According to Hindu belief, Benaras or Varanasi as it is known is the cosmic centre of the Universe. Mark Twain once wrote “Beneras is older than history, older than other tradition, older even than legends and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Situated between the rivers Varuna and Ashi as they join the Ganges, Varanasi takes its name from its location. It is also called Kashi, the city of lights. It has always been an auspicious place to die, since expiring here offers moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death). Few places in India are as colourful, charismatic or spiritual.
Our sample tour ideas in Varanasi
The Ganges is viewed as a river of salvation, an everlasting symbol of hope to past, present and future generations.The River Ganges provides millions of Indians with an important link to their spirituality. Every day about 60,000 people go down to the Varanasi ghats to take a holy dip in the river. When strolling along the ghats look out for the protected Ganges dolphin. They are blind and rely on echo-location to get around and find small fish to eat. Usually seen alone or in small groups, the dolphins grow to 2m long and live for around 20 years.
The living pulsating heart of the city, the ghats are wide stone steps that descend to the river for almost 5 km along the west bank, affording a secure bathing platform for devotees whatever the level of water. At any point of the day, these ghats are a kaleidoscope of colour, a shifting pattern of pilgrims on their way to and from the river. Rising as a backdrop to all this activity is the magnificent superstructure of temples, havelis and the domes and minarets of mosques.
Viewing the ghats early in the mornings and evenings from a boat on the river can be an unforgettable experience. The river front, as seen from a boat is a spiritually uplifting sight. Hinduism, deep and mystical, is everywhere – in a decorated doorway, in a glimpse of a glittering temple, in the sound of a sacred bell, the chant of the priests and in the fragrance of flower oblations.
Boat rides on The Ganges
A boat-ride on the Ganges should be followed by a walking tour of the old city. The lanes and by-lanes of Varanasi are fascinating. Shops sell rich brocade silks, brassware and all the articles essential for worship at numerous little shrines.