“See there,” said Kunal, pointing toward the banks of the Ganges. “Those people with the lamps, they are here as pilgrims, to take a holy dip.” In the light of a February morning, several devotees stood knee deep in the river. Under parasols, priests dispensed blessings. A loudspeaker blared.

We strained to spot the tiny flames as one pilgrim, then another, floated a candle onto the Ganges, seemingly oblivious to the chilly water and the jostling crowd.

During several excursions on the river with Experience Varanasi, we observed slices of daily life such as this. With Kunal as our guide, we witnessed a number of rituals that provided glimpses into spiritual traditions completely new to us.

The serenity of early morning

We had the good fortune to visit the river on several occasions, morning and evening. Whether a misty morning that blended sky and river, or a day that began with a burst of light on the horizon, mornings were, hands down, our favorite time to be on the river.


Varanasi sunrise


Reflections of daily life

People who live in Varanasi revere their river. For many, the Ganges is a source of livelihood as well as spiritual practice. Devout Hindus travel great distances to bathe here, come to the river to be blessed at key moments in their lives, and consider themselves fortunate to die in Varinasi.







Rituals of Hinduism

In Varanasi, a traveler is surrounded with symbols of Hinduism and the worship of Lord Shiva, who is especially venerated here. Locals making their daily devotions are joined by the devout on pilgrimage. At the city’s two burning ghats, funeral pyres burn round the clock


Devotions to Lord Shiva at Assi Ghat

The funeral pyres of Manikarnika Ghat

Evening aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat

A priest concludes his solo aarti in the shadow of Dashashwamedh Ghat

Experience Varanasi

We visited Varanasi in advance of our journey to Prayagraj for the Kumbh Mela 2019. Our time with Experience Varanasi was invaluable to our understanding of this epochal event.

We especially appreciated the chance to organize several outings around our personal interests, and at our own pace. For us, that meant guided photography opportunities while absorbing as much cultural history as our brief stay and attention spans would allow. Our boat rides were supplemented with guided walks through Varanasi’s Old City.

What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?

  • A personalized, individual or small-group tour is an effective way to get to know local culture and traditions that are very different than our own.
  • Boat tours such as the ones we enjoyed provide stunning and informative vistas without walking several kilometers along the ghats.
  • Sunrise and sunset boat rides on the Ganges coincide with the most evocative rituals of the day.

Take note:

  • It’s a short walk down steps and over uneven terrain to the boat landing.
  • Sunrise photography on the river requires a pre-dawn start!

Photo credits: All photos Tom Fakler and Anita Breland

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India's Sacred Ganges