Known by many as the spiritual capital of India, Varanasi is a magnet for Hindu pilgrims who come for ritual cleansing in the sacred Ganges River and to worship in one of almost 2,000 temples. Dozens of ceremonial bathing and funeral “ghats” built by Hindu kings dot the riverbanks and labyrinth of steps leading to the holy waters. Visitors encounter centuries-old traditions, finely honed craftworks and elaborate sacred temples.
Tourists and pilgrims invariably gravitate to the famous Vishwanath Temple, nicknamed the Golden Temple due to its gold-plated dome and tower, originally built in 1776 by Ahalya Bai of Indore to honour Shiva. Dashashwamedh Ghat is where to experience true local life in Varanasi, with hawkers selling everything from fresh flowers to embroidered textiles and boat excursions, culminating in an evening river worship ceremony with fire rituals, prayer and dancing. Skilled craftsmen offer world-renowned ivory carvings, sculptures and exotic perfumes, and the Mehrotra Silk Factory sells embroidered silk scarves, saris and bedding.
Walking is necessary to reach the ghats and the waterfront areas, and many walking tours offer expert guidance to hidden squares and hard-to-reach markets such as the Ayurvedic Herb Market. Auto- and cycle-rickshaw booths offer transportation near the Varanasi Junction train station. Standard taxis are harder to come by, due to the impracticality of driving in the city.
Varanasi is known as one of the oldest continuously occupied settlements on earth, dating to the 11th century BC. Hindu legend states Shiva himself Varanasi created the city as a home for the Pandava heroes of the Kurukshetra War, described in the Hindu epic narrative “Mahabharata”. Varanasi is considered one of seven holy cities that can offer “moksha” emancipation and release, particularly liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth, making it a desirable place to end one’s days on earth.