Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. It has been known by many names, including the City of Light, a name derived from Kāśī (Sanskrit: “to shine”). This name survived since its first appearing in texts around 1,000 B.C., and refers to spiritual illumination.
The 3,000 year old name Kashi is still used today as the city’s cultural name, but the popular name used by locals is still Benaras, even though its official name changed to Varanasi in 1956 . The current name is derived from the city’s location near the confluence of two rivers forming the Ganges: the river Varuna and river Assi (Varuna+Assi=Varanasi).
This is indeed India. . . . the country of a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race.”Mark Twain, in “Following the Equator”, 1897
We visited the city in 2019 and we explain in this post why we highly recommend a visit to this unforgettable city. Other Indian cities you will want to visit are Delhi (see our post), Khajuraho (see our post), Mumbai (see our post) and Kolkata (see our post).
Varanasi is older than history…
Varanasi history and culture
Varanasi’s ancient connection to the Ganges river and to Hindu tradition has an impressive mythological pedigree, as the city founded by Shiva.
Varanasi is the religious capital of Hinduism, the holiest of the cities and a spiritual hub drawing millions of Hindu pilgrims each year, drawn partly by its famous Kashi Vishwanath Temple dedicated to Shiva, and partly because of its connection to the Ganges river (see below).
If that historical pedigree weren’t enough, in nearby Sarnath (10 km away), Buddha is believed to have founded Buddhism and delivered his first sermon here around 528 BCE.
Wait, there’s more… the philosopher Vatsyayana, wrote his famous Kama Sutra sexual treatise here, sometime between the 2nd and 6th century A.D.
The Ganges starts in the Himalayas and empties into the Bay of Bengal. Hindus believe that every centimeter along its 2,500 km length is sacred, and some take a daily ritual bath morning or night.
Everyone knows it is polluted by just looking at it. But a 2006 study estimated that 200 million liters of untreated human sewage is discharged daily into the Ganges River.
The Ganges is also chemically toxic with riverside leather tanneries, carpet factories, paper mills and distilleries all discharging into it.
Perhaps an unusual way to treat the sacred Mother Ganges river which Hindus believe will expiate sins and offers liberation from death. Our guide said the annual monsoon season floods the river and flushes it clean (like a toilet, I guess).
In the photos below, small commercial enterprises along the Ganges collect dirty linen from many of the small tourist hotels in Varanasi, and wash them in the Ganges, laying them on the steps to dry.
In Varanasi we saw people bathe in the Ganges, offer flowers in floating shallow dishes with lit candles, spread cremation ashes, wash their laundry, immerse corpses, and brush their teeth. Hindus carry small quantities of the river water back home for use in rituals.
Varanasi is a bit different than other historical cities we’ve visited, in that many Hindus still interact with its historical elements the way they did 2,000 years ago. Most historical cities preserve and cherish their historical elements, but they embrace the modern while relegating their past, myths and legends to museums, statues and churches. Rome, Cairo and Athens are open air museums but the monuments and history are consumed by tourists, not by locals seeking to engage with mythical gods — and even for us tourists, the open-air copy of Lupa Capitolina is quickly forgotten on Via Veneto.
On the other hand, as a visitor to Varanasi, we sensed its 3,000 history continues uninterrupted into the present, with devotees still engaging in daily rituals and myths that predate most other cities’ existence. Our guide told us there are Brahmin priests who sit near the same spot their ancestors did a thousand years ago, offering blessings to locals in exchange for payment (photo above).
Millions of Hindus come annually from all over India to join the locals at temples and to the shores of the Ganges to perform rituals. In the picture below, the women are from southern India and are performing a devotional ritual offering to a symbolic deity using fire as an offering. The ritual offering of fire to a deity is called aarti, which can be simple or extravagant, but always includes flame or light.
Our guide, who himself is a devout Hindu and a wonderful person, told us that the single ritual which draws the most devotees to Varanasi is about death.
Cremation is part of life in Varanasi
For Hindus, the way you die is as important as the way you live. Death and cremation in the holiest city by the Ganges river is as good as it gets, because it ensures one ultimate liberation from the cycle of life and birth. This ritual is so fundamental to Varanasi that we have a separate post with pictures and details of the cremation ritual and its meaning here**.
Art for Aarti’s sake
Another famous ritual beside the Ganges happens every night in 3 Indian holy cities, Varanasi being one of them. Unlike the modest aarti offering performed by the 5 women in the previous picture above, the Ganges Aarti is big in scale and attracts big crowds; it’s a beautiful spectacle befitting a ritual offering to the goddess of the Ganges river.
Several young priests draped in robes perform the 45 minute ritual, first lighting the lamps and circling in a clockwise manner, accompanied by incense and songs praising the Ganges goddess so that the lamp flames acquire her power. Crowds gather early, in chairs, on stairs, rooftops and in boats to experience the visual, the aural and for some, the spiritual extravaganza: rhythmic chants, bell clanging, incense burning, bright flames and flamboyant choreography.
The closer one gets to the altars, the more intense is the experience, but after mingling with the crowd for a bit we were glad our guide had pre-arranged (for a small fee) to view the aarti spectacle from a private nearby balcony.
I can only imagine the extra-sensory overload in 2010 when Islamic extremists bombed this event.
