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Varanasi

Varanasi is probably the place in India that has the most profound impact on visitors. Formerly known as Benares, it sits on a bend of the Ganges, and its spiritual significance comes from its status as a "crossing place", where gods and goddesses can descend to earth. It has been a pilgrimage site since the sixth century BC; Hindus try to visit at least once in their lifetime and immediately make for the river to pray and bathe. The Ghats - hundreds of stone steps flanking the riverbank - are an incredible sight, particularly at sunrise when thousands of pilgrims bathe in the spiritually cleansing waters. On the riverbank at dusk, smoke from funeral pyres merges with sweet-smelling incense - while pilgrims, sadhu's (holy men) and Hindu priests attend the evening prayer ceremony, or Puja, to a feverish soundtrack of drumming, chanting and crashing symbols before releasing candle offerings into the swirling Ganges.

The riverbanks of Varanasi are lined with remarkably colourful temples, best viewed from aboard a boat on the great Ganges. The 19th century Durga Temple stands out for its striking ochre hue, which is reflected in the shimmering waters of the river, and the lively monkey inhabitants that populate this ornate temple.  On the opposite side to the stone Ghats is the lofty and impressive eighteenth-century Ramnagar Fort, home of the maharaja, whose fortifications glow golden in the afternoon sun.

The Old City, which stretches back from the Ganges into a maze of tiny alleys, has several temples, including one of the holiest temples in India: the Golden Temple. This temple is dedicated to Shiva and only admits Hindus and of course the sacred cow, although non-Hindus can admire the glinting gold-plated spire from outside.  You'll find narrow lanes of food sellers, market stalls and wandering animals, as well as numerous mosques including the sixteenth-century Razia's Mosque and the white-domed Jani Vapi.

Outside the old city are fascinating museums and places of interest to contrast with the often frenetic pace of the Varanasi’s Ghats and Old City. The Bharat Kala Bhawan Museum houses an incredible collection of miniature paintings, sculptures and twelfth-century manuscripts. There's a gallery focusing on the history of Varanasi including ancient maps of the city and excavated items from the Ghats. Mother India's temple, or Bharat Mata temple, which was inaugurated by Mahatma Ghandi in 1936, is worth a visit for its unusual relief map of India carved from marble depicting the plateaus and riverbeds of this diverse country. Ten kilometres north of Varanasi, and easily accessible by rickshaw, is Sarnath, a Buddhist pilgrimage centre, where Buddha preached his first sermon. Sarnath is a spiritual place of mainly ruined stupas, shrines and temples, which makes a serene day trip from Varanasi.

>> Read our blog: Varanasi, the holiest of holy cities...

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