What to do in Varanasi?

Things to do in Varanasi

DestinationsIndia
 

Visit Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh

The best things to do, the places to see, the must-sees, but also the activities off the beaten track among more than 25 proposed in this travel guide to India.
 

Take a trip to Varanasi

Traveling to Varanasi means to immerse oneself in the hard core of India. You experience culture, spirituality and religion : life is in full swing.
 

Varanasi, the raw India

This is beyond words, and you will see it during your activities in the sacred city. Everything you need to know can be found in this travel guide so you can get the most out of your stay, whether you’re the budget backpacker or the tourist who travels comfortably.
 

The best places to visit in Varanasi

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Varanasi, Benares, Kashi

© Tom Spirit / Child representing Shiva during the Mahashivaratri festival in Benares

Varanasi

Varanasi is one of the 7 holiest cities in India. It is located in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state of the country, in northeastern India. According to Hindu mythology, Varanasi was created by Shiva. It is so called because of the two rivers confluent to the Ganges on either side of the city : Varuna and Assi.
 

Note: Varuna is the name of a Hindu deity. This god is associated with the ocean, water and the celestial world. It is required in Hinduism to enforce moral order by, for example, punishing those who have sinned without remorse or forgiving those who make mistakes with remorse. Many people come to cleanse their sins in Varanasi, in the waters of the Ganges. Everything is linked and nothing is left to chance in this city. Trust me, if you are looking to know all these connections, your head might be severely hot. From all my trips to Varanasi, I have tried to dive into its bowels. When I get an answer to one of my questions, it’s not one door that closes but ten others that open and make me feel like an ant exploring the Universe.
 

Varanasi has proven it to me more than once: if you don’t just look at its visual aspect but establish a real connection with the city and its soul, it will give you winks that will make a strong impression. It’s like the city read you and brought you the evidence of the divine in a subtle way. You still have to open up these things and be willing to receive them, but I imagine that most of you do not decide to come to Varanasi by chance. I have a few anecdotes that I keep warm since I will pass for a crazy.
 
Naturally, if you are receptive to energies or those things that are beyond us, it won’t take you long to understand that you are in a very special and powerful place. Closed parenthesis.

Kashi

Varanasi is also known as Kashi, an etymology derived from Sanskrit that translates as “to shine”, designating the City of Light : spirituality, knowledge, enlightenment.

Benares

Finally, Benares, or Banaras, was a name replaced in Varanasi for a period. The reasons for its origin are biased.

Why visit Varanasi?

© Tom Spirit / Aghori man in Varanasi

For its history and tourism potential

Benares is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Hindu mythology mentions that Parvati lives there today. Shiva also resided there but in the past before settling on Mount Kailash, leaving behind him¹ a rich history and traditions that have attracted thousands of pilgrims for centuries.

Pilgrimage and tourism

Since then, it continues to see a relentless influx of pilgrims, but also tourists like you and me in search of a change of scenery and strong travel experiences and of course interest in deep cultures.

Emblematic figures of Indian culture

Buddha also lived in Varanasi, specifically in Sarnath which is a must-see place to visit. Other important figures including Jaines are linked to the history of the city.

To discover Indian culture

Varanasi is designated as one of the cultural capitals of India, being a great center of varied cultural and religious learning. It is widely associated, among others, with mysticism, spiritualism, yoga, Sanskrit, traditional music and silk manufacturing. It is also the nerve center of Indian spirituality.
 

This enriching adventure will keep you fascinated throughout your activities in the City of Light. There are many things to do in Varanasi and your stay will be unforgettable.

The ancestral traditions of Kashi

© Tom Spirit / Varanasi Travel Guide

Disruption of the Earth cycle

Hindus believe in the final and ultimate goal of earthly life through the process of an ancestral tradition in Varanasi. The faithful who are cremated in this holy city break the repetitive cycle of death and rebirth on Earth (samsāra) in order to achieve liberation, enlightenment (Moksha, from Sanskrit).

The work of the Ganges and fire

The deceased is bathed in the Ganges, a sacred river in Hinduism, which cleanses his soul and erases his sins. It is then burned (mainly with mango wood or sandalwood for wealthy families). Finally, his ashes are scattered in the Ganges in order to definitively free his soul from earthly existence.

The process is accompanied by many rituals and ceremonies.

Note that deities are numerous in Hinduism. That of fire is Agni and that of the Ganges is Ganga. The divine is in everything and everywhere: Varanasi will never cease to remind you of this.

Culture shock

© Tom Spirit / Visit Varanasi

Deep and complex culture

With what we have just seen just before, you understand that traveling to Varanasi is not trivial. All the religious fervor and deep intentions carried by thousands of people in the mythical city create an atmosphere so strong that it would be almost palpable. Varanasi is captivating and it will not leave you indifferent.

Macabre scenes

Now, if you can adapt well, will you be able to cope with the presence of human corpses? When you travel to Varanasi, life meets death.

