For generations, visitors have flocked to India in search of both spiritual enlightenment and fulfillment. Whether they find it by twisting themselves into pretzels at ashram-based yoga retreat or simply soak of the atmosphere at one of the thousands of temples throughout the country, one thing is certain: India is a holy place.
One of the holiest cities in the subcontinent is Varanasi, located on the banks of the Ganges River in the northeastern state of Uttar Pradesh. Regarded as a holy city by Buddhists, Hindus and Jains alike, Varanasi is the oldest city in India and one of the oldest holy cities in the world. And for many pilgrims of all faiths, a visit to this riverside cultural capital is among the most important trips that one can take.
One of the most distinctive features of Varanasi are the bathing ghats along the Ganges River. Ghats refers to the stairways and access points to the river, which is considered a holy river despite being extremely polluted.
Because the Hindus consider Varanasi to among the holiest places in India, though, many pilgrims come from all over to wash away their sins in the Ganges or to cremate the bodies of their loved ones. In fact, it’s not uncommon for dying Hindus to make the trip to the city despite their condition, in order to die there, as it’s believed that those who die in Varanasi will have a lifetime of sin erased.
While the ghats along the river’s edge are the main spiritual draw to the city, like most Indian cities, Varanasi is home to a number of temples honoring various gods and goddesses and serving those of all religions. Many of the temples date back prior to the eighteenth century, such as the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, also known as the Golden Temple, which was constructed in 1780. The Durga Temple is also notable, as the local legend is that the image of the goddess Durga was not added by the builders, but appeared on the façade on its own. While these major temples attract many visitors and are the site of important religious and spiritual events throughout the year, most of the everyday worship takes place in the smaller temples that can be found in nearly every neighborhood around the city.
Even those who do not practice Buddhism or Hinduism are entranced by the spirituality of Varanasi, and make their own voyages to the colorful city to seek spiritual enlightenment.
While actually participating in a spiritual ceremony is reserved for those who practice the religion – and the condition of the river makes actually entering the water a somewhat dangerous proposition – it’s possible to walk along the ghats and observe the moving rituals, or ride in a boat along to Ganges for a new perspective on the traditions.
However, taking a dip in the spiritual waters of the Ganges isn’t the only way to experience of the supposed holy powers of the city. Visitors can head to the Gyan Kupor Well to see the source of waters that are believed to bring those who drink it to a higher spiritual plane. Unfortunately, even the faithful can’t actually test that theory, as the water is protected by a strong sense of tradition and a security screen.
Spiritual tourism in Varanasi isn’t limited to the temples and ghats, though. Throughout the city, tourists can visit yoga retreats – many hotels and guest houses offer free yoga workshops to guests – and spiritual learning centers. For example, Malaviya Bhavan is a spiritual center that offers both a four week physical yoga training course as well as a four month course that also reaches the principles of Hinduism. Such programs require visitors to obtain a student visa, but many agree that learning such principles in the holy environment of Varanasi makes the paperwork required for such a credential well worth it.
While the faithful Hindus of India often travel to Varanasi in search of a place to pass away, the average traveler can expect to visit and leave, completely alive and ideally more in touch with their spiritual selves. India is full of religious sites and temples, but none perhaps as important as those in this most holy of cities, making it a must visit for anyone interested in the religious culture of the land.
Ruby Houston is a yoga instructor who has trained at several ashrams around the world, including one in Varanasi. She writes about yoga and spiritual retreats for several online publications.