Varanasi is a punch in the face. It’s an epic cacophony of smells, colors and sounds. Varanasi is a sacred city for the Hindu religion, and sits on the banks of the Ganges River. Known for the “burning bodies”, this city has to be seen to be believed. Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, dating back to the 11th century BC, and is a magical place. This is not for the faint-hearted though – love it or hate it, everyone agrees that The City of Light is unforgettable.
How to Get There
You can fly pretty much anywhere in India, as there are a few cheap airlines that offer cheap airfares. Please keep in mind that travel in India is unpredictable. Many flights are often cancelled or delayed significantly, and you will not receive a refund. Be prepared for this. Try not to book international flights that rely on a domestic flight to be on time.
You can reach Varanasi via train or plane from the capital, New Delhi. It takes 10 hours on the train, and an hour flight. The airport is an hour drive from the centre of town. There are plenty of taxis to deliver you to the centre, however you might want to take this trip during the day, and not at night. This is wise to avoid theft and the dangers of driving a long and remote road into the city.
Where to Stay
The city of Varanasi is widespread; however, the heart of the city lies on the banks of the Ganges River. The part of the river that the city sits on is divided into sections, called ghats, and are named after previous Maharajas. There are 87 ghats along the river, each with their own character, people and traditional religious ceremonies. There is a vivid nightlife along the ghats, with ceremonies, people socialising and fire and light in every direction.
The three best ghats to stay in are Assi Ghat, Daswasamedh Ghat or Gowdhulia Ghat. All three areas are close to the sights in Varanasi, and provide an intriguing nightlife and personality to explore. You will not spend much time in your hotel room on this adventure, we can guarantee that.
As you explore the city, you’ll find that narrow and winding streets all lead to the sacred river, and that’s the place to be in this town. Wherever you stay, you will find yourself drawn to the river, like the locals are. Walk along the ghats, you can walk the entire length of the city, and learn about this unique and captivating culture. As you walk, you will compete with locals carrying goods, endless touts wanting your business, and cows, mulling slowly along the banks of the river. Not to mention the beggars, the cow patties, the vendors and the erosion of the cement pathway into the river.
Religious significance of the city
The origin of the name of the city has been linked to the two Ganges tributaries forming the city’s borders. Varuna, still flows in northern Varanasi, and Assi, a small stream in the southern part of the city, near Assi Ghat. The old city is located on the north shores of the Ganges, bounded by Varuna and Assi.
Varanasi is the holiest of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism. According to Hindu legend, the God Shiva founded the city by unleashing the Ganges from a knot in his hair. Pilgrims flock to this city every year, to bath in the sacred waters, and to cremate their dead family members. A city that does not cater to tourists, its main focus is on the dying. Wide, stone stairs lead down to the river where all life events take place. Thousands of dead bodies are cremated along the banks of the Ganges each year. Loved ones carry the bodies on bamboo stretchers through the streets, down to the river. This is where wood is piled on top of the body and set alight. Hundreds of these occurs every day, and are primarily performed at two sacred ‘burning’ ghats, Harish Chandra and Manikarnika ghats. There is a strictly no photos rule at these burning ghats, in respect to the families of the bodies being cremated. If one dies and is cremated on the banks of the Ganges, then they’re sent straight to Nirvana, breaking the life and death cycle of reincarnation – hence it has become a very popular tradition.
Even on the banks of the most sacred river in Hinduism, there are still tourist traps. As you stand and watch the burning bodies, you might be told be an Indian man that your presence is extremely disrespectful and that you need to move. They will provide a story about how tourists are very offensive to the families of the dead and that you need to move to a platform, high above the burning ghats. This however, is a scam. Once they lead you to this viewing platform they will demand money for their “services”.
A city of contrasts, Varanasi is a holy city that worships its great river, but still heavily pollutes it with garbage. Dead cows and dogs float down the river, while locals and pilgrims wash and cleanse themselves on the banks. Varanasi is raw and brash. While in most western cultures, this funeral ritual is regarded with respect and reverence, in Varanasi, teenagers ‘play-fight’ metres away from burning bodies, couples bicker, family grieves, children laugh and life essentially goes on. It’s the most irreverent sacred city on Earth.
Sunrise and Sunset on the Ganges
Sunrise and sunset boat rides are very popular among the tourists in Varanasi, and it’s easy to see why. In the morning, many awaken before dawn to glide down the sacred river, which is usually covered in thick fog, giving the city and the holy river an ethereal quality. You can ease past the many pilgrims, bathing naked in the river, washing clothes, washing dishes and performing sacred cleansing ceremonies. This city is electric and full of energy, so to see it in the early morning, quiet and subdued, is an experience in itself.
Sunset is equally mesmerising, for many different reasons. At the end of the day, locals fill the streets and the ghats with life and laughter. They gather to socialize, play games, wash, clean and perform ceremonies along the river banks. You can take a boat that will take you down the river to the burning ghats, where you can take photos (from the water – please be respectful and subtle). You can go to the main ghat, Dashashwamedh Ghat where a sacred religious ceremony is being performed. You can partake in the ceremony by buying a floating flower candle, setting it alight, and sending it floating down the river.
Naturally, the most sacred city in Hindu has a plethora of temples to explore. Around every corner and down every narrow laneway, a hidden temple awaits. Explore on foot through these tiny streets, and discover for yourself the secrets of each and every one. There are too many to list, so here are a select few of the best:
- The Kashi Vishwanath Temple
- Annapurna Temple
- Sankatha Temple
- Kalbhairav Temple
- Mritunjay Mahadev Temple
- Durga Temple
- Tulsi Manas Temple
- Sankatmochan Temple
- Bharat Mata Temple
We hope you take this Varanasi City Guide and learn for yourself what makes this city so unique and special. It really is intense, so come with an open mind, and an open heart. Because you will fall in love. Namaste!
Author: Michelle Hyde
Images Captured by: Ben Fehervary