Varanasi

 

Considered the cultural capital of India, Varanasi, or Benares as it is also called, is celebrated for its religious and spiritual lifestyle and is one of the most important places of pilgrimage for Jains, Buddhists and Hindus. The city, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, has a population approaching 1.5 million. It lies on the banks of the River Ganges, which plays a major role in the daily lives of the people of Varanasi. On most Hindu festivals, people can be seen using the bathing Ghats (river fronts) even before dawn as part of their spiritual rituals. This ancient city has borne witness to many historic events, is steeped in myths and legends and its archaic worship cults are still practiced today. Although Varanasi has an unhurried atmosphere, modern industries also flourish here. The city is also India’s oldest seat of learning and home to four universities: the Benares Hindu, Mahatma Gandi Kashi Vidyapeeth, Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies and Sampurnanand Sanskrit University. The Indian caste system is still predominant here and various social and religious customs still exist side by side. Old traditions are ever present in Varanasi, with people wearing Gamcha (a cotton towel) as they bathe in the Ganges and drink Thandai, a cold drink with a milk base and various nuts and spices. The city’s dance traditions, vocals and instrumental music are highly developed and music and entertainment are very much a part of local life.

Varanasi is also often referred to as the City of Temples, the Holy City of India, the City of Lights and the City of Learning. Foreign tourists can still ride in cycle-drawn rickshaws and horse-driven ekkas and will find a host of attractive items on sale, including fine silk, brocaded fabrics, superb saris, brassware and jewellery as well as Hindu and Buddhist masks.

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