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One of the world’s most longed-for pilgrimage sites, Varanasi is the vibrant centre of the vast Hindu universe, a rare “thin place” where the spiritual and physical realms meet. Perhaps the most continuously inhabited city on earth—“older than history,” Mark Twain wrote, “older than tradition, older even than legend”—Varanasi is set propitiously on the banks of the ultra-sacred Ganges, “the river of India,” India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru called it, “beloved of her people…a symbol of India’s age-long culture and civilization.”
Walking down to the banks of the Ganges in the morning, or especially in the early evening, joining thousands of pilgrims—mothers and scampering children, holy men and businesspeople, Brahmin grandees, regular folks and wide-eyed visitors from all over India and the world—is a great moment in a traveller’s life, a swirlingly colourful, deeply moving, utterly fascinating daily epic. Our experience of Varanasi is enhanced by visits to a number of its most important temples and a short jaunt to another of the planet’s most important spiritual sites: Sarnath, where Gautama Buddha first spoke in public after his enlightenment at nearby Bodh Gaya.