Varanasi, also known as Kashi or Benares, is the soulful, spiritual capital of the country, and one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities. People come to bathe in the River Ganges, which is believed to wash away their sins, and others come to die and be cremated here, because it’s believed that it will free you from the cycle of birth and death. The ghats – the stone-slab steps down embankments along the river bank – are a sensory overload of colour, life, chaos and spirituality.
Varanasi is famous for its artistic traditions, such as silk brocades with gold and silver threadwork, carpet weaving, painted wooden toys and brass- and copperware. With classical music and dance in its DNA, the city has spawned an astounding number of maestros, including Ustad Bismillah Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar.
Varanasi is also the constituency of the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, and many new projects are on the cards, as well as much-needed cleaning of the city.
A comfortable bed
Splurge on the just-renovated Taj Nadesar Palace (www.tajhotels.com), a luxury boutique property with only 10 rooms, located six kilometres from the Ganges. The hotel is housed in a restored palace originally built in the late 18th century by the East India Company. Double rooms cost from 20,000 rupees (Dh1,076) per night.
A more cost-effective option is the Ramada Plaza JHV (www.ramadajhvvns.com) in the Cantonment area. Air-conditioned double rooms cost from 5,500 rupees (Dh296) per night, including breakfast.
If you prefer to be near the ghats, try the new luxury heritage hotel Brijrama Palace (www.brijrama.com). As its name suggests, it was built as a palace, in the 18th century, and it overlooks the Ganges. Rooms cost from 14,000 rupees (Dh753) per night.
Find your feet
The ghats are the centre of all the action. Children frolic in the river, locals wash clothes and people perform rituals. The best way to orientate yourself is to take a boat ride down the Ganges, passing all the ghats from the Assi Ghat to the Raj Ghat. You can then explore the dusty, noisy alleys tucked behind the ghats, where you will see old mansions, shops selling silk, crafts, stalls selling street food, lassi and thandai, tucked-away shrines and deities in alcoves. You will, however, have to dodge scooters and lumbering cows.
Try a heritage walk offered by Experience Varanasi (www.experiencevaranasi.com) to explore different parts of the city, from markets to historical monuments.
Meet the locals
Every evening, the town congregates at the famous Ganga Aarti, a mesmerising prayer ceremony dedicated to the holy river that takes place at Dashashwamedh Ghat. It’s an atmospheric, spiritually charged 40 minutes filled with prayers, chants, music and the overpowering aroma of incense. Priests clad in colourful silk clothes perform the ceremony in a choreographed sequence – cymbals crash, bells ring, and huge brass lamps are brandished. Book a place either on a boat or on the banks to watch the spectacle, which attracts large crowds.
Book a table
Walk down Thatheri Bazar, a delightfully atmospheric lane, to have a typical Benarasi breakfast of deep-fried kachoris (puris stuffed with lentils) accompanied with ghugni (vegetables, chickpeas and chutneys in a tangy gravy) at the famous Ram Bhandar. Top it off with crisp, sickly sweet jalebis, all for a total of 60 rupees (Dh3).
For an upmarket meal, try Varuna in the Taj Gateway Hotel. It features a vast menu of Indian specialities, a comfortable air-conditioned interior and good service. Order the satvik thali, served on a traditional Varanasi silver platter, for 1,200 rupees (Dh64).
Alternatively, go to Baba Thandai, at Godowlia Chowk, for thandai – a milk-based drink made with pistachios, almonds and kesar, and topped with a large dollop of malai (cream), at 35 rupees (Dh2) per glass.
For traditional brocades and saris, head to Mehta International (Varuna Bridge), where you can take a tour of the looms, then choose between Benarasi saris, bedcovers and tablecloths from its store.
For colourful wooden toys, visit Shree Handicrafts Museum (Gyanwapi Road) to pick up sets of musicians, gods, animals and birds or fridge magnets.
Elsewhere, Raman’s Creations (Farsh Balujee) sells traditional gulabi or pink meenakari jewellery.
Though the city itself is a living museum, make a point of visiting Bharat Kala Bhavan, an art and archaeological museum located inside Banaras Hindu University (www.bhu.ac.in). Established in 1920, the museum has a huge collection of costumes, textiles, pottery, Mughal miniature paintings, bronze statues and other items of archaeological importance.
What to avoid
Always negotiate the price before boat trips, auto-Rickshaw rides or taxi rides. Refrain from taking a dip in the river – it’s polluted. And avoid visiting the city during the monsoon season: July to September.
Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies from Abu Dhabi to Varanasi, via New Delhi, from Dh1,650, including taxes.