Indeed, it is common to see deceased people transported to the streets when visiting Varanasi. It is also possible, although less common, to see corpses in the Ganges.

If you do not want to see the cremations in the open, know that they are well located and that there is little chance of finding yourself facing one of them by mistake. We are not all equal in the sight of these funeral scenes and they can be hard to see for some.
 

© Tom Spirit / Burning ghat in Varanasi
 

 

Now let’s see the tourist activities you can do in Varanasi. I present you the most important and popular as well as some ideas of local things to do and less known, but know that there are many different approaches to get an experience in Varanasi, and this one is unique to you!

 

Visit the Ghats of Varanasi

© Tom Spirit / Visit Benares: what to do, what to see?

A ghat (from Sanskrit) is a staircase on the bank of a river. The heart of the historic city of Varanasi has 88, but we’ll only see the most popular ones in this travel guide. I advise you to devote a few hours in a day to walk along them and especially to visit the ghats after Manikarnika, they are beautiful and peaceful places completely deserted while the crowds concentrate on the same steps.
 

Most important cultural ghats

Assi ghat

Dashashwamedh Ghat

Adi Keshav Ghat

Manikarnika Ghat

Panchganga Ghat

Rajendra Prasad Ghat
 

Cremation ghats

Manikarnika Ghat

Harishchandra Ghat 

Attend cremations

© Tom Spirit / Varanasi Travel Guide

As we have seen before, the cycle of earthly existence ends in Varanasi, precisely on these last 2 ghats. The caste of untouchables, the Dalits, take care of the work related to the incineration. These places are probably the ones where you will feel the most sensations and emotions, it is a highlight of your trip to India.

The Indians I met in Varanasi usually sit in front of the fires to feel the strong energy that emanates from them. This is also a good thing you could do during your visit.
 

Behold the eternal flame

This flamme never stop. It is aged more than 5 000 years.
© Tom Spirit / The eternal flame of Kashi

The eternal flame is believed to have been maintained for about 5,000 years, the approximate age of the city of Varanasi. Imagine. It is used as an ignition for crematoriums. You can easily find it by asking the locals. Don’t miss it!

Where is the eternal flame?

You can see it at Manikarnika ghat, right in front of the crematoriums.

📍 View on map

Take a sacred bath in the Ganges

© Tom Spirit / Sacred bathing in the Ganges

As we have seen, the Ganges is sacred and purifying. Many pilgrims come to do their ablutions. I often had the same feedback from travelers. “Bathing in the Ganges? Never in life!” Hey, free to them! The Ganges is very polluted, it is a fact, the height for a pure river.

Personal experience

I bathed there several times. I used to ask the boat mans to get closer to the middle of the river and then I dived. The water is cooler and more invigorating. Believe it or not, there has always been an enriching encounter right after a sacred bath and I have never gotten sick. There is still a difference between taking a dip and drinking a bowl of Ganges water.

See Varanasi at dawn

© Tom Spirit / Visit the holy city of Varanasi

Benares is a big city very lively that mixes a lot of people and where you sometimes need to find a little calm. I strongly advise you to go to the ghats before sunrise.

A special atmosphere

It is an experience to live because during this time of day, the peaceful atmosphere that reigns along the completely deserted river is indescribable. Let your thoughts run wild and give another dimension to your trip to Varanasi.

The few people you see will be praying or meditating, it’s striking. There are also always people around the cremations, which are also interesting to visit in the middle of the night. For having done so, the atmosphere is also special and different.

Plan a visit to Sarnath

© Tom Spirit / Visit Sarnath

The visit of this site is one of the essential cultural activities to do during a stay in Varanasi. Sarnath has one of the most important Buddhist sites in the world. The historical site and its surroundings are completely different from the rest of Varanasi. It is really a place not to be missed, especially since this area is very lively and has enough to keep you busy for a whole day.
 

© Tom Spirit / Ruins of Sarnath

Mecca of Buddhism

Sarnath is a Buddhist city. It was here that Buddha taught dharma² for the first time after attaining enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, not far from Varanasi (Indian-wide!).

The city was an important center of Buddhist learning more than two millennia ago and is today a high place of pilgrimage. It is one of the 4 holy and important places of Buddhism designated by Siddhartha Gautaman, known as Buddha.
 
The site suffered looting and destruction during various invasions of Muslim empires, caused in part by the Ghurid dynasty of Persia who stole all the treasures and valuables in addition to ruining the site of Sarnath. This empire is known to have left an important legacy to Ajmer in Rajasthan.
 

© Tom Spirit / Sarnath

Visit of the archaeological site, museum and temple

The visit to Sarnath costs 300 INR for foreigners. With your ticket, you have access to the archaeological site but also to the museum in front of it. It includes many artifacts and statues from the sacred place. Inside is the Dharma wheel that was once erected on Ashoka’s pillar in Sarnath and then destroyed by the Ghurids. This symbol is now the emblem that appears on the national flag of India.

