the several guest houses. You will avoid traffic and get the best views morning and evening.

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