Tonsured heads, chillum-smoking sadhus, the chanting of mantras and cremation grounds where the fire never dies down. This is Varanasi - the holiest of Indian cities and one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in the country. Also known as Kashi or the city of light, the abode of Lord Shiva where, according to Hindu religious legends, the first rays of light fell after creation. It is here, in Varanasi, that the Hindu world converges to partake in an endless cycle of birth and death, life and salvation. One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Varanasi is paralleled only by Damascus in terms of antiquity.

Many people refer to Varanasi as Benares, an anglicized corruption of its ancient name. Attracting over a million pilgrims every year, the city lives and breathes traditional Hindu religion and culture. Yet it has evolved through the amalgamation of the sacred and profane, the spiritual and the commercial. This is a city that buzzes with activity; a city that is not just a dead mound of history.

What Varanasi offers is life itself, in myriad hues like the changing face of its ghats (river landings) with shifting rays of light. The numerous ghats along the Ganga, the narrow alleys and streets with a mixture of rickshaws, cycles, auto rickshaws, pedestrians and even cattle and the religious shrines all form a bizarre circus. The devout come to die here, but it is also an amazingly lively place. Famed for its religious fervour as much as its thugs (tricksters), Varanasi is also the place that has evoked some of the most creative processes in philosophy, religion, the arts and craftsmanship.

How to Reach Varanasi?

By Air : Varanasi is connected by air with major cities like Delhi, Varanasi, Khajuraho, Calcutta, Mumbai, Lucknow and Bhubaneshwar. The Babatpur airport at a distance of 22 kms from the city is linked by a shuttle bus service that takes passenger's upto the Cantonment. Alternatively, you can hire a taxi to take you into the city.

By Rail : The main railway station is the junction station near the cantonment area. It is about 3 kms from the old city centre and can be accessed on auto rickshaws and cycle rickshaws. The other major rail station is at Mughalsarai, 16 kms from Varanasi. Some of the major trains connecting to Calcutta, Guwahati and other places stop at Mughal Sarai. It is easy to find transportation from here to reach Varanasi. There are buses and taxis that ply to Varanasi.

By Road : Most buses terminate a short distance from the junction station, and some at the cantonment bus station. Buses connect to Gorakhpur, Gaya, Allahabad, Lucknow, Delhi, Khajuraho and places in Nepal.

Best Time to Visit Varanasi

The best season to visit Varanasi is between October and March when the temperatures are a in a comfortable range of 5-15 degrees Celsius. This is a good time to be out sightseeing as the weather is pleasant and very cool.

The winter months are also when festivals are celebrated with enthusiasm and fervour in Varanasi. Dussehra and Bharat Milap are celebrated in quick succession in September/October followed by the festival of lights - Diwali. the Ganga Festival also takes place in November and this is the time when people come from far and near to pay obeisance to the holy river - Ganges.

The summer lasts from April to September/October and it gets really hot at this time with the temperatures shooting up to 45 degrees C at the height of the seasaon in May and June. The rains come in July and August bringing the temperatures down marginally but the humidity levels rise. Between May and June hot dry winds or 'loo' as it is called in local parlance, blow through the city making it quite impossible to be out in the day time sightseeing.

Things to do in Varanasi

Varanasi the most ancient of cities is a place that offers a million things to do to the visitor. Of course, the ghats are central to life and death in this historical city – Start the day with an early morning boat ride on the river and be apart of the aarti ceremony, wash your sins away with a dip in the holy Ganges and pay obeisance at the various temples that dot the city. Roam the back alleys of Varanasi, explore and stumble upon interesting shops. Buy a few Banarasi silk saris to take back home and find salvation in this holiest of Indian cities.

Places Near Varanasi

Places around Varanasi include Sarnath that is one of the three holiest sites for Buddhists and is 10 kms north of Varanasi. This is where the Buddha delivered his first sermon in 528 BC. There are many temples here, representing the many cultures where Buddhism is the dominant religious philosophy. You'll find the Tibetans, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Burmese and the Thai have set up centres of learning, monasteries and temples. The Ashokan Pillar here used to be crowned by a capital that had four lions with their backs to each other looking out in the four cardinal directions. You can get to Sarnath by bus, auto rickshaw and taxi, and can stay there at hotels and in the monasteries.

Chunar, 40 kms from Varanasi is famed for its polished sandstone. It has a fort on the northern spur of the Kaimur Hills, overlooking the Ganga. Chunar village on the banks of the river has shops, mainly dealing in the Chunar sandstone. Chunar is connected to Varanasi by a bus service starting at Godaulia. There is a PWD bungalow at the fort that can be booked at the PWD office in Mirzapur.

Jaunpur, founded in 1360 by Feroz Shah Tughlaq is a dusty small town 58 kms from Varanasi. Its most distinguishing feature is the 16th century Akbari Bridge, which spans the Gomti River that runs through the town. The bridge designed by an Afghan architect, was an important landmark on trade routes across the country. A large sculpture of a lion and an elephant at one end of the bridge mark a provincial milestone from which distances were measured. The Old Shahi Fort, north of the river, is a quadrangular complex which is now in ruins. Among the structures that remain is the oldest mosque of Jaunpur and a Turkish hammam. Just 400 metres away from the fort is the Atala Mosque built in 1408 on the ruins of the Atala Devi temple. About 5 kms from the Jami Masjid is the Lal Darwaza Masjid. It is a much smaller mosque, built probably as a private prayer chapel attached to a palace. It takes about two hours to reach Jaunpur from Varanasi. Most of the tourist accommodation is in the vicinity of the fort.

The Chandraprabha Wildlife Sanctuary is 70 kms from Varanasi and a great place to visit for those keen on an outing close to nature. The sanctuary has the Rajdari and Devdari waterfalls, and makes for a quiet picnic spot.

The Kaimoor Wildlife Sanctuary is a little further away, 130 kms from Varanasi. This wildlife reserve has the Mukha waterfalls, a popular spot for tourists.

Hotels in Varanasi – Choice is Yours

There are numerous hotels in Varanasi ranging from 3-star, 4-star and 5-star deluxe to budget hotels.