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Things to Do in Varanasi

Varanasi, one of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and one of India’s holiest pilgrimage sites, sits on the banks of the Ganges River in the state of Utter Pradesh 474 miles (765 kilometers) from New Delhi. Believed to be the abode of the god Shiva, Hindu pilgrims from all corners of India come here to find purification in the waters of the holy river and to cremate their dead in hopes of releasing them from the cycle of reincarnation. 

The lifeblood of Varanasi is the Ganges, lined by busy ghats where mundane tasks, like washing laundry and bathing, take place alongside sacred ceremonies. Colorful temples and shrines, flower markets and holy men selling their services along the river lend Varanasi an almost mystical feeling -- it’s the exotic India many travelers imagine before ever stepping foot in the country.

To get a sense of the place, take a boat ride down the Ganges River at dawn or sunset, where you’ll pass ancient temples sinking into the water, priests performing fire rituals and Hindu pilgrims setting candles afloat on the water’s surface as an offering to the gods.
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Kashi Vishwanath Temple (Golden Temple)
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Varanasi’s Kashi Vishwanath Temple is also called the Golden Temple, thanks to its pure gold spire and dome. The current building dates from 1780, but temples stood in the same place for centuries. Dedicated to the Hindu Lord Shiva—one of the most significant deities in the Hindu pantheon—Kashi Vishwanath is a major pilgrimage site.

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Ganges River (Ganga)
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India’s holiest river, the Ganges (Ganga) runs east for 1,560 miles (2,510 kilometers) from the western Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. A lifeline for north India’s plains and towns, the river is also a place of Hindu pilgrimage at cities such as Rishikesh and Varanasi—drawing visitors with humbling scenes of religious devotion.

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Dashashwamedh Ghat
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Dashashwamedh Ghat is one of the busiest, oldest, and most important ghats in Varanasi. It's the site of a number of Hindu temples and shrines and a place where pilgrims come from all over the world to perform religious ceremonies and rituals. Many devotees visit the ghat at sunrise to pay homage to Lord Shiva and bath in the holy waters of the Ganges, while evening aarti, which see thousands of floating lamps immersed in the river, attracts huge crowds from far and wide.

Literally translated, Dashashwamedh means ‘the ghat of 10 sacrificed horses.’ According to Hindu mythology, ten horses were sacrificed by Lord Brahma to allow Shiva to return from a period of banishment. Despite its age, Dashashwamedh Ghat is attractive, colorful, and relatively clean, and even non-devotees are attracted by its atmosphere, daily rituals, and beautiful riverfront views.

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Manikarnika Ghat
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Manikarnika Ghat is one of the oldest and most sacred ghats in Varanasi. It is the main cremation ghat in the area, with the bodies of devout Hindus being burned here before their ashes are carried away by the holy waters of the Ganges.

Hindu mythology links this ghat with Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. It’s said that those cremated here will attain moksha (salvation). Bodies are brought to Manikarnika Ghat via a stretcher made from bamboo and covered in red cloth, before being consigned to flames amid prayers that their souls rest in peace for eternity.

There is a sacred well at the ghat called the Manikarnika Kund, which is said to have been dug by Lord Vishnu at the time of creation. Lord Vishnu was said to have meditated for many years at the ghat, and it’s believed that his charana paduka (footprints) can be seen here in a circular marble slab. Manikarnika Ghat is also famous for the temple of the Lord Shiva and Mata Durga, which was built here in the mid-1800s.

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Varanasi Ghats (Banaras Ghats)
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The ghats in Varanasi descend from the city down the banks and into the waters of the holy River Ganges. There are almost 100 individual ghats lining the river’s edge in this region, their steep steps making access to the river possible during both the wet and dry seasons. The oldest and most famous ghats in the area are Dashashwamedh, Manikarnika, and Harishchandra. Others include Assi Ghat, Scindia Ghat, Lalita Ghat, and Kedar Ghat.

As the religious capital of India among Hindus, Varanasi sees pilgrims and other visitors drawn to the Banaras Ghats in their droves. Visitors can absorb the atmosphere by taking a sunrise boat-ride along the river, while marveling at the colorful temples and religious activities lining the water’s edge.

Devout Hindus aim to travel to the Banaras Ghats at least once in their lifetimes, and most hope to die and be cremated within the city in order that their ashes be swept away by the Ganges. The cremation fires here burn all day every day, with the main cremation ghat being Manikarnika. Some ghats are simply used for prayers and bathing.

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Dhamek Stupa
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The Dhamek Stupa is a giant cylindrical Buddhist stupa situated in Sarnath, near Varanasi. This huge structure was built on the site where the Buddha was said to have given his first sermon to his disciples after attaining enlightenment. As such, it is one of the most important and revered sites for Buddhist pilgrims within India.

The Dhamek Stupa was constructed in 500 CE to replace an earlier structure, and has been enlarged on several occasions over the years. It has been constructed from a mixture of stone and brick, and measures 28 meters in diameter at its base and almost 44 meters in height.

The stupa sits within beautifully manicured gardens, providing the ideal place for pilgrims and visitors to enjoy their surroundings and reflect on the life of the Buddha. The Dhamek Stupa’s immediate vicinity also features a number of half-ruined monasteries and the remains of much smaller stupas.

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Chaukhandi Stupa
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The Chaukhandi Stupa is an important Buddhist stupa originally built as a terraced temple to mark the place where the Buddha and his first disciples met when traveling from Bodhgaya to Sarnath.

Built during the Gupta period (4th-6th centuries), the stupa’s octagonal top tower was said to be added much later by Govardhan, the son of Raja Todarmal, in 1588 during the Mughal era. He built the additional tower to commemorate the visit of Humayun, the great Mughal ruler.

The stupa stands amid beautifully maintained gardens and serves as the gateway to the Buddhist city of Sarnath. It is just a short walk from the structure to the Sarnath Museum nearby, and also close to the other sites and attractions of Sarnath.

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Pillars of Ashoka
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The Pillars of Ashoka refer to a number of columns inscribed with edicts by the Mauryan king, Ashoka, during his reign in the mid-3rd century BC. The pillar at Sarnath near Varanasi bears the inscriptions: "No one shall cause division in the order of monks."

The original column at Sarnath was 50 meters tall and was carved out of a single block of polished sandstone. It features four images of lions known as the Lion Capital of Ashoka, which stand back to back and were originally mounted atop a cylindrical abacus. The abacus was built over a bell-shaped lotus, with the figures of four running animals – an elephant, a bull, a horse, and a lion – separated by 24-spoked Dharma wheels. These four mammals are believed to symbolize the four different phases of Gautama Buddha's life.

However, the pillar at this site was broken in the midst of a past invasion, with the remains in three pieces now kept in a glass cage nearby. The lion figurehead can be found in the Sarnath Museum nearby.

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Kedar Ghat
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Home to the Kedarnath Temple, not to mention serene scenes of the sun rising from the holy waters of the Ganges, Kedar Ghat in Varanasi is one of the most important and picturesque ghats in the region. Popular among Bengalis and South Indians, the Kedareshwar Temple here is dedicated to Lord Shiva, the presiding deity of Varanasi, and is a fine example of Hindu architecture. There’s also a Parvati Kund nearby, a small pool of water that’s believed to have highly medicinal properties.

The approach to Kedar Ghat is through a maze of narrow alleyways bustling with cattle, devotees, and operators organizing River Ganges boat rides. The steps down to the water are high and steep, with the upper steps brightly painted in stripes.

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