The most important and oldest temple in Sarnath is just behind the archaeological complex and is free to visit.

Asian temples

© Tom Spirit / Cambodian Temple in Sarnath

All around Sarnath are many Buddhist temples and monasteries from various countries. It is a unique opportunity to visit a multitude of places of worship of various cultures in one place. I visited some of them including the Chinese, Thai and Cambodian temple. I would have loved to visit the massive Japanese temple and Tibetan monastery but I couldn’t for lack of time.
 

© Tom Spirit / Wat Thai Sarnath Temple

Moreover, the Thai temple is also remarkable, with a peaceful and green garden. A giant statue of Buddha is located there, it is 24 meters high.

Visit of Sarnath

As you can see, Sarnath is a very important place throughout the world for Buddhist culture. You should definitely visit the historical site if you are staying in Varanasi, it is one of the most important things to do.

How to get to Sarnath?

Sarnath is about 10 km from Varanasi, you can easily go there with a rickshaw for about 100~150 rupees (one way).

📍 View on map

Try bhang

© Wikimedia Commons / Preparing cannabis bhang

Bhang is a clever mix of various plants including Indian hemp and spices. It is consumed traditionally and religiously in Varanasi, but also recreationally. It is often distributed at festivals such as Holi or Maha Shivaratri where a lot of people consume it.

Risks

Bhang is a psychoactive mixture. If you are not serene, divide the dose at least by 2. If you have mental disorders or pathologies, I simply advise against it, especially in Varanasi.

Where to find bhang?

You will easily find them on the street by asking the locals. You can buy the mixture and swallow it with water but it is best to consume it in a lassi or thandai. Buy your bhang and ask to have it prepared for you.

Taste the Benares Paan

© Tom Spirit / Paan masala on a street in Varanasi

While we’re into taste quirks, let me introduce you to the paan masala (betel and spices in Hindi). It is a mixture of spices and various things wrapped in a betel leaf. Tobacco is often added.

Properties of the paan

In addition to being delicious, paan is a stimulant and a good digestive. It has other properties, but can cause adverse effects with too much abuse.

Different flavours

The composition of paan masala differs between places in India. The taste is always different and Varanasi has the reputation of having one of the tastiest in the country. You can find them everywhere on the streets.

Attend the Ganga Aarti ceremony

© Tom Spirit / Ganga Aarti Ceremony

Aarti is a Hindu cult in devotion to an entity or deity. As its name suggests, it is therefore the Ganges that is in the spotlight. To be more fair, it is Ganga, the deity associated with the Ganges. Fire is an integral part of the ceremony, recalling the cremation process where it is involved with river water. This is one of the must-do things to do in Varanasi.

When does Ganga Aarti take place?

It takes place every day of the year at sunset and lasts about 45 minutes. Come early, because the ghat quickly becomes crowded and it is difficult to get a good place. A good alternative is to admire it from the Ganges, by boat or boat.

Where does Ganga Aarti take place?

The Ganges ceremony is held in Dashashwamedh Ghat. Another aarti took place at dawn at Assi ghat, called Subah-e-Banaras. It’s a completely different experience since the atmosphere at sunrise gives off another energy.

📍 View on map

Boat trip on the Ganges

© Tom Spirit / Discover Varanasi

A boat trip will offer you another perspective of the city and it is very beautiful to see. It is also a good time to get out of the anthill that is Varanasi. I used to buy chai in a plastic bag and enjoy it at that time. I recommend it!

Visit the historic Ramnagar Fort

© Flickr – Amit Rawat / Ramnagar Fort

Ramnagar Fort is built of sandstone in the Rajput style and dates from the18th century. This is an interesting activity that you can combine with the previous one since the historical monument is located on the east bank of Varanasi. You can get there by crossing the Ganges.

Where is Ramnagar Fort?

Southeast shore of Varanasi

📍 View on map

Visit Kashi Vishwanath Temple

© Wikimedia Commons / Shri Kashi Vishwanath temple

Shri Kashi Vishwanath is the most famous Hindu temple in Varanasi. It is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The place of worship is one of the holiest in Shaivism in India, home to one of 12 jyotirlinga³ scattered throughout the country.

Purification process

Pilgrims usually perform a bath (the complete method is to bathe at 5 separate ghats) in the Ganges , and then visit the magnificent gold-domed temple to complete the purification process.

Temple Renovations

When I last visited, the temple was completely under renovation, with expansions and a new layout called the “corridor”.

Is there a charge for Kashi Vishwanath entry?

Yes, admission is now charged for tourists. The fact is that the government knows full well that a traveler passing through Varanasi will not visit the city without passing through this temple. You will have to pay 600 rupees at the ticket office to get your ticket. This is quite disconcerting for a holy place such as Kashi, but don’t miss this tour as it is important, being one of the holiest places in Hinduism.

Where is Kashi Vishwanath located?

You can reach the temple from the ghat of Manikarnika. It is located in the locality Lahori Tola.