Varanasi’s Holy men
As holy cities go, Varanasi produces its share of holy men. There are millions of ascetic monks in India, called sadhu, who renounce worldly possessions and all attachments to society, in pursuit of total liberation from ignorance and desires (see our detailed post on sadhus in Kathmandu).
There are different sadhu sects lions of sadhus with asceticism and meditation as their underlying commonality. As ascetics, the sadhu have few possessions other than their clothes. Some wear the holy colors of saffron or orange, or nothing at all.
Varanasi is the headquarters of the largest grouping of sadhus in India, the Juna Akhara of Shri Panch Dashnam.
The aghori are a small but infamous sect of sadhu, whose reputation is thick with fiction. They may smear ashes from burned corpses on their body, use human bones for jewelry, and use a human skull as a bowl for eating and begging.
The word Aghor translates more or less to “that which is not terrible.” That said, they allegedly dabble in urophagia, coprophagia, necrophilia, cannibalism and other sensational taboos. Other aghoris engage in less shocking taboos, dealing with stigmatized diseases like leprosy or helping lower caste ‘untouchables’, both veritable taboos to many Hindus.
Aghori engage in societal taboos for a purpose: to eliminate their ego and embrace the notion that distinctions in the real world are illusions which obstruct one’s spiritual development. By ignoring or embracing taboos they acknowledge the ‘divine’ in everything.
The aghori strive for a simple and natural state of consciousness, without fear, hatred, disgust or discrimination, even if those are the exact sentiments they evoke from many mainstream Hindus, especially their practices of sleeping in cremation grounds, smearing themselves with cremation ashes and using human bones.
The aghori beliefs and rituals date back to Buddha, who also was an ascetic and engaged in cremation ground practices. However, ancient buddhists visited the cremation grounds to observe corpses (or imagined themselves doing so) in order to meditate on that vision, while some aghori allegedly ‘interact’ with the corpse for meditative purposes.
(see our post on the origins of sadhus in India and Nepal).
Bhang in Varanasi
Many aghoris (and even less spiritual folk) consume cannabis in various forms, and Varanasi is known for its many shops selling edible bhang (Hindi word for cannabis). It can be obtained at various shops including government approved shops, which makes it legal and culturally acceptable, especially during India Holi festival (which is not a holy festival). Bhang’s association with Lord Shiva dates back for millennia and entrenches it in Hindu traditions and customs.
Bhang is made into a paste, and can be sold as little balls or pellets (bhang goli), or drinks (bhang lassi or bhang thandai) made from the paste mixed with ghee, milk or yoghurt, sugar and spices.
Many locals just buy the paste or powder and blend into dishes at home during Holi festival (like Thailand’s Songkran festival, but throwing colored powder instead of water).
In addition to its ‘calming’ effect, bhang is thought to have other medicinal properties. Maybe bhang ingestion is why Varanasi locals are said to embrace masti, (joie de vivre), although you don’t get that impression from the street chaos and constant horn honking, whether in a small alleyway or on busy streets, as seen in our video below.
A few years ago, on the road from Delhi to Agra, our driver described a new highway being built to relieve poor road conditions and congestion. As our car slowed to dodge cows for the 20th time in as many kilometers, I asked him, innocently, whether they were going to fix the ‘cow problem’ by keeping livestock off the new super-highway. Deftly edging our car around yet another big horned Brahman, he answered just as innocently, “What cow problem, sir?”
Since cows are thought to be sacred in Hinduism, and Varanasi is the holiest of Hindu cities, there are plenty of sacred cows (and water buffalo) everywhere: in alleyways, streets, and even shops. At first they seem out of place, but they gradually blend in until suddenly they’re too big and dangerously too close.
Adding Varanasi to your travel bucket list
Varanasi, a spiritual and cultural centre of India for several thousand years, is a city where the past and the present mingle so beautifully that the joy of visiting is profound and unforgettable. Excavations in 2014 revealed yet more artefacts almost 3,000 years old. Varanasi one of the most unique cities we’ve visited, but some of its other features are worth mentioning:
Sarnath which is around 10 km away from the city, and a Buddhist pilgrim site. Buddha is supposed to have delivered his first sermon to five disciples in Sarnath around 500 B.C. There are several monasteries and temples, and the Dhamekha stupa, erected where
Varanasi’s fine silk and muslin fabrics put this city on the silk road map long ago **see our post on the Silk Road Cities. Today the main shopping areas are Vishwanath Gali, Godolia, Lahurabir, Dashaswamedh Gali and Golghar, however there are also fakes sold everywhere.
You should make time to visit one of the many villages and hamlets nearby, especially the ones with brick factories, as it is very worthwhile. Click here to see our post on ** village.
Mondisti Trip Tips for Varanasi
- Hire a guide and drive (same as anywhere) to get the most out of your visit.
- The city is well connected to other parts of India by train as well as by air.
- Take 2 boat rides to see the Ghats from the water, and experience the Aarti at least once.
- Two nights is too short to really let the city soak in, but three or four nights is perfect.
- The festive time (October to April) is the best season to tour Varanasi for the Indian festivals (Deepawali, Dusshera, Bharat Milap or the Ganga Festival).