Varanasi sits on the banks of the Ganges River, and is considered by many to be the oldest and holiest city in the world. 🕉 The city was founded by the God, Shiva, and is also said to be the birthplace of Buddhism. Because of its religious significance, Hindu pilgrims come from all over India to bathe in its sacred waters and wash away their sins. 💦
Even more, to die or be cremated in Varanasi is seen as the highest of honors, and the assurance of ultimate salvation. Bodies are burned here 24/7 with hundreds of people disposed in the river each day. In the photo you’ll see some of the firewood used for cremation. Apparently, the amount of wood you buy for your cremation increases your likelihood of salvation. Photos of the cremation are not allowed for obvious reasons, but I did watch as the deceased were carried out on bamboo rafts and submerged in the water before being burned. I also saw how India is very reliant on the caste system. People of higher class came out covered in golden sheets, while the lower class came out covered in simple, orange flowers.
Strange fact: the bodies of pregnant women, children under 10 years old, and those bitten by a cobra are not allowed to burned.🐍 They usually just tie rocks to them, and let them sink. Also, any body parts that don’t fully burn are just flung into the river.😲
Strange fact: apparently they even have annual frog weddings here in Varanasi in order to please the rain God. 🐸💍
Varanasi also attracts a high population of Sadhus, or holy men, who come to the river bank to pray, meditate, and offer blessings. The holy men wear a deep saffron color, as it represents sacrifice and the quest for salvation.
What to do in Varanasi
Stroll the Ghats
The Ganges River is broken up into over 80 ghats, or river banks, which each have their own myths and purposes. Some are used for bathing, while others are used for ceremonies or cremations. A ghat goat…try saying that three times fast. 😂 🐐Now one of the most famous ghats is Dashashwamedh Ghat.
During the day, visitors can come here to receive a blessing by a Sardhu, or holy man. When I sat down to receive my blessing, the man placed some marigold flowers and river water in my hand. He had me repeat a bunch of Hindi phrases, and then sort of translated them into English. Something like, “happy family, happy marriage, happy baby, happy life, etc…”Many people also take boat rides from here to the other side of the river to swim, or for an up-close-and-personal view of the ceremonial cremation sites. Personally, I found it entertaining enough just to wander along the waterfront, and watch the extreme combination of calm and chaos that surrounded me. It’s also impressive just to marvel at the architecture in Varanasi, since it has such a long history, and an eclectic religious influence.I even met my friend again along the way!
Watch an Aarti Ceremony
Now in the evening, that same ghat holds a fire procession, called a Gange Aarti.
The ceremony is performed by priests who chant sacred hymns, blow a conch shell, and dance with incense and a snake-hooded brass lamp in order to show devotion to the Gods.I went with a German guy and a Polish guy from my hostel, since I don’t like going out alone at night, and the place was pretty packed.Everyone seemed in good spirits though, and the crowd was chanting and clapping along as well. 👏Here’s a short video of my experience.
Wander the streets of Varanasi
Now equally as interesting as strolling the ghats is wandering through the city of Varanasi itself. Walking through the main avenues of Varnaasi can be slightly chaotic, as motorbikes are constantly zooming by, and cheeky monkeys are performing a high-wire act on the power lines above your head! 🐒 Monkey doing a high-wire act! 🐒
As such, it’s recommended to wander inward, where you’ll find a network of narrow, cobblestone streets, filled with food vendors, craft stores, and temples. One of the highlights for me was just admiring the decaying, yet beautiful buildings in this city. From the weathered metal doorways outlined in elegant arches to the sacred carved pillars holding up these derelict homes, I felt like I was observing the product of thousands of years of history in the making. Now as you may have read from my previous post, cows wander freely through the streets of India, as they are seen as a sacred animal. 🐄And even though a thick layer of manure coats the cobblestone, many people still walk barefoot through the streets. Now equally as pungent as the smell of manure is the smell of incense wafting through the air here.Not only is incense burned in the many temples here, it used as an aesthetic in yoga and meditation.