📍 View on map

Varanasi gets a makeover

The old town of Varanasi has changed a lot around Manikarnika between my last 3 visits. The city was completely under construction. Many streets are now paved for example, including the large main and chaotic avenue that leads to the ghats: it is now brand new.

A lot of water drainage work has also been put in place for monsoons. But there have also been rearranged ghats, especially those where the cremations are located. The place is unrecognizable.
 

© Tom Spirit / Renovated street in Benares

Renovations of Kashi Vishwanath

Kashi Vishwanath and its surroundings have been completely redeveloped. About 200 old heritage buildings have been razed. It must be admitted that the new facilities are beautiful and very practical but the loss of this heritage is sad because it will never come back. Moreover, many residents who had lived around Kashi for several generations in their homes were forcibly displaced.

Dozens of temples discovered

About sixty hidden temples were discovered when everything was razed. You can read more about this in the Find the hidden temples of Varanasi section. I had the chance to come across these places in full excavation at the beginning of the big works, by chance in the middle of all the temples resurfaced from the past without supervision. I was fascinated, but I had a taste of bitterness when I went back 2 years later.

“Old is gold”

If you talk enough with the people of Varanasi, you will discover that they love to play with words and make rhymes. I have often heard ” old is gold” about the works.
 

© Tom Spirit / Beginning of the destruction of buildings around Kashi and place of discovery of many temples

Modernism and antiquity

Many trees were also cut down. The face of the city has changed markedly, giving way to modernism orchestrated by Prime Minister Narendra Modī.

The charm exuded by these old things of yesteryear and dilapidated is lost a little but do not worry, Varanasi remains incredible to visit well beyond appearances.

 

Seen from another angle, isn’t this precisely what Shiva aspires to? Destruction and creation? To meditate.

Visit Gyanvapi Masjid

© Anand Singh / Gyanvapi Masjid

In the 17th century, the last Mughal emperor Aurangzeb had an important Shivaist temple destroyed and replaced by a very large mosque: Gyanvapi Masjid. It is for this simple reason that the most important place of worship of the Muslim community of Varanasi is today stuck to the most important of the Hindu community of the sacred city. This mosque is now part of the historical heritage of Varanasi. It is an impressive building that deserves a definite visit.

Where is the Gyanvapi Masjid Mosque?

It is next to to Kashi Vishwanath temple, you can not miss it.

📍 View on map

Visit Alamgir Masjid

© Tom Spirit / Alamgir Mosque

The Alamgir Mosque is one of the most important Muslim places of worship alongside the Gyanvapi Mosque. This historical monument was built at the end of the17th century by Aurangzeb. The Mughal emperor destroyed an important temple dedicated to Vishnu before placing the mosque on top.

Where is Alamgir Mosque located?

Alamgir is located above the Panchaganga hat, it is visible from far away.

📍 View on map

Non-touristy streets

© Tom Spirit / The streets of Varanasi

The alleys of Varanasi are very popular with tourists. Indeed, the maze of alleys that house most of the hotels in the holy city are beautiful places to visit with many bazaars. But these places are touristy and the many indications of accommodation on the walls and souvenir shops remind us of this at every turn.

That’s why I advise you to also visit the opposite alleys. You have very likely to meet a tourist around here, whether Indian or foreign, and the alleys are not “distorted”. They exude a different and more authentic charm in addition to calmer beings. I spent hours in these streets without ever getting tired of it.
 

Where are they located?

These alleys are located all around the Alamgir Mosque. Pass Manikarnika ghat, walk two minutes and then climb to them. Their infinite number will offer you long hours of walking in perspective.

📍 View on map

Go see the well of Shiva and Parvati

© Tom Spirit / Manikarnika Kund

According to the story, Vishnu dug a well for Shiva and Parvati to take a bath and the goddess lost her earring. It is this story that gave birth to the name of the ghat of Manikarnika:

Mani for the name of the jewel
Karnika for the ear
 
The imprint of Vishnu appears on a slab at the entrance. Note that the kund is empty during dry seasons. If the water is red in this photo it is because I took it on the day of Maha Shivaratri, a celebration that partly commemorates the wedding of Shiva and Parvati.

On this day, devotees smear their feet with red powder. Being associated with the divine couple, the kund has seen many faithful pass by their ablutions, which has colored the water.

Where is Manikarnika Kund in Varanasi?

The well of Shiva and Parvati is located in Manikarnika ghat.

📍 View on map

Visit one of the oldest kunds in Varanasi

© Wikimedia Commons / Lolark Kund
© Wikimedia Commons / Lolark Kund

Lolark Kund is a step well that dates back nearly a millennium. The sun god Surya is worshipped here. According to beliefs, the water of this well would have divine properties. Couples would come to take a bath in this holy water would be more likely to have a child if they do not have one, or would have beneficial effects on their offspring.

