It's known variously as the land of temples, the city of Lord Shiva, and most recently, the constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The holy waters of the River Ganga here have received the mortal remains of countless Hindus over the year and the ghats alongside are equal parts chaos and spirituality. The city itself offers a colourful mix of contemporary cafes, pure veg dhabas and tons of shops where you can stock up on everything from rudraksha beads to fine silks. There is no doubt that Varanasi is one of the most compelling destinations in India and is as much a much-visit as Agra or Jaipur. If you're still not convinced, here are seven top reasons to visit the city at least once in your lifetime.
1. Dashashwamedh Aarti
Dashashwamedh is one of the most sacred ghats on the banks of the Ganges, and never is this more evident than during the daily Ganga Aarti that is performed here. The air is thick with incense and the glowing aartis are nothing short of mesmerising. You can witness this spectacular event on a boat in the river, which is quite an amazing experience.
2. Temples and spirituality
There are hundreds of temples in the city, all which come laden with history and religious significance. Many temples are as old as 500-1000 years. The Kashi Vishwanath and Sankat Mochan temples are the most popular but don't let that stop you from finding your own favourite place of worship. Unsurprisingly, yoga is deeply entrenched in the local culture and it is easy to source a good yoga master who'll take you one step closer to achieving unity with the universe.
3. Eclectic cuisine and shopping
Once you have paid your respects to the divine forces, seek out material riches in the form of Banarasi saris, hand-knotted carpets and exquisite woodwork at shopping hubs such as Godowlia and Vishwanath Gali.
In Varanasi, you can also sample cuisines from all over the world or go local and tuck into the most delicious street food (don't miss Kachori Gali!). The city is full of foodies and you can usually find something tasty to munch on regardless of the time of day. Many good restaurants sit along the river Ganga, so you can enjoy your food while watching the beautiful sunset and the river.
4. Music and concerts
After religion, it is music that courses through the streets of Varanasi. The city has been home to number of maestros, including Ustad Bismillah Khan and Ravi Shankar. One of the most immersive experiences in the city is listening to a classical music concert at the Music Paradise Hall. Find yourself swept away by the trains of the sarod or flute or the rhythm of the tabla.
There are also many music schools in the city should you wish to learn an instrument and there are lots of shops to buy them too.
5. Assi Ghat
Assi Ghat is another good venue from where to witness the Ganga Aarti. It also has several restaurants offering marvellous views of the river.
6. Forts and history
Considered to be the oldest city in India, Varanasi proudly bears the marks of centuries past. Don't miss the 18th-century Ramnagar Fort which sits solemnly on the eastern bank of the Ganga. Built for the Maharaja of Banaras, it has a museum displaying vintage cars, royal swords and weaponry, ivory artefacts and other antique items. Chunar Fort is about 40km from Varanasi and was built during the time of Babar. It also briefly served as a shelter for Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of India.
This holy place, 10km from Varanasi, is where Gautama Buddha first preached to his followers after he attained enlightenment. The grounds are beautifully maintained, with the historical Dhamek Stupa as a centrepiece. Sarnath is also home to stupas and monuments representing the Buddhist traditions of countries such as Japan, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
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