320km (198 miles) SE of Lucknow; 765km (474 miles) SE of Delhi
A crumbling maze of a city that rises from the ghats (steps) on the western banks of the Ganges, Varanasi is in many senses the quintessential India. With an ancient history -- Mark Twain famously described it as "older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together" -- it is also one of the most sacred cities in the world today. Kashi, or "City of Light, where the eternal light of Shiva intersects the earth," as Varanasi is seen by devotees, is the holiest of Indian pilgrimages, home of Shiva, where the devout come to wash away their sins. It is also one of the holiest tirthas (literally a "crossing" or sacred place where mortals can cross over to the divine, or the gods and goddesses come to bathe on earth), where many return to die in the hope that they may achieve moksha, the salvation of the soul from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
Named after the confluence of two rivers, Varuna and Asi, the city is centered on the ghats that line the waterfront, each honoring Shiva in the form of a linga -- the rounded phalliclike shaft of stone found on every ghat. Cruise the waterfront at dawn and you will witness the most surreal scenes, when devotees come to bathe, meditate, and perform ancient rituals to greet the sun. Or even come at sunset, when pundits (priests) at Dasashwamedh Ghat perform aarti (prayer ritual) with complicated fire rituals, and pilgrims light candles to float along the sacred waters.
Earliest accounts of the city go back 8,000 years, and "the city of learning and burning," as it is affectionately referred to, has attracted pilgrims from time immemorial, not all of them Hindu -- even Buddha visited here in 500 B.C. after he achieved enlightenment, sharing his wisdom at nearby Sarnath. Successive raids by Muslim invaders (the last of whom was the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb) led to the destruction of many of the original Hindu temples, which means that most of the buildings here date back no further than the 18th century. Yet the sense of ancient history is almost palpable. Getting lost in the impossibly cramped labyrinth, you are crowded by pilgrims purchasing flowers for puja (offering or prayer), grieving relatives bearing corpses, chanting priests sounding gongs, and sacred cows rooting in the rubbish -- an experience you will never forget.