The trembling sun

The Kund is composed of 3 steep stairs that lead to a large tunnel-shaped tank. Lolark, a word taken from Sanskrit, means “trembling sun”. This name is due to the wobble of the water of the reservoir and the reflection of the sun which represents the image of the god.
 

Lolark Sasthi

A festival takes place every year in this kund: Lolark Sasthi. Hundreds of people come to bathe there since it is the day when Surya witnesses the sacred baths.
 

Where is Lolark Kund located?

From Tulsi ghat, reach Tulsi Akhara and then ask the locals.

📍 View on map

Visit the Nepalese temple

© Varanasiguru.com / Nepalese Temple

The Nepali Temple, Nepali Mandir, is an important Hindu place of worship in Varanasi. It is dedicated to the deity Shiva. Its structure is composed of terracotta and wood in the style of a pagoda. It is sometimes called the mini Khajuraho, a Hindu temple complex in the Madhya-Pradesh region, because of its similar carvings.

Its construction dates back to the 19th century by the Nepalese king of the time Rana Bahadur Shah. This building is a replica of an existing temple in Nepal. Until 2019, the place was surrounded by buildings and only accessible from a very long tunnel from the ghats.

Recent renovations have completely changed the face of the site, now accessible from the new Kashi Vishwanath Corridor.
 

Where is the Nepalese temple located?

It is just before Manikarnika ghat, glued to Kashi Vishwanath.

📍 View on map

The secret temples of Varanasi

© Tom Spirit / Manikeshwar Mahadev, hidden temple in Varanasi housing a 2-storey shivalinga underground

In history, Varanasi has seen many of its temples destroyed by the Mughal Empire and its expansion of Islam. Notably the famous Kashi Vishwanath, which has been rebuilt several times. Faced with the invaders, the inhabitants of Benares opted for an alternative: hide their temples in the houses and underground.
 

Hidden temples are everywhere in Varanasi

There are so many temples and secret passages, much more than you can imagine. The houses are placed above them to better conceal them. That is to say, today they are homestays for most of them and you walk over a multitude of important temples without knowing it when you visit the sacred city.

To give you an idea, the demolition of the surroundings of Kashi Temple has recently reappeared sixty centuries-old temples housing important lingams. They are now being kept for the Prime Minister’s agenda.
 

Discover the secret temples

Searching for the hidden temples of Varanasi can therefore be an unusual and unusual thing to do. I had the chance to see some of them thanks to local knowledge. You won’t find them alone, but here are 2 that you can easily see :
 

1. Pita Maheshwar

© Tom Spirit
© Tom Spirit

This temple is not underground due to the Mughal invasion but it still escaped. Indeed, it is inscribed in a manuscript (Skanda Purâna) dating from the 8th century BC , that is to say more than two millennia before. In fact, it contains a very important lingam⁴ since this place is subject to a self-manifestation of Shiva.

You will not be able to enter the temple, only Brahmins are allowed. However, you can see it as illustrated, 10 meters above. The 2nd photo show a view of the hidden lingam. Devotees who do not have access to the temple pray above the shivling through the hole.
 

Where is the hidden temple Pita Maheshwar?

It is located in the narrow (very discete) street of Sheetla, close to Siddheshwari Devi Temple. You can walk there from Chowk or Scindia Ghat.

📍 View on map

 

2. The Snake Well

© Khaskhabar.com
© Punjabkesari.in

The secret temple is known by several names: Naag Kund, Karkotak Nageshwar, Naag Koop or Naag Kuan. This place is not really known by travelers in the holy city but it is an interesting place to see.

Nag Kund is located at the back of a small Hindu temple in Varanasi. Its structure is presented as a common Indian stepwell, but with a well in the middle that is accessible in the middle using a spiral staircase. At the bottom of it is a lingam.
 

Divine properties of the well

The place is mentioned in sacred and historical texts. Hindus believe that bathing in well water can remove the fear of being bitten by a snake, prevent bites in the future, gain immunity to other poisons and enjoy other benefits related to this animal.

But above all, it allows to mitigate one of the 12 doshas of Kaal Sarp that we carry in us by faults of the past or his karma. It would affect the life of the wearer, such as in love or in his professional career as an example.

Naga Pachami

The lingam which is 3O meters at the bottom of the well is visible only once a year during a festival, Naga Pachami. This is the day when snakes are worshipped.

The world of snakes

Under the lingam is a door sealed for centuries. The faithful think that behind it is the world of snakes, or rather nagas. In Hinduism (as well as Buddhism and Jainism), nagas are half-human and half-snake deities who live underground.

Where is the Varanasi snake well?

The Secret Temple is located in the Jaitpura district, about 1 km from the police station.

📍 View on map

Discover the leaning temple

© Tom Spirit / Leaning Temple of Benares

To continue the momentum of Varanasi’s special temples, you won’t miss Ratneshwar Mahadev. It is still unknown today who created it, when and why in that place. You will always hear different versions from the inhabitants of Benares and other sources.

