Varanasi, which is also known as Benares, is situated on the Ganges and has been India’s holiest Hindu city for 3,000 years. It is considered one of the world’s oldest cities and the spiritual capital of India. The 90 or so ghats along the river define the life and identity of Varanasi. They extend approximately four miles. This stretch is lined with many temples and shrines. I visited the site early in the morning and again at sunset when the temperatures are not as hot and the light is the best for photography. This was by far one of the most moving parts of my trip to India. It should not be missed. I would try to see the ghats by boat at sunrise, if at all possible!
The ghats are also listed in the book 1000 Places to See Before you Die by Patricia Schultz.
You will see:
People bathing in the sacred waters to pay obeisance to the Ganges. You will see them washing and even brushing their teeth.
Prayers being said and then floating candles are placed in the river.
Many holy men under large umbrellas or sitting on the steps of the ghats in meditation.
Rows of priests sitting under bamboo parasols, ready to perform ritual prayers for the pilgrims that swarm here. The centrally located ghats are the most sacred, with Dasashvamedha Ghat the holiest spot.
Funeral pyres burning all day, cremating the bodies wrapped in white that are brought there through the streets.
Prayers being said with salutations to the river in the evening. Old lamps are offered and bells rung while sacred mantras are chanted.
Huge crowds in the small narrow streets. You will see sacred cows, saffron-robed sadhus and devotees making offerings at roadside shrines.
You should be prepared for sensory overload. The sights, smells and sounds are amazing. I would eat only in the hotel as I would not trust the local restaurants since the entire town is very crowded and very dirty. After sensory overload and to escape the heat of the day, I would suggest going back to your hotel after your venture to the ghats in the early morning. It is good to retreat to a comfortable room and a good meal. You should go back to the ghats late afternoon for sunset.
You can make the trek to and from the river by cycle-rickshaw or auto-rickshaw. Once there, the best way to explore is on foot. I do suggest taking a boat cruise at sunrise where you can see the spectacle from the water.
Make sure you buy some of Varanasi’s famous brocades and textiles. They are beautifully done.