“Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colourful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth.”
If there is a city that inspires love and hate at the same time, that will be Varanasi.
In India, where some of the most important religions were founded, Varanasi is one of the most sacred in the world. Known as “the spiritual capital of India” it is regarded as one of Hinduism’s seven holy cities. Hindu pilgrims believe that visiting this holy city and bathing in the Ganges River’s sacred waters will purify their souls. Everyday men in underpants, women in saris, children and the elderly go to these Ghats (stone-paved cremation platforms with steps leading down to the water) and bathe in the holy water to wash away their sins or to attend cremation ceremonies. From dawn to dusk spiritual practices take place in public, in devotion of their Goddess – Ganga. Thousands chanting Mantras, bathing into the icy-cold water, every day, every hour as they “free themselves from the cycle of death and rebirth”. These rituals, the river, smells, cows, goats, dogs and people, all at once around the Ghats can be overwhelming, to say the least!
But Varanasi isn’t only one of the oldest and most religious cities in the world, it is without doubt a city that captivates you, that leaves you speechless. Varanasi is an experience.
Arriving in Varanasi and looking around, our first impression wasn’t great, in all honesty. Is this a “Holy city” or a “Chaotic mess”? We have seen dirt, experienced crowded places and unpleasant smells lingering around but Varanasi it’s on another level. This is real!
From the first step outside the Guesthouse to returning back, it was a constant struggle with things, animals, people! Touts following us trying to sell anything and everything to the point they would grab our arms to get our attention. Sadhus (Holy Man) trying to shake our hands and touch our heads, shouting in the end because they were actually demanding money. Rickshaw and Tuk Tuk drivers wouldn’t leave us alone and literally followed us everywhere. Children begging for money, no I am not talking about one child at a time, I mean 8-10 children surrounding us at once. The stray dogs it’s heartbreaking! We lost count how many there are roaming around; broken legs or legless, covered in wounds, skinny, starving…So sad to a westerner’s thinking.
And last but not least…let’s talk about the cows. They are everywhere! Ok, it’s fine, they are cute and harmless. But there were roads that it was impossible NOT to step on cow’s dung. I mean seriously? No, I am not exaggerating. Perhaps I can show a few pictures…
Besides all the madness Varanasi has its good points: interesting people, great vegetarian/vegan food, amazing history sites and a relaxed pace of life. No wonder there are so many westerners. After all, Varanasi might be the place to be.
Top Things To Do in Varanasi
Walking around the Old City
Ditch Google Maps. Get lost and enjoy the experience! Yummy street food, some of the coolest, trendiest cafés in town, vegetable markets, street vendors, hidden temples, thousands of people, rickshaws, cows, goats, chickens, dogs… the list goes on.
Visit the River Ganges Ghats
There are 80+ Ghats bordering the river and most were built 1700 AD. Yes Varanasi is an old city, dating back 3000 years ago. So how can anyone not feel the goose bumps while there?!
Anyway a good start would be from Assi Ghat all the way down to Manikarnika Ghat. Some are busier than others, due to its religious practices and number of attendees.
Here are the most important Ghats in Varanasi:
Assi Ghat – A place of worshiping Lord Shiva, pilgrims bathe here before any rituals take place. As its location is at the far extreme south of the river, the area is less crowded.
Chet Singh Ghat – The old Fort represents more of a historical symbol than a cremation site itself. Maharaja Chet Singh built the fort during the 18th century battle with the British.
Darbhanga Ghat – The Royal family of Bihar built the palace early 1900s. The Ghat is amongst the favourites in Varanasi due to its architecture.
Scindhia Ghat – There is a partially submerged Shiva Temple at the water’s edge. Some cremations happen here during the day.
Dasaswamedh Ghat – This is the main Ghat and ultimately the oldest and holiest of all. It’s where the Ganga Aarti ceremony takes place every evening.
Manikarnika Ghat – Here is where it all happens! The busiest Ghat in Varanasi. According to one of the locals “up to 100 bodies are cremated here every day”.
Boat Tour on the Ganges River
Hold your breath! You will be haggling a lot for this boat ride! Be smart, if you have time (and patience), ask around first and see what these men have on offer. Some might be knowledgeable of the Ghats, others not so much. And that is why time is needed here, so you can get a glimpse of what they know. Our boat ride, along with our friend Peter, was at Rs100/USD1.50/GBP1.20 each.
Now, were we 100% satisfied with the service? Not bad, but could have been better because we agreed one hour and only made it to Dasaswamedh Ghat within 45 minutes. Also, the man refused to carry on, saying he had to row back and it would take time. At the end he demanded a tip… me being me, I laughed and walked off. Obviously!
Attend the Aarti Ceremony
Every day, regardless of the weather, the Aarti Ceremony takes place at sunset (7pm in the summer, 6pm in the winter) at Dasaswamedh Ghat. The flow of pilgrims, Sadhus, Priests, beggars, homeless and flower sellers, is enchanting. Oh, and the cows, of course!
It is a spectacular, must-see ceremony with a lot of meaning in a spiritual context and for non-Hindus it is still a fascinating ritual to be able to witness.
The ceremony is a devotion for the Goddess Ganges, Lord Shiva and symbolizes the five elements: Akash (Space); Vayu (Wind); Agni (Fire); Jal (Water); Prithvi (Earth). A group of young pandits (Hindu Priests) perform the highly-choreographed ceremony using fire, water, incense, and many other elements. During the ritual, there is music and dancing in circular movements that represent the presence of the Gods in everyone’s life.
The ceremony lasts for one hour and cannot be missed!
Travel Tips for Varanasi
- Don’t be fooled, man will try and get you on a rickshaw for twice the money or will convince you to hire him as a Guide for the day. Always ask the host at the hostel/guesthouse for recommendations.
- Don’t lose your appetite. For us, the street food in Varanasi wasn’t very appealing to say the least, but don’t worry there are some options. Check the list of Restaurants in Varanasi. Aum Café located in Assi Ghat was our favourite!
- Say NO more often. People will grab your hands, arms and chase you. It’s exhausting. Be prepared for the odd man shouting back because you ignored him. Don’t be embarrassed ad walk away.
- Observe the everyday life and immerse yourself in Varanasi!
So after all, you must be thinking “I would have left straight away!” But you know, this is it, this is part of India. This is why there is no other place like Varanasi; its uniqueness makes it one of a kind. Thousands come for “soul searching”, for its spiritual practices, a “once in a lifetime experience”. Although we both don’t share the spiritual connection, we did “enjoy” the chaos.
There is a love-hate relationship towards Varanasi amongst travellers, and I don’t blame people for it. In all honesty isn’t the most pleasant place to be. And one massive piece of advice, for people that are planning a visit to India, DO NOT start in Varanasi. I feel not many will be able to cope with it.
After all, who said people come to India for a holiday? You don’t see India, you experience India.
Is Varanasi on your travel list? Let us know in the comments below.
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We are Thomas and Telma – the writers, photographers, videographers and founders of Blank Canvas Voyage.
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