International Travel

Joanita Wibowo

An unforgettable pilgrimage to the world's oldest living city

Throughout history, travellers who seek a sense of enlightenment and spirituality have found themselves drawn to the north Indian city of Varanasi.

Mark Twain described Varanasi as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”.

Varanasi, erstwhile known as Kashi, has been the hub of Indian culture, spiritualism and meditation since time immemorial. The city with its vibrant Ghats, narrow lanes, decorated boats and colourful bazaars presents a large canvas for siteseeing.

Lying in the south of the Uttar Pradesh state, Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest living cities, as well as one of Hinduism’s holiest places. Having been continuously inhabited for more than 5,000 years, it has become a centre for Hinduism, just as Jerusalem is for Christianity and Mecca is for Islam.

The city is situated by the sacred Ganges River, where locals and pilgrims from across the globe come to wash their sins away in the holy waters, pray, or lay the ashes of their loved ones to help them reach the heaven and escape the cycle of rebirth.

The great river Ganges can also be explored by boat. One of the classic Ganges experiences includes watching the sunrise on a boat as the golden glow from the daybreak shines over the constructed riverbanks, the Ghats and the rest of the old city.

Upon going back to the land, the Ghats will be alive as various groups of people go about their activities – priests performing rituals, bathers washing up and collecting sacred water, locals practicing meditation and yoga, and visitors strolling around the surrounding pavilions, palaces, temples and terraces that rise from the water’s edge.

One of the most venerated temples is the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, which is dedicated to the presiding deity of the City of Lights, Lord Shiva. It is also known as the Golden Temple, as its dome and tower are coated in 800kg of gold plating. Out of the 12 jyotirlinga shrines around India, Kashi Vishwanath is said to be the dearest to Shiva, as the city it presides in is said to be the point at which the first jyotirlinga – the fiery pillar of light by which Shiva manifested his supremacy over other gods – broke through the earth’s crust and flared towards the heavens. On holy days, devotees may spend 48 hours in lines to enter the temple in order to give offerings and touch the lingam for absolution of sins.

Inside the same compound also lay the shrines of the wrathful protectors Mahakala and Dandapani, as well as the lingam of Avimukteshvara, the Lord of the unforsaken.

On the way in to and out of the temple, visitors can go through the Vishwanath Gali, a street filled with market stalls to purchase pooja (prayer) items and sweets.

From there, you can venture 10km northeast to Sarnath, one of the world’s most revered Buddhist pilgrimage centres. This is where Buddha came to preach his first sermon after achieving enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, on his way to Nirvana. Various stupas and structures of great historical significance, dating back to as far as the third century BC, stand on this serene village – the Chaukhandi Stupa, where Buddha met his first five disciples; the engraved Ashoka Pillar which marks foundation of Buddhist Sangha; and Dhamekh Stupa and monastery ruins with beautiful geometric carvings and brickwork from as old as 200 BC.

Make your way back south to Tulsi Manas Mandir, a famous temple dedicated to Rama of the Ramcharitmanas, a retelling of Sanskrit epic Ramayana. The white marble walls are engraved with verses and scenes from the ancient Hindi tale, which was originally written at the site by Hindu Vaishnava saint and poet Goswami Tulsidas.

Another site nearby is the Sankat Mochan Temple, one of the city’s oldest temples. Situated on the banks of river Assi, the temple was founded by Tulsidas and is dedicated to Lord Hanuman, another main character from the author’s epic.

As the sun sets, stroll back to the Ghats to witness Ganga aarti, a religious prayer that takes place at dusk every day, be it rain, hail or shine. During the spiritual ceremony, a group of young, saffron-clad pandits (priests) hold up large brass lamps and move to the rhythm of chants and mantras in honour of the River Goddess Ganga. The heady scent from sandalwood fills the air as incense sticks are waved in elaborate patterns and flower Diyas (lights) are floated into the river.

The lanes of Banaras form a maze parallel to the river, running between homes, palaces and places of worship. They run serpentine or jagged, rarely at right angles to each other, and only those born within them know their eccentricities by heart. They are paved with fine-grained sandstone quarried from the nearby hills of Chunar.
Walking through them, you lose your sense of time, place, and self, and are accompanied by a constant sense of discovery. 

Enjoy the life and hustle and bustle you see in every street of Varanasi.

This is sponsored content brought to you in conjunction with India Tourism.