Standing for over 5,000 years, Varanasi is a city that long been a place central to the Hindu faith in India. Sitting stoutly alongside the River Ganges as it flows from the heights of the Himalayas upstream down towards the Indian lowlands beyond, it is a city where many Indians take their dearly departed loved ones to send them off into the river of life after cremation, as they believe it will cleanse their soul and lead to a good afterlife for them.
Being here since time immemorial, the weathered state of Varanasi’s building stock will inspire, while the emotion surrounding the constant death, the trash and chaotic nature of an Indian city compressed into even tinier laneways than usual will challenge you.
Despite the latter point, a visit here is almost mandatory for the cultural traveler, given its imprint on the nation’s spiritual identity. If nothing else, the experiences that you’ll have here will be fodder for many stories to tell your folks or fellow travelers over beers later on the trail.
Word on the streets says that Vishwanath Temple is getting harder to enter these days as a foreigner, but you shouldn’t let it stop you from trying to experience this central shrine in the faith of local Hindus here. Honouring the deity of Varanasi, the mighty Shiva, this temple was sacked by the Mughals several times, only to be re-built by their dedicated followers afterwards. At certain times of the year, visitation is restricted to select religious figures, so check ahead to avoid disappointment.
Another place that you know make time for on your spiritual journey through Varanasi is the Kaal Bhairav Temple. Another place of worship dedicated to Shiva, a popular activity to do when visiting here involves purchasing a black thread and having it blessed in the shrine. Upon completion of this, you will have a relic that will help to protect you against evil. Good deal!
A trip to Varanasi would surely not be complete without a solemn journey to the ghats by the River Ganges. Here, recently expired Indians complete their journey to what is hopefully a successful eternity in the afterlife, as they are cremated to purify their soul, before being scooped up in buckets and being dispersed among the waters of the eternal river.
For maximum effect, be sure to come at night, when ceremonies involving the burning of candles, sounding of gongs and more enhance the effect that this intensely holy city will have over you.
While the latter suggestion involves staying up late into the evening with the faithful of Varanasi, the next activity will require you to set your alarm clock for the crack of dawn. At this time, taking a boat ride on the Ganges will give you a point of view of this timeless city that may make your trip here, as the smoky haze of early morning, the recently risen sun, millennia old buildings and the cataphony of a hectic city in the morning will create an visage that will be impossible to ever erase from your memory.
Even when you have finished seeing the religious points of interest in Varanasi, spend at least a full day just walking through the alleyways near the river. With passageways that are full of vendors, sacred cows, funeral processions, beggars and just about anything you wouldn’t expect until you see it with your own eyes, an aimless wander through this ancient metropolis will make your mind reel with experiences that will take a solid evening of quiet contemplation just to process properly.
Before departing Varanasi for points beyond, there is one more point of interest that has no relation to the Hindu religion, or death for that matter. The Ramnagar Fort, located across the river from many of the ghats on the Ganges, it was built by the Mughals during their reign in the 18th century. Made of sandstone, its function was to serve as a royal residence in the past, but it serves as a museum and a venue for the Ram Lila festival in October.