The holy city of Varanasi is set on the banks of the sacred river Ganges. Mark Twain once wrote, “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Varanasi, once known as Benares, is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. It’s a holy place for Hindus, and in many ways Varanasi reveals the best and worst of India. The sights, sounds, smells and colours can be overpowering; however, observing pilgrims at the banks of the Ganges, with complete devotion to the goddess Ganga, against the backdrop of the ancient temples, is one of India’s most fascinating experiences.
The best way to experience the spirituality of the Ganges is by boat, floating down the waters, watching as people go about their daily tasks, their morning cleansing, lighting funeral pyres and conducting ceremonial offerings known as ‘Aarti’.
At the Ganges, the atmosphere in the evening is very different from that of the morning, as the scent of sandalwood and incense whirls around, the sounds of religious chanting and clashing cymbals rise to a climax. The ghats (bathing steps) come alive as hundreds of pilgrims arrive for evening worship. Young priests from neighbouring ashrams complete their daily rituals, looking out onto the holy Ganga, whilst chiming bells create a cacophony of sound. Devotees light little flicking oil lamps that are floated down the river, which looks absolutely stunning in the early evening light as the sun sets.
Each of the many ghats hold a different significance for Hindus. Some are exclusively for cremations, others for followers of different sects and yet others simply built as philanthropic acts by former rulers. Some are noted for their pundits, who may be consulted on any subject.
A luxury stay in Varanasi: Nadesar Palace, a Taj Group Hotel
Located on the banks of the river Ganges, Nadesar Palace has accommodated royals, statesmen and stars since 1835. The name Nadesar is derived from the Goddess Nadesari, as a shrine dedicated to Nadesari is placed in front of the Palace. Set among lush greenery, mango orchards, marigold and jasmine fields, Nadesar Palace is a haven of serenity.
The Palace has ten luxurious suites, each of which are decorated with works of art from the Maharajah’s collection. Each suite evokes the atmosphere of a bygone era, with original pieces of furniture and colours of marigolds, jasmines and lotuses. Each of the ten suites are named after the celebrities who stayed here as the Maharajah’s personal guests.
Your personal butler at Nadesar Palace can recommend the perfect meal, or help you choose an ideal treatment at the spa. Throughout your stay, subtly and unobtrusively, your butler will guide you through the pleasures that lie within the Palace walls.
Varanasi is an unforgettable addition to a tour of Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan. Varanasi is just a two hour flight from the capital, New Delhi. You may like to fly to Varanasi from Udaipur, after touring vibrant Rajasthan.
The best time to visit Varanasi is from October to March, when the weather is at its most pleasant.
Madeleine Hann is CEO and Co-Founder of Indian Excursions Co.
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