Fun fact: Varanasi is seen as the birthplace of yoga, so you’ll find many spiritual centers here offering such courses. 🧘♀️
Try local cuisine
Now aside of from strolling the ghats and the city streets, Varanasi also serves up a lot of classic Indian cuisine. 🤤
Varanasi has a very active street food scene, where you’ll find cheap eats like this roti bread filled with veggies and herbs.You’ll also find quite a few street markets here, where you can buy fresh fruits and vegetables as well. My friend recommended that I try a traditional Indian drink at this cafe in Varanasi called Blue Lassi. Lassis are a drink made from fresh yogurt mixed with sugar. Blue Lassi has over 60 flavors to choose from, and I opted for a fruit one topped with mango, grapes and pistachio slices. ❤
Get off the beaten track
Although I didn’t have time to do the following things during my stay, I did learn about two different unique activities in Varanasi.
I first talked with a British girl who was volunteering at a local school. 👩🏫 She said she found out about this NGO by speaking with the owner at a local bakery called, Brown Bread Bakery. It seemed like a wonderful way to give back if you had more time to spend here.
As well, my American friend took a watercolor art class at a place here called, Ruchika Art Gallery. 🎨The artist there helped him trace out a scene from the Varanasi river bank, and then paint it on a canvas using watercolors. Another unique activity to consider! 😉Anyway, that wraps up my time here in Varanasi. Up next I’m heading to Jaipur in the state of Rajasthan. Stay tuned to hear all about it! Until then! 😀
To get to Varanasi from Agra, I took an overnight train. You may remember that I booked this train ticket frantically on my first day in New Delhi. I walked to get there, which took about 45 minutes, but I did pass through a nice little park on the way where I stopped to eat my dinner. I have been shopping at a place called Reliance Fresh, which is a major supermarket chain across in India.In order to avoid any sickness on the train, I had a peanut butter and banana sandwich with some Masala Munch(sort of like Indian Cheetos). Hah!Once I got to the train station, I easily found my platform and began to wait for my train. As the train rolled up, all I could think was, “What the ***have I gotten myself into?” It looked like a prison on wheels, with literal bars on the windows. I thought I booked a sleeper bed with a fan, only to find that there were 3 other men sitting on the bench with me! 😲At first I thought, “There is no way in heck that I am closing my eyes tonight.” As the ride progressed though, I realized I was being judgmental, and these other Indian men in my car were actually quite nice. A few of them were teenagers and spent the bulk of the ride watching Indian music videos or playing bubble shooter games on their phones. One guy actually spoke English and asked me lots of questions about how I was enjoying India. I also saw that there was an unused upper bunk just storing someone’s luggage. I asked if I could go up there to sleep, and the guys said of course, so I hopped up there and got some decent shut-eye for about 6-7 hours.My train was scheduled to arrive at 4:55 AM, so I set a bunch of alarms, so that I didn’t miss my stop, since my stop was not the train’s final destination. When I awoke at that time and checked Google maps, I realized we were still SUPER far away.
In fact, our train ended up being delayed about 5 hours, which is apparently quite common on this railroad track. Many trains share the same line, so our train had to frequently stop and wait for others to pass. At one point, we were about 10km from town, and sat in the same spot for over an hour!
At least the train had lots of people-watching to keep me busy. Kids were running around like monkeys, and different vendors were passing through the car to sell snacks, like fried chickpeas, samosas, and chai tea. I was again leery about the items, as they were carried in a big bucket from train car to train car, exposed to the hot, sticky, open air. I decided to munch on a snack cake and banana instead.I kept staring at the women on the train as well. They all wear such beautiful sarees here, with gold jewelry dangling from their ears and nose down to their ankles and toes. Just gorgeous! Anyway, we finally arrived at Mughal Railway Station near Varanasi where I spotted some Aussie travelers and decided to share a tuk-tuk with them to the hostel. I haggled it down to 100 rupees per person. Great success! 😀
I stayed two nights at goStops Varanasi. I absolutely loved this hostel! They are a hostel chain with locations in Delhi, Udaipur, and even Honolulu!
Cost: 6 USD/ night, including breakfast, WiFi, filtered water, and organized tours