The still morning air reverberating with the ancient wisdom of the shlokas, thousands upon thousands of devout pilgrims floating their loved ones' ashes down the river, early risers performing their morning ablutions in the mighty River Ganga - these are just some of the memories that tourists bring back after a visit to Varanasi. With loads of Varanasi hotels overlooking the famous bend in the holy Ganges, there will be ample opportunity to rise early and join in the rituals.
Whatever your religious affiliation, travelling to Varanasi is to journey into the very heart of Indian civilization.
Home to some of the world's most ancient and revered monasteries, Varanasi is where scholars still swarm to dip into the ancient knowledge of the Vedas and to debate upon the nature of God. Once known as Kashi (City of Light) and then as Benaras, the Varanasi of today has been named after the Varuna and Asi Rivers that meet here. It is supposedly contemporaneous to Babylon in Mesopotamia, earning it the epithet of the ‘oldest living city.' A tour in Varanasi can help visitors to understand the extensive history this holy city has witnessed with a local guide to explain the fact from fiction.
Varanasi is also renowned as being the only place where the Ganga River changes her divine course to flow north, washing the banks of the city. It is believed that Varanasi is the holiest tirtha (ford) across the ‘samsara' or river of life, a sanctified crossing place between the physical and spiritual worlds. This is where the ancient sages came to attain instantaneous moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death), nirvana (enlightenment) and eternal blessings.
Today too, Hindus believe that to die in Varanasi is to be forgiven of every sin and gain enlightenment no matter your past. So, while you're here, be prepared to find erstwhile renegades now turned penitent in their old age, calmly awaiting death!
Needless to say, cremation is one of the city's most booming businesses. Hindus are not the only ones to travel to Varanasi in pursuit of salvation; the city also attracts a large number of Buddhists and Jains. The mecca has been well-equipped to handle the crowds, and there are a range of hotels in Vanarasi to house one and all.
With religion playing such an important role, it should come as little wonder that religious places are the greatest attractions that the city offers in terms of sightseeing. Every nook and cranny spills over with a temple, an ashram, a Buddhist Stupa or a Jain temple. Another prime attraction is the ghats, over one hundred of them. Take one of our Varanasi tours to discover the most important Varanasi highlights and the best things to see and do.
The city is the hub of many traditional industries and is renowned for its silk; it will be difficult to find the quality of embroidery found here in any other place in Asia. It is also the country's cultural capital, attracting many of the country's revered musicians, writers, artists and philosophers. The infrastructure has kept pace with the steady flow of tourists and pilgrims, and has a multitude of Varanasi hotels available for booking.
The Benares Gharana School of Indian classical music originated here and you'll find that music is an integral part of the Benarasi Masti- the culture and lifestyle of the Benarasi people. A wide range of musical instruments are available in Varanasi, and the city has hosted outstanding musicians like Ravi Shankar and Ustad Bismillah Khan.
In spite of being so rooted in the traditional, Varanasi has kept up with the times and the changes sweeping across the rest of India. The city offers fantastic Varanasi restaurants that feature international cuisine, as well as traditional vegetarian delicacies. What Varanasi is most famous for though is the paan - betel nuts coated with masala. It is also the best place to try the lassi, the thandai and the heady bhang.
The best time to seek spritual enlightenment in Varanasi is from October to April, when the climate cools off from the norm and becomes relatively pleasant. Be sure to choose a Varanasi hotel wisely for your holiday, because outside of the most ideal months - escaping the heat is essential. One could even take a look at the Varanasi map to get a lay of the land and pick out a hotel in Varanasi according to its location.
Many of the sights and smells that make an India holiday appealing are centred here in Varanasi. For those in search of world-class embroidery, harmonious temples of worship and some of the best Indian street food – head to Varanasi to find all the answers.