Considered as the holiest Indian holy city by the Hindus, Kashi or Varanasi (its Indian name, combining Varuna and Asi the two rivers that join it) attracts hundreds of pilgrims every day to wash their bodies and their sins in the waters of the Ganges. The city that is said to have been established by the god Shiva is one of the must-see places to visit at least once in a lifetime. Here are five exceptional experiences to live in this colorful city resolutely carried by a wind of magic and mystery.
Walk and Explore the City’s Ghats
It is a 6.7km walk along the Ganges River that leads from one end of the holy city to the other. It is borrowed to walk at its own pace and cross the 84 ghats (sets of steps giving access to a river, here the river Ganga) of the ancient Benares. If five of them reveal a memorable character for bathers who have come to relieve themselves of their sins, it is because they represent the five places chosen by so many gods who came to bathe in Varanasi. The ghat Dashashwamedh, considered the most sacred ghat of the city, offers every evening a magnificent (and very popular) ceremony of lights (aarti).
Boat Ride on the Sacred Ganges
Whether for the simple pleasure of strolling on the Ganges, to go on the other bank transformed into a sort of “beach” for travelers. To approach and to gather in silence near the crematoriums in the open air or to admire the fascinating rituals of pilgrims come to immerse themselves at the foot of one of the five sacred ghats, nothing is worth a boat trip to Varanasi. By taking a seat on a boat or a motorboat at dawn, we make sure we get to the front row to watch the devotees live one of the greatest moments of their lives — all against a backdrop of sumptuous sunrise.
Reflecting on Death and Hindu Funerary Traditions at Crematoriums
If there is an experience arousing as many lively emotions as paradoxical Varanasi, it is that of a visit to one of its two open crematoriums. It is recognized as one of the ultimate places where Hindus wish to end their days, the city of Varanasi promises pilgrims that the Ganges will transport their souls directly to heaven (no matter the state of their karma). That’s why people go there by the thousands; some to await death, others to perform the fascinating Hindu funerary rituals.
It is better to call on the assistance of an Indian guide to grasp the true significance of these traditions, and it is because every detail of the cremation ceremony is of real significance. From the immersion and the purification of the body in the sacred water to the colored fabrics offered by the family to the deceased as the last present, through the decorations of flowers of roses and carnations of India. The shaving of the hair and bathing the eldest of the family dressed in white come to ask permission to use the eternal fire of the crematorium to burn the body.
Visit the Buddhist City and some of the 2,000 Temples of the City
Along the Ganges as well as through the city of Varanasi, thousands of Hindu temples rise. Two thousand to be more exact, erected throughout history by different kings, saints, priests, and communities. The most popular – and most famous Hindu temple is Kashi Vishwanath, the golden temple dedicated to the god Shiva. About ten kilometers from the city, the Buddhist city Sarnath is the place where Buddha himself would have delivered his first teaching. The place is considered sacred in the Buddhist religion.
Celebrate Holi (If Possible), The Festival of Colors
Only once a year – at the spring equinox – is Holi, the famous Indian festival of colors celebrated. If luck (or planning) is on your side, you will have the opportunity to experience one of the most exceptional travel experiences of your life. The celebrations take place in two stages: the first evening where bonfires are lit in the streets in honor of the creation of the Holika devil burned by the god Vishnu and the following day when the few tourists mingle with the inhabitants and children to throw powder and colored water jets (to the point of covering the whole body). Young groups also dance in the streets and the central square. (It is advisable to exercise great caution when celebrating Holi because as mythical and fun as this big party, the alcohol excess of many young people makes the experience sometimes very intense.)