Located on the banks of the River Ganges and considered to be one of India's most holy of cities, Varanasi is an overwhelming melting pot of colour, chaos and spirituality. Believed to have been founded by Shiva as early as the 11th century, Varanasi - or Kashi and Benares as it has variously been known - is also one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities, serving as an important centre of learning and civilization for over 2,000 years. Today thousands of Hindu pilgrims from all over the country come to Varanasi to bathe in the waters of the sacred River Ganges to wash away their sins.Read More
It is thought that to die in Varanasi is to ensure release from the cycle of rebirths, an intrinsic part of Hindu belief in reincarnation with the added bonus of instant enlightenment. For this reason the city is popular with the elderly, especially female widows who often shave their heads and wear white after the death of their husbands. The Hindu rituals of life and death take place very publicly on the city’s famous riverside ‘ghats’, the name given to steps that lead down to holy waters. Here cremations on funeral pyres take place throughout the day with ceremonies held out in the open and the bodies simply wrapped in white cloth. Eventually the ashes will be scattered into the Ganges River.
It is this accessibility to the practices of ancient tradition, coupled with Varanasi’s labyrinthine streets and colour that draw people. The best vantage point is from aboard one of the dawn boat rides on the Ganges. Scores of people enter the water from the ghats to purify themselves before the rising sun. Providing the backdrop to this display of humanity is an incredible array of temples and ancient buildings.
Here are some popular itineraries that include a visit to Varanasi. Alternatively, if you would like to include a visit to Varanasi on a bespoke touring itinerary to India, take a look at our tailor-made holiday planning section.