Birds on the Ganges, Varanasi, India. Photo by Sam Sarkar

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I sat on the steps of the ghat that led down to the river below and watched a lone holy man, waist-deep in the water, hands folded in prayer, silhouetted against the early morning light. The city was still asleep and eerily still.

The migrating Serbian cranes, who had flown thousands of miles to get here, were resting on the glistening water. The colorful wooden boats that jostled for tourists during the day were anchored on the banks. Behind me was the chaotic city with buildings crowded almost on top of each other, and in front lay the gently flowing river.

It was my first morning in Varanasi (Benaras), the oldest living city in the world and the holiest site for Hindus – the world’s oldest religion. It is believed to be over 5,000 years old and continuously inhabited for over 3,000 years. It is also home to over 23,000 temples. The main city with its famous ghats and temples sits on the North-West bank of the sacred river Ganges.

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Chaos and Calm

The city is like a Hindu temple, which changes dramatically as you step over the threshold from the intricately carved outside walls, to a plain and sterile inside, as if by design the builders had wanted visitors to sense calm and peace inside, after leaving the chaotic outside world behind.

The city with its congested streets, overwhelming crowds, rushing rickshaws and tuktuks; cows, dogs and monkeys; dust and grime – were behind me, all I could see was the calm holy river.

Old and Spiritual

Ganges Prayer (aarti), Varanasi, India. Photo by Sam Sarkar
Ganges Prayer (aarti), Varanasi, India. Photo by Sam Sarkar

As one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Varanasi exudes a timeless energy that permeates every cobblestone and temple, creating an otherworldly ambiance that defies rational description.

As the day began, the city awakened in a symphony of sounds, smells and colors. Pilgrims and locals alike gathered on the ghats to witness the spectacle of the rising sun, blowing conch shells and ringing bells, chanting hymns, engaging in prayers, yoga, and rituals that have been performed for centuries. The spiritual vibration was palpable.

The Siberian cranes, who had flown across the continent, rose up and in beautifully choreographed moves, began following the boats as they made their way across the river.

Mark Twain’s View

Mark Twain famously described the city after his 1897 visit as: ‘Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, even older than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together’.

The ancient city looks its age. However, in recent years, India’s Prime Minister and local MP, Narendra Modi, has made it a priority to clean up the city and modernize the infrastructure. The area around the main temple: ‘Kashi Vishwanath’ has been completely redone with new walkways, new shops and eateries, new gates and steps on the ghat, while keeping the essence of the area intact.

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The Ghats

The ‘ghats’, or flight of steps to the river, are used for bathing and ceremonial prayers. There are 84 of them within the city, with 2 reserved exclusively for cremation. I observed many rituals from the river, seeing sadhus (holy men) meditate under giant shade umbrellas, and rising smoke from cremated bodies.

In the evening, most of the buildings are lit up and the ‘Ganga aarti’ (Ganges Prayer) is held daily, where priests hold large lighted lamps, chant and pray to the river, making for one of the most dramatic public rituals in the world.

Boat Rides on the Ganges

Boats jostle for a better view, Varanasi, India. Photo by Sam Sarkar
Boats jostle for a better view, Varanasi, India. Photo by Sam Sarkar

Boat rides along the Ganges offer a unique perspective of Varanasi’s sacred tapestry. As the boat glides through the water, the ghats unfold like chapters in a sacred book, each step revealing a facet of the city’s spirituality. The river, considered the physical embodiment of the goddess Ganga (Ganges), becomes a conduit for introspection and renewal.

The ghats themselves serve as a theater of life and death. The cremation ghats, notably Manikarnika Ghat, are a stark reminder of the impermanence of existence. Witnessing the rituals of cremation is an emotionally charged experience, prompting contemplation on the transient nature of life and the Hindu belief of the eternal cycle of rebirth.

Sensory Overload

Varanasi’s narrow alleys and bustling markets are an exploration of the senses. The smell of incense, flowers and fried foods, the shrill calls of the shopkeepers, the throngs of people, the cows, dogs and monkeys, all combine to create a sensory overload.

The vibrant chaos of life juxtaposed against the serene ghats creates a harmonious balance, symbolizing the coexistence of the material and spiritual realms. In these winding streets, I found not only the richness of cultural and religious heritage but also a mirror reflecting the complexities of my own inner world.

Staying in a Palace

The BrijRama Palace hotel, Varanasi, India. Photo by Sam Sarkar
The BrijRama Palace hotel, Varanasi, India. Photo by Sam Sarkar

We stayed at the elegant BrijRama Palace Hotel, which is the only luxury 5-star hotel on the Ganges in Varanasi. Set in a beautifully restored 210-year-old palace, the hotel has only 32 rooms and suites and feels cozy and intimate.

Though a stone’s throw from the crowded streets, it is a quiet and comfortable retreat from the commotion outside. It is situated above Darbhanga Ghat, one of the city’s most important ghats and right next to Dashwashamedh Ghat, where the spectacular ‘Ganga Aarti’ is held every evening.

