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India's most spiritual river flows through its oldest city. Audley expert Tom Draper takes to the water.

The Ghats, Varanasi
The Ghats, Varanasi

Varanasi is not only one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world — and the oldest in India — it is also the holiest city for Hinduism and Jainism. For over 2,500 years the city has attracted a large number of pilgrims and worshipers and it continues to do so today. Hindus believe that to die in Varanasi on the banks of the holy Ganges River ensures they will achieve ‘Moksha’, or liberation from the cycle of life and death. A visit to the ghats of Varanasi can provide a true insight into India’s spirituality and the extremes of Indian culture. For many visitors it is an unforgettable experience that leaves a very humble impression.

Did you know?

  • Varanasi is named after the confluence of two rivers, Varuna and Asi.
  • Legends say that the city was founded some 5,000 years ago by Lord Shiva.
  • It is estimated that more than one million pilgrims visit the city every year.

Dawn is a great time of day to see the city; you can travel in a small rowing boat along the river and watch as the city slowly wakes up and the ghats start to fill with worshipers taking an early morning bath. Evenings are lively too when the ghats fill for the Ganga Aarti, a ceremony where priests line up holding large fire bowls in their hands. The air fills with the smell of incense while the sounds of gongs and chants ring out. Small candles and flowers are offered to the river as a symbol of hope and to give thanks to the Ganges for being a source of life and prosperity. You can take a guided walk through Varanasi in the early evening where your guide will talk you through the concepts of death and rebirth.

There are also many temples in Varanasi and wonderful narrow alleyways to explore that hide an interesting mix of shops and industries such as silk weaving.

Evening prayer ceremony, The Ganges, Varanasi
Evening prayer ceremony, The Ganges, Varanasi

Itinerary ideas that incorporate the city of Varanasi

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