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7 Must-dos in Varanasi, India

Published 30 March 2016

Sandy Dhaliwal

Set along on the banks of the mystical River Ganges is one of the world’s oldest cities, as well as one of the India’s most atmospheric and sacred destinations: Varanasi.

Sandy Dhaliwal in Varanasi

© Sandy Dhaliwal

Varanasi, which is also known as Kashi or Benares, roughly translating to the City of Life, dates as far back as 1200 BC and is the one of Hinduism’s seven holy cities. For Hindus, a trip to India’s spiritual capital may be one of the most significant journeys that they will undertake in their life; with many embarking upon pilgrimages from across the globe in hopes to purify their soul in the Ganges’ waters, as well as cremating their loved ones – and hopefully releasing them from their cycle of reincarnation – along the riverbank’s ghats. 

This ancient city is also where the Hindu deity Shiva is thought to have lived, as well as where Buddha was believed to have founded Buddhism and delivered his first sermons.

It is difficult to capture this magical city’s true essence in words, but you’ll find that it’ll be easy to be inevitably swept up in the intoxicating sounds, colours, aromas, rituals, personalities and overall spirituality of this captivating location during your stay.

For some, a visit to Varanasi is completely life-changing, be it dramatically enlightening or overwhelmingly humbling. Whatever your take, you will at the very least be left with a long lasting impression of a place that most likely got under your skin and shifted your perspective, even in some small way. It is a sight not to be missed when travelling in India.

To make the most of your break, here are the seven things I recommend doing while in the city.

Ghats, Varanasi

© Sandy Dhaliwal

Wander along the famous ghats

Stretching along the western banks of the River Ganges are the ghats, colourfully painted temples and steps leading down to the water. Take time to explore this picturesque part of Varanasi as it offers a fascinating glimpse into the city’s daily life. Here you’ll see people engaged in a number of diverse activities including yoga, selling flowers and religious offerings, washing clothes, bathing and worshipping the river itself. You will also see brightly robed priests offering spiritual services, many different animals grazing and people generally working and relaxing along the steps.

Burning Ghat, Varanasi

© Sandy Dhaliwal

Experience a traditional Hindu cremation ceremony

The ghats are also where you will find the ceremonial cremations taking place. These occur at the Burning Ghats and offer an extremely daunting yet deeply moving experience insight into Hinduism’s time-honoured traditions surrounding the commemoration of their dead. You’ll be faced with rather confronting images of mourning processions and funeral pyres, as well as large numbers of the elderly and sick who travel here to live out their last days. But for many, it also conjures a moment for reflection and even spiritual awakening, with visitors often taking time to ponder over life’s mysteries, as they watch the vivid events unfold around them. 

Bathing in the Ganges

© Sandy Dhaliwal

Take a dip in the holy Ganges

Those who follow the Hindu faith believe that the river is in fact the living embodiment of Ganga, the elder sister of Parvati, Shiva’s wife, and hence regard and worship the water as a living and breathing goddess. Holy scriptures encourage followers to bathe in the Ganges in order to wash away the sins of their current and past lives, as well as preparing their soul’s final journey to Nirvana.  You’ll see people taking to the waters around sunrise; if you’re daring enough to brave the morning temperatures, why not take the plunge yourself!

Puja, Varanasi

© Sandy Dhaliwal

Make time for the evening Puja ceremony

Every evening at the Dasaswamedh Ghat, commonly known as the Main Ghat, the Ganga Aarti ritual is held at around 6pm. Here you will see priests honouring Shiva through dance, chants, music and fire in a mesmerising performance. Thousands of oil lamps and candles are then set afloat along the water, for an enchanting finale that sees the river lit up by the illuminated offerings. 

Boat ride, Varanasi

© Sandy Dhaliwal

Experience a boat ride at dawn and dusk

Visiting Varanasi and not taking a boat ride would be like going to Agra and not visiting the Taj Mahal; it just has to be done! These rides offer a contrasting view of the area, as well as the opportunity to view the scenery and its people in full panoramic glory!

The morning ride will allow you to see the ghats bathed in the soft glow of the rising sun, as well as people taking part in varying activities in the river and along the banks.  Go in the evening and you’ll feel further immersed in the Puja ceremony as you float on waters surrounded by the glow of the candle-lit river.  

Gali, Varanasi

© Sandy Dhaliwal

Get lost in the city’s galis

The galis are labyrinth-like narrow alleys and streets located close to the ghats. They are fascinating to explore and equally as challenging to navigate. But you’ll never be lost for too long, as you’ll eventually always end up back at the river, enabling you to easily find your way again – plus it’s all part of the fun! Here you’ll see a vibrant variety of shops, markets, restaurants, animals, street art, shrines, temples and more all cosily tucked away, just waiting to be discovered.

Viswanath Temple, Varanasi

© Sandy Dhaliwal

Explore Varanasi’s temples and fort

Unsurprisingly, there are temples at literally every turn in Varanasi, but the grand Viswanath Temple is the most important of all. Non-Hindus cannot enter, but the view from the outside is stunning in itself. There is also the Buddhist Dhamekh Stupa, located 10km north-east of the city, and the place where Buddha was believed to have first preached.

Finally, Ramnagar Fort offers a change of scenery along the eastern banks of the river.  The lavish 17th Century structure has long been used as a royal residence, as well as a film location; and its museum houses an eccentric collection of American vintage cars, weaponry, jewel encrusted sedan chairs, intricately patterned elephant saddles and more. 


Visit India on a Journey with Round the World Experts. Try our Classical India tailor-made Journey, where you'll spend two nights in Varanasi, visit the ghats and take a boat cruise on the River Ganges.

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