Why is the Varanasi temple tilted?

Indeed, most of the temples in Varanasi were built above the ghats because of the monsoons that engulf them. But it is strongly suggested that this one was intentionally built to make it bow. The reason, however, remains unknown, as does its concrete origin. It is dedicated to the deity Shiva.

Where is the reclined Ratneshwar Mahadev temple?

The inclined temple is located in Manikarnika ghat.

📍 View on map

Aghori Spiritual Center

© Tom Spirit / Baba Keenaram Sthal

Baba Keenaram is the initiator of the sect of aghoris, an advanced branch of Shaivism. These sadhus are at the highest rank. This man is the founder of the Baba Keenaram Sthal spiritual center which has been an important pilgrimage site for the aghoris for nearly 400 years. It is a beautiful place to visit that has several temples, a large kund and an ashram. You will not miss it, the place is very colorful and skulls are represented at the entrance.

Where is the aghori temple?

It is located south of the Gauriganj district. Skulls adorn the entrance to the temple and Ashram.

📍 View on map
 

Witness Indian folklore

© Tom Spirit / Traditional South Indian dance in Varanasi

When there are events in Varanasi such as festivals or the visit of ministers, an organization close to Assighat stages folk dances and songs. It is very interesting to see, day and night.

For example, the last time I was there, there were traditional dances from South Indian cultures every day, as you can see in this photo.

Where to see folk performances?

Pass Assi ghat and then go to Munshi Ghat.

📍 View on map

The work of Varanasi weavers

© Wikimedia Commons / Weavers of Varanasi

Varanasi is renowned throughout India and even around the world for its very fine silk productions. Saris are probably the best example. Indeed, they are usually worn for special occasions such as weddings or traditional and religious events.

Saris of Varanasi

The saris of Benares feature intricate patterns, which were once more commonly embroidered with threads of pure gold. They are designed traditionally, i.e. manually on pedal looms.

Traditional weavers affected

The number of producers of traditional saris is decreasing due to the mechanization of the process, with the arrival of electrical looms. They also suffer from Chinese producers who copy Varanasi saris in a lower quality but much cheaper for resale.

Similar city to Varanasi

© Tom Spirit / Prayagraj

Prayagraj

Prayagraj is a city completely in the shadow of places to visit by tourists. If you did not know, Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad) is the city that brings together the largest number of pilgrims in India but also in the world.

You know that the Ganges is holy. Well, Prayagraj has the most sacred water in the country. Indeed, in Prayagraj is the meeting point between 3 sacred rivers :
 

  • Yamuna River
  • The Ganges River
  • Saraswati River
     
© Tom Spirit / Shankar Viman Mandapam Temple in Prayagraj

The confluence of these rivers is called “Sangam”. The meeting between the brown Ganges and green Yamuna is visible, revealing a clear difference in the confluence while the Saraswati River is underground and passes under the latter two. Thousands of pilgrims visit Prayagraj every day to take the most sacred bath in Hindu worship.

The city takes on the air of a daily festival as there are so many visitors. It is also the city where the largest Hindu festival is held, and one (if not the most) of the biggest festivals in the world that takes place every 12 years : Khumb Mela.

 
Visit Prayagraj

Although Varanasi is an extremely sacred city that I appreciate enormously, I found Prayagraj more authentic without any artifice or the few “touristeries” that can be found in Benares. I also saw during my two visits a much larger quantity of sadhus and “marginal” pilgrims. For example, naga sadhus and naked men are more numerous in Prayagraj.

This place is amazing and completely untouched by mass tourism, which is why I highly recommend going there since what you see there will mark you.

 
Cremations

Burning ghats of Prayagraj
© Tom Spirit / Cremations in Prayagraj

There are also incinerations that take place continuously just like in Varanasi in front of the Ganges on a ghat called “Desaswamedh Ghat”, not far from the Sangam confluence.

 
Saraswati Kund

The only place where the Saraswati underground river is visible is in a kund inside the historic Akbar Fort. This water is blessed and sacred. Admission to the fort is free.
 

How to get to Prayagraj

Prayagraj is located a hundred kilometers from Varanasi. Many trains serve this city, you can get there in less than two hours.

Visit during festivals

© Tom Spirit / Maha Shivaratri in 2023 in Varanasi

There are always things to see in Varanasi since the city is constantly buzzing. So imagine during a festival! This is an opportunity to make your trip to the Holy Land memorable. The list goes on, but here are some of the many interesting festivals to discover in this city:
 

© Tom Spirit / The festivities in Varanasi

MAHA SHIVARATRI

Every month, a night is celebrated by Hindus at the new moon, it is Shivaratri. And once a year, Maha Shivaratri is celebrated, a much more important festival where the divine union of Shiva and Parvati is celebrated but not only. It is also the day when Shiva swallowed a dangerous poison created by demons that could have destroyed the cosmos. The deity drank it to save the world and the liquid made his body blue. Hindus devote all day and night in devotion to Shiva. Remember to book your hotel room many months in advance for this festival.

