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Things to Do in Varanasi

Varanasi, one of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and one of India’s holiest pilgrimage sites, sits on the banks of the Ganges River in the state of Utter Pradesh 474 miles (765 kilometers) from New Delhi. Believed to be the abode of the god Shiva, Hindu pilgrims from all corners of India come here to find purification in the waters of the holy river and to cremate their dead in hopes of releasing them from the cycle of reincarnation. 

The lifeblood of Varanasi is the Ganges, lined by busy ghats where mundane tasks, like washing laundry and bathing, take place alongside sacred ceremonies. Colorful temples and shrines, flower markets and holy men selling their services along the river lend Varanasi an almost mystical feeling -- it’s the exotic India many travelers imagine before ever stepping foot in the country.

To get a sense of the place, take a boat ride down the Ganges River at dawn or sunset, where you’ll pass ancient temples sinking into the water, priests performing fire rituals and Hindu pilgrims setting candles afloat on the water’s surface as an offering to the gods.
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Dashashwamedh Ghat
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Along the west bank of the Ganges river in the city of Varanasi are a string of ghats, or steps, on which people worship, bathe, and go about other daily activities. Dasaswamedh Ghat is the most important of these, as it’s surrounded by temples and hosts the nightly aarti, or worship ceremony.

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Ganges River (Ganga)
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India’s holiest river, the Ganges (Ganga) runs east for 1,560 miles (2,510 kilometers) from the western Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. A lifeline for north India’s plains and towns, the river is also a place of Hindu pilgrimage at cities such as Rishikesh and Varanasi—drawing visitors with humbling scenes of religious devotion.

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Kashi Vishwanath Temple (Golden Temple)
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Varanasi’s Kashi Vishwanath Temple is also called the Golden Temple, thanks to its pure gold spire and dome. The current building dates from 1780, but temples stood in the same place for centuries. Dedicated to the Hindu Lord Shiva—one of the most significant deities in the Hindu pantheon—Kashi Vishwanath is a major pilgrimage site.

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Manikarnika Ghat
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Varanasi to die, as the city is considered very holy. Along the banks of the River Ganga are a string of ghats (steps used for various purposes. Manikarnika Ghat is known as “the burning ghat”, as this is where cremations and funerals are held.

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Varanasi Ghats (Banaras Ghats)
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The Varanasi Ghats are sets of stairs that descend from the city down the banks and into the waters of the holy Ganges River. There are just under 100 individual ghats lining the river’s edge in this region, their steep steps making access to the river possible during both the wet and dry seasons.

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Dhamek Stupa
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The Dhammek Stupa is a giant cylindrical Buddhist stupa situated in Sarnath, near Varanasi. This huge structure was built on the site where the Buddha was said to have given his first sermon to his disciples after attaining enlightenment, and is one of India’s most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites.

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Chaukhandi Stupa
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The Chaukhandi Stupa is an important Buddhist stupa originally built as a terraced temple to mark the place where the Buddha and his first disciples met when traveling from Bodhgaya to Sarnath. The stupa stands amid beautifully maintained gardens and serves as the gateway to the Buddhist city of Sarnath.

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Kedar Ghat
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Home to the Kedarnath Temple, not to mention serene scenes of the sun rising from the holy waters of the Ganges, Kedar Ghat in Varanasi is one of the most important and picturesque ghats in the region. Popular among Bengalis and South Indians, the Kedareshwar Temple here is dedicated to Lord Shiva, the presiding deity of Varanasi, and is a fine example of Hindu architecture. There’s also a Parvati Kund nearby, a small pool of water that’s believed to have highly medicinal properties.

The approach to Kedar Ghat is through a maze of narrow alleyways bustling with cattle, devotees, and operators organizing River Ganges boat rides. The steps down to the water are high and steep, with the upper steps brightly painted in stripes.

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Pillars of Ashoka
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The Pillars of Ashoka refer to a number of columns inscribed with edicts by the Mauryan king, Ashoka, during his reign in the mid-3rd century BC. The pillar at Sarnath near Varanasi bears the inscriptions: "No one shall cause division in the order of monks."

The original column at Sarnath was 50 meters tall and was carved out of a single block of polished sandstone. It features four images of lions known as the Lion Capital of Ashoka, which stand back to back and were originally mounted atop a cylindrical abacus. The abacus was built over a bell-shaped lotus, with the figures of four running animals – an elephant, a bull, a horse, and a lion – separated by 24-spoked Dharma wheels. These four mammals are believed to symbolize the four different phases of Gautama Buddha's life.

However, the pillar at this site was broken in the midst of a past invasion, with the remains in three pieces now kept in a glass cage nearby. The lion figurehead can be found in the Sarnath Museum nearby.

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