Varanasi, the Hindu City of Light, is one of the oldest living cities in the world and regarded by many as the spiritual capital of India. With such a rich, complex history, the city is steeped in spiritual traditions that are both moving and unusual. The mighty River Ganges flows right through its centre, and its banks are dotted with ceremonial funeral sites and decorative pavilions known as ghats where pilgrims perform rituals and bathe in the holy river, as the smoke of funeral pyres lies heavy in the sultry air.
Obviously there's a lot more, this is just to get you started...
Hop aboard a boat in the early morning light to witness Varanasi wake up. It's a magical time of day, when pilgrims and locals descend the riverside steps from the ghats to dip in the river as the sun comes up. Stroll through the winding lanes of the old city, stopping at one of the most significant Hindu temple shrines in India, and at the city's main ghat. Funeral rituals take place here 24 hours a day, and the ashes are scattered in the sacred Ganges, which Hindus believe will free them from the cycle of rebirth. At the end of each day, witness the devotional sunset ceremony, with flaming lamps, burning incense billowing in the air, and rhythmic chanting echoing over the river.
Walk through the narrow streets to see local weavers at work on their traditional handlooms, and get first-hand insight into the history of the silk trade and how zari - the gilded thread of the city's jacquard textile designs - came to characterise the local sari. See this beautifully detail work done by hand in the homes of local artisans, and learn how the local Muslim and Hindu communities have interacted and worked together for centuries. Stroll down Dal Mandi (formerly the courtesans’ neighbourhood), listening to folktales of the Varanasi elite and the high culture of music and dance, before dropping in to visit a classical tabla drum-maker and ending your walk at the historic silk market.
Away from the river, you can get pleasantly lost amidst the city's labyrinthine alleys flanked with unexpected temples and shrines. Varanasi is famous for its narrow, winding streets within which sit, astonishingly, around 2,000 temples, of which Kashi Vishwanath, or the ‘Golden Temple’ dedicated to Lord Shiva, is the most famous. Built in the 1700s, the current iteration of the temple is elaborate and regal. Huge, gilded domes and spires top intricately decorated pillars and chambers onto which are carved figures and motifs from Hindu scripture. Appreciating it from the outside is enough for many, but the dedicated can venture inside too, as long as you’re willing to go through a few strict security protocols.
Take your best shot at spotting wildlife with an itinerary that includes not one but three different parks, all located in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. This allows you to explore some surprisingly diverse scenery, see myriad bird and animal species, and hugely increase your chances of spotting one of these elusive big cats.