India is an ancient culture, a magical marvel of history, ancient lore, and temples, all still alive and well today! However, one of the most spectacular aspects of India not often sought out by many travelers is the spiritual history. Some of the oldest and most sacred cities in the world are in India along the Sacred River Ganges. So I was hoping you could take a moment and travel to India with me as we explore this ancient land.
The Ganges River
Let’s start with the Ganges River. One of the most famous rivers in the world and is a geographic lifeline water resource for nearly half of India. Sacred travel through India would not be sacred without a visit to the bank of the Ganges.
To many Hindus, the Ganges is a goddess, Ganga, with many exceptional qualities but, most significantly, a cleansing and purification goddess. Many cities in India are holy pilgrimage sites along the Ganges, where people journey, primarily on auspicious days of the years, to bathe in her flowing waters for cleansing and purification.
The Holiest Cities of India
Varanasi – (Formerly Banaras) The world’s oldest and holiest city in India
The oldest of the most sacred cities in the world is Varanasi! Just saying the name almost gives out a vibe that calls you. Along the river Ganges, Banaras, as it is often fondly referred to by many Hindus, sits proudly along banks and many ancient buildings managing to withstand the centuries.
A morning boat ride along the River’s edge will give you a glance at the quiet moment of what is a very bustling little place. The many ghats (river entry points) are just catching the sun’s first rays, and many locals are beginning their day with a sacred bath, while at the next ghat sits a sadhu with a painted tribal face in deep meditation.
For centuries billions of Hindus pilgrimage to the Ganges here in Varanasi to receive the blessings of the goddess. For some, it is their last pilgrimage. Many come to live in Varanasi at the end of their days. To be cremated at Manikarnika Ghat, the holiest cremation ground in India, with the sacred fire never extinguished in centuries.
Walking through the small winding streets of Varanasi will bring you back in time to the bustle of people, cows waiting for their blessings, and incense filling the air from the many temples.
Haridwar: A Hidden Gem of Holy Cities
Along the northern regions of the Ganges, at the foothills of the holy mountains, rests another Holy City. Haridwar, the gateway to Vishnu, is nearly as old as Banaras but not as often visited by tourists.
The Ganges water in Haridwar is a light, almost clear blue as it is fresh from the mountains and is a well-known pilgrimage site for Hindus, especially for Kumbha Mela. The Hari Ki Pauri ghat draws thousands at sunrise and sunset to sing blessings to the river goddess each day, and together they sing in joy and send prayer blessed flowers down the River.
Some beautiful old temples in the mountains surround this ancient holy site. Walking along the streets of Haridwar, you will be pleasantly overwhelmed with the delights of Hindu traditions, cows meandering through the streets, sniffing into hands, hoping to sneak a snack. The street chai is the best, and you will find many other delightful Indian food traditions here. Be sure to stop by for a glass of honey, lemon, and ginger tea, popularly known in this region of India.
Regarding the holiest cities, Haridwar is the best kept secret and one to not truly miss if you ever adventure to India. There are many temples in the mountains, and it is where primarily only Hindus go, so the citing of a traveler is often met with much excitement and welcoming love!
Rishikesh: The Modern Holy City
Just about an hour up the Ganges from Haridwar and a little further into the foothills of the Himalayas is Rishikesh, a beautiful spiritual mecca of the modern ages. Known as the “Yoga Capital of the World,” Rishikesh is a more modern-day pilgrimage site along the River Ganges. Even though it is full of western tourists, I would not let that deter you from making a stop here.
Many modern-day gurus, teachers, yogis, and even the most famous and inspirational rock band in music history, the Beatles, have not only made a pilgrimage here but even landed along these river banks for some time. Like in all Indian cities and towns, there is a bustle of TukTuks, people, noises, music, and activity that all seem to fade into the background as you get to the River’s edge.
You can always feel the magical pull of the River, and like all the holy cities, there are evening aartis along the River’s edge to gather, sing, and chant blessings to Ganga, the goddess of the River.
Rishikesh is a place to relax, meditate, explore many temples, or walk through the old abandoned Beatle’s Ashram, where you can feel the history of inspiration imbued in the area. In addition, there are places for ayurvedic therapy, massage, and yummy restaurants, and it is a safer place for tourists to explore.
There are just a few of India’s many holy and sacred cities, but they’re genuinely the most historic in spiritual terms.
Travel to India! It is a land rich with culture and ancient traditions still alive today! There is nothing more incredible than to be in the sacred aartis alongside thousands who have all come to pray, chant, and open their hearts. Feel them smile at you with a welcome invitation and pray in these sacred temples and sites sharing ancient traditions.