The fascinating religious capital of India


Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India

GPS: 25.496677115879, 82.952538887837

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Varanasi is one of the oldest sacred cities in India. It has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries. Situated in the eastern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi was previously known as Benares (a name inherited from the Muslim and then British occupiers), Kashi or “the City of Light ” and is considered one of the seven holy cities of the country under Hinduism. These holy cities, grouped under the term Sapta Puri, are mentioned in mythological texts called Puranas. As the spiritual capital of the country, Varanasi encompasses the former Indian princely state of Benares (incorporated into the Republic of India in 1948) and embodies the cosmic city of Shiva among the faithful.

Varanasi is widely known for its long banks bordering the Ganges River, covered with stone steps and nicknamed ghats. The city has 84 contiguous ghats, glued together along a linear 11 kilometers. These highly frequented places allow Hindu pilgrims to reach the sacred Ganges River to bathe in its waters or engage in spiritual practices at the foot of the countless temples of Varanasi. Each ghat has its own use – washing clothes, meditation, worship of the God Shiva, washing away sins or cremation. In Hindu belief, dying on the banks of the Ganges is the goal of many Indians. This process allows pilgrims to reach moksha, a level of enlightenment, free from the cycle of death and rebirth, known as saṃsāra.

Undeniably associated with Hindu mysticism and the cult of spirituality, Varanasi gathers thousands of pilgrims every year (mainly related to Hinduism but also to Buddhism and Jainism). It is also a center of Brahmanic learning (training of Hindu priests), a historical site (under the rule of the Maratha Empire from the 17th century and under British occupation in the late 18th century), and one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. Assimilating new knowledge with the study of science, culture, philosophy, and art, has been a part of Varanasi for centuries. Projects for sanitation, sewage treatment, development of river transportation (using natural gas as fuel for boats), and creation of a convention center are currently underway to modernize the spiritual capital of India.

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  • One of India’s most important cultural and religious centers; a place of sacred pilgrimage and famous throughout the country; the various rituals intimately linked to the worship of the Ganges River in the Hindu religion
  • The Ganges, the soul of the city; the multiple ghats of which Dashashwamedh (the most important), Manikarnika or Harish Chandra (place of cremation for the Hindus) and Man Mandir (ancient astronomical observatory)
  • The many temples located in the old city, including that of Kashi Vishwanath dedicated to Shiva (nicknamed the Golden Temple) or Annapurna (supreme goddess of the city)
  • The palace of the Maharajah of Benares; the Bharat Kala Bhavan archaeological museum within the Hindu University of Benares; the Ramnagar Fort on the right bank of the Ganges; the Malviya double-decker bridge
  • Alamgir and Gyanvapi mosques; St. Mary’s Church
  • The various festivals (Kartik Purnima, Dev Diwali, Nag Nathaiya, Buddha Purnima, Dhrupad Mela, Ganga Mahotsav, Ramlila Ramnagar) punctuating this city full of fervor
  • The handicrafts (especially silk and jewellery), music and literature of Varanasi; the Kriti Gallery
  • Boat trips on the river along the ghats and walks in the old city (chowk) dotted with small streets called Galis
  • The Ārtī ceremony (a prayerful celebration held on the Ganges at the end of each day); the pûjâ ceremony held in the temples, streets, and family homes of the city
  • Varanasi is the place of choice for Hindus to end their lives because it is considered the center of the Earth in Indian cosmology. In Hindu mythology and religion, the sacred River Ganges represents the goddess Ganga, wife of Shiva.
  • Before its destruction by the Muslim ruler Muhammad Ghuri in the 12th century, the city of Varanasi housed about 20,000 temples.
  • Varanasi is the birthplace of yoga. Many people flock to the ghats in the morning to practice this discipline, whose techniques were invented by Shiva, as supreme yogi.
  • Washing in the waters of the Ganges is said to have many powers, including the power to forgive all mortal sins.
  • It is believed that by scattering the ashes of the dead in the Ganges River, the deceased will escape the judgment of the god of death and enter the afterlife.
  • In Varanasi, monkeys are considered sacred animals who assist the gods. The Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple, dedicated to the worship of the monkey god Hanuman, is one of the most revered in the city. Another temple named Shri Durga is nicknamed the temple of monkeys because it is surrounded by the many monkeys who inhabit the area in which it is located.
  • The best time to visit this Indian region is from October to March, outside the monsoon period (floods are frequent during August and September).
  • Discovering the city by boat is an excellent way to get close to the ghats and observe the Hindu rituals.
  • Remember that it is forbidden to take pictures of the cremation scenes.
  • Varanasi is surrounded by several interesting cultural sites such as Sarnath (the place of the first sermon of the Buddha), Ramnagar Fort (a monument built in the middle of the 18th century) and Chunar Fort (an ancient citadel from the 11th century).

Where to eat

  • Shree Café
    (hygienic and hearty)
  • Shree Rajbandhu Sweets
    (wide range of pastries)
  • Tadka
    (a taste explosion)

Where to go

  • Sarnath
    (ruins of Buddhist stupas)
  • Chunar Fort
    (historical citadel)
  • Chandra Prabha Wildlife Sanctuary
    (mighty waterfalls)

Where to stay

  • Marigold P Guest House
    (quiet and well located)
  • Shree Ganesha Palace
    (exotically decorated)
  • Brijrama Palace
    (overlooking the Ganges)