Varanasi is another sacred Hindu city with a very old history. Known as the city of Lord Shiva, the god of creation and destruction, it's believed that anyone who dies here will be liberated from the cycle of reincarnation. Even a wash in the Ganges River is said to cleanse away all sins.
The fascinating thing about this mystical city is that its rituals are revealed openly to along the many riverside ghats, which are used for everything from bathing to burning the bodies of the dead. Yoga, blessings, massages, shaves, and games of cricket are among the other activities you'll find performed along the river edge.
Varanasi has an airport and is connected by direct flight from major cities including Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Lucknow, and Khajuraho.
Many people choose to travel to Varanasi by train. It takes a minimum of eight hours from Kolkata, 10-12 hours from Delhi, and around 30 hours from Mumbai. Most trains conveniently run overnight. Bus services to Varanasi tend to be very slow and uncomfortable, and are generally avoidable.
Want to see Varanasi without the hassle? Popular tour company G Adventures offers this four day independent Varanasi Experience, which is a great add-on to any trip.
When to Visit:
October to March are the best months to visit Varanasi. This is when the weather is at its coolest. Winters are refreshing and pleasant. The temperature gets uncomfortably hot from April onwards, easily reaching 35 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), followed by monsoon rains from July to September.
What to Do:
Visitors come to Varanasi for a brush with the divine. The most interesting part of the city is its ghats (steps at the water's edge). Take a walk along the river front and watch life flow by. You can also go on boat ride on the Ganges River, preferably in the early morning or at dusk. In the evening, head to Dasaswamedh Ghat for the aarti (prayer ceremony). A look at the burning ghat, where dead bodies are cremated on the funeral pyre, is fascinating. The magnificant Vishwanath Temple, built in 1776, is an important Hindu holy place. Varanasi is also well known for its classical dance and music, and yoga.
Festivals and Events:
Don't miss Diwali in Varanasi. The city is especially spiritual and magical at this time, when the river banks are lined with the glow of small lamps, people chant, and bathe in the river in the early hours. Around Kartik Purnima (October/November), a five day Ganga Mahotsav festival is also held in Varanasi. The focus is on live classical music and dance. Other important occasions in Varanasi include Mahashivratri, Buddha Purnima (Buddha's birthday), and Dussehra. Varanasi is quite famous for the performances of the Ramalila that take place there around Dussehra. The Dhrupad Mela music festival is held in March.
Where to Stay:
If possible, stay in a hotel that faces the Ganges River so you can watch all the goings-on along the ghats. Here's the pick of the riverside hotels in Varanasi.
The Ganges River is very polluted so it's not a good idea to take a dip in it. If you do go on a boat ride, also avoid getting wet. Varanasi is an excellent place to shop for silk (including saris). However, be sure to check the quality as many items are actually made of fake silk or silk blend. Musical instruments are also a good buy in Varanasi. Watch out for the many scams in Varanasi. A popular one involves someone asking you to donate wood for their funeral pyre -- you'll be paying at least 10 times more than what the wood's worth. Also take care if you go out at night, as it can be dangerous in poor lighting.
A side trip to Sarnath, around 20 minutes from Varanasi, is worthwhile. This is where the Buddha gave his first discourse. In contrast to the hustle and bustle of hectic Varanasi, it's a peaceful place where you can wander around the grassy gardens and ruins of Buddhist stupas.