India Travel

Trip Report: Varanasi, India’s Holiest City

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Back in February we took a quick trip to Varanasi, India’s holiest city. I’m late in writing about the journey, but it was remarkable and I wanted to share some images.

Varanasi, located about 400 miles southeast of Delhi in populous Uttar Pradesh state, is renowned place of pilgrimage for Hindus. It is known for its many ghats, or embankments along the Ganges river where people perform religious ceremonies and cremate the dead.

Varanasi map

The city has been continuously inhabited since about 18th century B.C., and the Buddha is said to have founded Buddhism nearby in the late 6th century B.C.

Varanasi is “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend,” Mark Twain wrote in his 1897 travel book “Following the Equator,” “and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

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Map of the city, which is also known as Banaras. We stayed on the southern stretch of the river

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The view from our hotel, south of the central ghats, looking up the Ganges.

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Cows on the riverbank

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A ghat

The city and surrounding area can feel overwhelming, not just due to the intense sensory impressions but also due to thick crowds and traffic.

So you might wish to take a targeted approach to visiting, which we used: Leave Delhi early on a Saturday morning, arrive in Varanasi and have the evening and Sunday morning there, then return to Delhi that afternoon.

You could certainly stay longer, of course, but for a first-time visit this schedule allows you to take everything in quickly and easily.

We took a flight on the Indian carrier IndiGo that departed Delhi at 8 a.m.; the flight takes less than an hour. Then it’s about an hour drive from the airport to downtown Varanasi.

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Heading up the river as the sun goes down

An excellent way to see the activities along the river is via rowboat. You can rent one, with a driver, for about 200 or 300 rupees ($3-$4.50) per hour. We took one on Saturday as the sun set on the river, and another at sunrise on Sunday.

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A ghat where cremations take place

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Saying a prayer and floating a diya, or small lamp, in the river

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Varanasi at night

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View from the river

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Performing a ganga aarti ceremony at the main Dashashwamedh Ghat

You can stop along the banks and take in the sights, like this prayer ceremony.

We stayed at the descriptively named Hotel Temple on Ganges. It’s quite basic, but has a big rooftop, serves decent food, and the staff are very helpful.

If you need your morning cuppa, you might visit the nearby Open Hand Cafe, which has good coffee and a variety of baked goods. There’s also Raga Cafe, which serves excellent Korean food.

For those interested in India, I put Varanasi in the “must-see” category.

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Trip Report: Three-Day Getaway to Neemrana Fort Palace

My Top 10 Southeast Asia Travel Tips

Two and a Half Days in Istanbul: How to Have an Amazing Time