📆 Date : Between mid-March and mid-February according to the Hindu calendar of North India.

BUDDHA MAHOTSAV

This festival celebrates the day of Buddha’s birth. The celebration takes place on the religious complex of Sarnath.

📆 Date : The festival takes place on the night of a full moon between April and May.

MAKAR SANKRANTI

The celebration of the harvest of Indian lands is celebrated during the festival of Makar Sankranti. In Varanasi, it is celebrated with offerings, delicious food to taste and lots of kites in the sky throughout the day.

📆 Date : Every year, January 14 or 15.

DHRUPAD MELA

Dhrupad Mela is a classical music festival, where one can listen to a very ancient traditional song of the Indian subcontinent, Dhrupad. It is held in Tulsi ghat.

📆 Date : The festival lasts 5 days at the beginning of March.

HOLI

Holi is the festival of colors. She is from Vishnu, the day he burned a demon. This is what the celebration is marked by bonfires. This tradition is very old and already existed in antiquity. In the past, Hindus threw the ashes of bonfires at each other and today they are colored powders. The spring equinox is celebrated during the celebration of Holi. It is said that on this day the gods close their eyes. It is therefore a time when Indians look less at their castes and cultural social codes and let themselves go by allowing themselves the consumption of alcohol or substances such as bhang.

📆 Date : The festival of colors lasts 2 days during the full moon, between February and March.

SHRAVAN MAAH

This festival is dedicated to Shiva, Parvati and the monsoon. Shavran is the name of the fifth month of the Hindu calendar, during which devotees fast every Monday for Shiva and every Tuesday for Parvati. Each temple dedicated to these deities in Varanasi organizes unique rituals for this occasion.

📆 Date : During the month of Shraavana (July to August), every Monday.

DIWALI

Or Divali and Deepawali, is the festival of lights. It commemorates and celebrates the day Rama returned from exile in Ayodhya. The locals lit up every street he passed by, and then the tradition continued. During this festival, hundreds of small terracotta lamps are placed on the ghats and on the river. This is a festival not to be missed in Benares if your trip falls within these dates.

📆 Date : Between mid-October and mid-November depending on the year. The festival lasts 5 days, and the 4th marks the Indian New Year according to the North Indian Hindu calendar (Vikram).

DEV DEEPAWALI

Or Dev Diwali is the festival where the Ganges is in the spotlight. This is an unforgettable thing to see in Benares. The entrances of the houses are decorated with colorful patterns and oil lamps but above all, hundreds of lamps are arranged on the ghats and on the river.

📆 Date : 15 days after Diwali during the full moon between November and December.

GANGA DUSSEHRA

This festival celebrates the descent of the goddess Ganga from the heavens to the river on this day. It is believed that taking a bath in the Ganges during this event significantly erases his sins. Small terracotta lamps are placed on the river at sunset.

📆 Date : Between May and June in the Hindu month Jyeshtha. It takes place on the 10th day of Shukla Paksha, which represents the period from the first day of the new moon to the full moon.

How many days to visit Varanasi?

Having spent weeks there, I find new things to visit every visit. Varanasi is a city that enjoys so many tourist activities! But more reasonably, I strongly advise to stay in the holy city at least a week to cover a good part of the visits and especially to properly soak up the atmosphere of the place and grasp some of its subtleties.

Varanasi is a pleasant city to spend time, you put down roots quickly and you can easily meet locals and pilgrims.

What to see in Varanasi
in one day?

A day in Varanasi is really too short. If your stay cannot be extended, then I advise you to do mainly activities related to ghats during this period of time which could include:
 

  • Boat trip on the Ganges
  • Walk on the ghats
  • Visit of the cremations
  • Visit the kund of Shiva and Parvati
  • See the eternal flame
  • Visit of Kashi Vishwanath
  • Attend Ganga Aarti
     

What to do in Varanasi
in 2 days?

Day 1

  • Boat trip on the Ganges
  • Walk on the ghats
  • Visit of the cremations
  • Visit the kund of Shiva and Parvati
  • See the eternal flame
  • Visit of Kashi Vishwanath
  • Attend Ganga Aarti

Day 2

  • Excursion to Sarnath
  • Visit of the archaeological site
  • Visit of the museum
  • Visit Buddhist temples
     

What to visit in Varanasi
in 3 days?

Day 1

  • Walk on the ghats
  • Visit of the cremations
  • Visit the kund of Shiva and Parvati
  • See the eternal flame
  • Visit of Kashi Vishwanath
  • Attend Ganga Aarti

Day 2

  • Excursion to Sarnath
  • Visit of the archaeological site
  • Visit of the museum
  • Visit Buddhist temples

Day 3

  • Visit to Ramnagar Fort
  • Visit to Gyanvapi Masjid Mosque
  • Visit of Lolark Kund
  • Visit of the Aghori Center
  • Visit of the saris factories

When to visit Varanasi?

