Though it may seem almost impossible to see all of India, and perhaps even more difficult to pick destinations when planning a trip, the city of Varanasi is worth adding to the short list. Considered one of India’s holiest cities by Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains, this city in the state of Uttar Pradesh is beautifully situated on the River Ganges.
The oldest city in India (and indeed, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world), Varanasi’s high religious status is very much connected to its relationship to the river. Perhaps the most vivid images of Varanasi are of the city’s ghats—stone steps that lead down to the riverbank. There are about one hundred in the city, many of which are used for ritual bathing by the Hindu population and traveling pilgrims. One of the best places for viewing not only this ritual but also stunning views of the city’s temples and palaces is the Dasaswamedh Ghat.
While the majority of Varanasi’s ghats are used for cleansing, there are some that are specifically designated for cremation. Due to its status as a holy city, Hindu traditions dictate that those who die and are cremated in Varanasi go directly to heaven. As a result, many cremations take place on pyres on the banks of the Ganges, such as at the Manikarnika Ghat, and the ashes are subsequently scattered on the river.
The best time to visit the ghats of Varanasi, particularly to see the bathing rituals, is at sunrise, when worshipers often gather. The views from the river in the dawn light are not to be missed.