The Ganges is the most sacred river to the Hindus. // © 2011 Mark Edward Harris
Mark Twain wrote that India’s Varanasi (named Benares at the time) is “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Varanasi has changed little since the great American writer penned those words — and that’s a good thing. It’s one of the reasons for making this ancient city one of the world’s must-visit destinations for serious urban explorers.
While Twain had to reach the city by a combination of ships, trains and horse-drawn vehicles, modern-day travelers can reach Varanasi, situated on the sacred Ganges River, by plane from New Delhi and Mumbai on regularly scheduled flights. Kingfisher Airlines, Jet Airways, Air India and SpiceJet service Varanasi Airport (VNS). Allowing plenty of time to get to and from the airport is a must, even though the city center is less than 20 miles away. As one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Varanasi’s serpentine streets were not designed for cars.
Varanasi can be scorching hot in the summer months so, if possible, a visit should be scheduled between October and March. An Indian summer in this part of the world means hot and humid weather.
Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, is an ideal time to be in Varanasi, with special decorations adorning the city and spectacular aarti (Hindu religious rituals) taking place in the ghats, which are a series of steps leading to the bank of a river. The five-day festival takes place in the fall. The Dhrupad Mela, a festival of classic Indian music, which takes place in March, is also a popular time to be in Varanasi.
Because of health concerns, this part of India is not a place to skimp when it comes to hotels or restaurants. The top hotels in Varanasi are the Radisson Hotel Varanasi and two Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces properties: The Gateway Hotel Ganges Varanasi and Nadesar Palace Varanasi.
The concierge in the city’s major hotels can arrange a local guide to take guests to the Ganges River to the ghats that line the river banks. The best way to explore both the river and the ghats is by chartered boat.
One of the most impressive sights visitors can experience is to travel the river in the early morning and witness thousands of pilgrims performing their devotion routines at sunrise, set against the backdrop of centuries-old temples including the Vishwanath, Kaal Bhairav, Durga and Nepali Hindu temples. Hindus consider it auspicious to die in Varanasi, so some ghats, such as Manikarnika Ghat, are referred to as “burning ghats” where bodies are cremated before their ashes are placed in the sacred Ganges. Dasaswamedh Ghat is a popular site with a large evening aarti that can be seen from a boat or on shore.
While Varanasi is sacred to Hindus as the home of Lord Shiva and his consort, Parvati, it is also sacred to Buddhists for its proximity to Sarnath and its Bodhi Tree, the location of the Buddha’s first sermon after his enlightenment.
For those who feel the need to give into the earthly pursuit of shopping, not many places on earth offer as much variety and value of quality furniture and fabrics than India. With the dollar struggling, fewer places can make this claim. Varanasi, in particular, is famous for its fine silk. Mehrotra Silk Factory is one of a number of government-approved stores that has reasonable prices and a good selection of hand-woven pure silk fabrics.