© Tom Spirit / When is the best time to visit Varanasi?

This weather also applies in Uttar Pradesh and much of northern India in general, except mountainous regions of course.

The months of October to March are ideal. The temperature is cool at night and warm during the day, except March and October when the degrees are warmer at night.

The months of July to September are very rainy. It is the monsoon period, the weather is hot and humid.

The months from April to June are very hot. Temperatures easily exceed 40°C and remain very heavy at night.

How to get to Varanasi?

There are many options for getting to Varanasi. For train travel, you can refer to the official Indian website IndianRail.

Note: only Indian bank cards are accepted for booking trains via IndianRial.

➡️ Travelling by train in India : complete guide
 

© Tom Spirit / How to get to Benares

How to get to the center of Varanasi (ghats) from the train station?

You should know that the ghats are not accessible by vehicle unless you are a local resident. Your driver will drop you off at the entrance of the city center and then have to continue on foot (it takes only ten minutes to reach the ghats).

The price of the rickshaw ride costs between 100 and 150 INR from the two stations Varanasi Junction (JN) and Varanasi City (BSB). The price of a taxi costs about 250 INR. These prices are accurate and do not hesitate to haggle because you will often be told prices like 500 INR, which is a “special tourist” rate.

How to get to Varanasi from New Delhi

🚆 By train

From New Delhi Railway Station (NDLS):
The VANDE BHARAT EX (22436) train departs every morning from platform 16 at 06:00 hours except Monday and Thursday. The journey takes about 8 hours, it is the fastest option by train.

📍 View on map
 

✈️ By plane

From Indira Gandhi Airport :
Trips take about 1h20 non-stop and cost on average between $50 and $70. It is preferable to choose the site of the Indian airlines: Air India and IndiGo.

📍 View on map
 

How to get to Varanasi from Kolkata (Calcutta)

🚆 By train

From Howrah Junction Station (HWH):
The POORVA EXPRESS train (12381) departs several times a day from Kolkata to Varanasi. The journey takes 10 hours, it is the fastest. It then continues to New Delhi.

The HIMGIRI EXPRESS (12331) train leaves daily at 23:55 from Varanasi. The journey takes 15 hours.

📍 View on map
 

From Sealdah Station (SDAH):
The SDAH ANVT EXP train (13119) departs daily to Varanasi. The journey takes 23 hours. So avoid this station to get to Benares.

📍 View on map
 

From Kolkata Station ( KOAA):
The KOAA AGC EXPRESS (13167) train departs daily at 12:20 to Varanasi. The journey takes 12 hours.

The KOAA NLDM EXPRESS (12325) train departs daily at 07:40 for Varanasi. The journey takes 13 hours.

📍 View on map
 

✈️ By plane

From Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose :
Flights last 1h40 non-stop and cost between $50 and $100. The best airline to travel from Kolkata to Varanasi is IndiGo.

📍 View on map
 

How to get to Varanasi from Jaipur?

🚆 By train

From Jaipur Junction Station (JP):
The MARUDHAR EXPRESS train (14854) departs on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The journey takes 20 hours. To have taken it, it’s long and we savor the arrival. Sleeper class highly recommended.

📍 View on map
 

✈️ By plane

From Jaipur International Airport :
Flights last about 5h30 and cost around $ 80 with a mandatory stopover in Delhi. IndiGo is the airline for flights from Jaipur to Varanasi.

📍 View on map
 

How to get to Varanasi from Bodh Gaya

🚆 By train

From Gaya Junction Station :
Air travel is not useless since the distance by train is short. 13 trains depart daily to Varanasi with journeys ranging from 2 to 5 hours.

📍 View on map







Fun facts section: photographers of the dead
Jewel collectors in ashes with sieves
Itinerary 1 day
Itinerary 2 days
Which city to visit near Varanasi: Bodh-Gayâ
Existing part on jyortilingas: citing the cities
stepwells of vara
mother theresa house dying people waiting to die here


The upper part of the cremations for the upper castes



 

 
LEXICON

¹Him: Shiva is a male-female deity but is always referred to as masculine.(return)

²Dharma : Spiritual path taught by the Buddha. (return)

³Jyotirlinga : Symbolic representation of Shiva in the place where Shiva self-manifested. There are 64 Jyortilingas in India, but only 12 are very sacred, including Kashi. The other 11 are located in: Gir, Srisailam, Ujjain, Khandwa, Rudraprayag, Pune, Nashik, Deoghar, Dwarka, Rameswaram and Aurangabad. (return)

Lingam : Symbolic representation of Shiva established by a physical person for the purpose of worshipping the deity. (return)

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About the author

Picture of Tom Spirit
Tom Spirit
Hey, it's Tom! Welcolme to Spirit Travelers. I'm a nomad traveler for several years and I share my experiences by publishing content and travel guides on this blog. Find some of the most popular countries to visit but also off the beaten track destinations.

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