The hotel is accessible only by boat or by foot as the street leading to it is too narrow for cars or other vehicles. The hotel picks up guests from the airport or railway station, drives them to a ghat a mile away and then transports them by boat. The luggage is handled by the hotel staff and a short but steep climb up the steps leads to an elevator (India’s first) that whisks you up to the hotel lobby.

The interior of the hotel has been meticulously restored, keeping all the historic details intact. Our room was on the top floor, accessible by another elevator. There are terraces on every floor with views of the river and the city, and are the best places to sit back and watch the world go by.

In keeping with the spirit of the surroundings, the hotel serves only vegetarian food and no alcohol. Breakfast is included, as is high tea with live sitar music, which is served on the top floor terrace every evening.

While drinking tea and munching on snacks, we watched the colorful boats drift by on the river below, and people crowding the ghats, while dozens of monkeys watched us, from the rooftops of surrounding buildings. Electrified fences wrap around the hotel’s terraces to keep the simians out. Above us, hundreds of colorful paper kites floated against the blue sky. Kite flying is an ancient and popular local pastime.

Evening ‘Ganga Aarti’ (Ganges Prayer)

The hotel provides a complimentary boat ride to see the evening ‘Ganga Aarti’. During the winter months, the boats leave at 5:30 PM. After a short cruise on the river, past the main temple (Kashi Vishwanath) and the burning ghat (Manikarnika), the boat turned back to the Dashwashmedh Ghat.

Our boat pushed against other boats filled with pilgrims and tourists, trying to find a space close to the river bank, with better views. The ‘aarti’ started simultaneously in two adjacent ghats and was a sight to behold. The priests go through many rituals amid the chanting of holy verses and end with a flourish holding large lamps, a theatrical but sincere display of devotion.

The whole ceremony lasts for an hour. It is possible to walk along the ghat from the hotel to see the ‘aarti’, but the large crowds would make this a daunting task for most tourists.

The boat went back out towards the main temple after the ceremony, before turning back towards the hotel. The main temple gate and walls are lit up at night and on some nights they have a ‘Sound and Light’ show depicting the history of the temple. The beautifully lit buildings and temples and the burning funeral pyres spewing thick smoke, create an otherworldly sight.

Visiting the Main Temple

Ganges view from hotel rooftop, Varanasi, India. Photo by Sam Sarkar
Ganges view from hotel rooftop, Varanasi, India. Photo by Sam Sarkar

The following morning, we arranged for a private tour of the main temple through the hotel. A young priest picked us up from the hotel and walked us through the narrow, claustrophobic streets to the side gate of the temple. Once through the gate, it was clean and well organized.

We walked through metal detectors, deposited our cellphones and shoes and walked barefoot over the newly built large marble courtyard to the temple. The temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, is not huge but is exceptional.

The original temple had been demolished by various invaders, multiple times over the centuries, and the current temple dates to 1780. The main temple dome and spire are covered in gold. We stood in a short line to get a glimpse of the deity – a stone ‘shivalinga’ on a bed of silver.

After viewing the temple, we walked through the vast open corridors, past the newly built food court and mall and through the impressive new gate to the ghat. We walked on the ghats back to our hotel – a short and pleasant 10 minute walk. In fact it is possible to walk along the ghats on the river from one end of the city to the other.

The hotel can also arrange tours of the city as well as nearby Sarnath, where the Buddha gave his first sermon. We decided to skip sightseeing and instead focused on absorbing the spiritual essence of the city during our brief stay.

The Burning Ghats

The burning (cremation) ghat, Varanasi, India. Photo by Sam Sarkar
The burning (cremation) ghat, Varanasi, India. Photo by Sam Sarkar

‘Hindus believe in reincarnation and the cycle of life’, I explained to the middle-aged couple from New York City, who were celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary and were clearly disturbed by the burning funeral pyres right next to the main temple. The juxtaposition of faith, prayer, ritual and cremation, right next to each other is unique and hard to fathom for a non-Hindu, but it is the essence of this holy city.

On my last evening, I sat by the river. It was late and I could not sleep, my mind was restless. Suddenly, I saw a round shape jump in the water in front of me. I realized with a thrill that it was a critically endangered Gangetic dolphin. I waited for 2 more hours, hoping to catch another glimpse, but it never reappeared. Against all odds, the dolphin and I had survived, and I felt hopeful about our future.

If You Go:

The cooler months between November and February are the best time to visit. Make sure to steer clear of Hindu festivals to avoid huge crowds.

Dress modestly and avoid touts and scamsters by booking all trips through the hotel or a reputable travel agency. The city is very safe, but be prudent in crowded areas.

Varanasi is well connected to New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata by air and rail. There are many star hotels, further away from the ghats.

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Author Bio: Sam Sarkar is a physician who would rather travel, write, cook and eat. His work has been published in the LA Times, Medical Economics, Physician’s Money Digest, LA Physician, GoNomad and other magazines. He has traveled to over 50 countries and is semi-retired. He is working on his bucket-list travel destinations. He has a cooking channel on YouTube: youtube.com/@booeats. When not on the move, he lives in Long Beach, California.

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