Travel in India: Varanasi and the Holy Ganges River

Varanasi sits on the banks of the Ganges River, and is considered by many to be the oldest and holiest city in the world. 🕉 26993777867_a4b1ae2e1f_cThe city was founded by the God, Shiva, and is also said to be the birthplace of Buddhism.40054875380_7864b92c71_cBecause of its religious significance, Hindu pilgrims come from all over India to bathe in its sacred waters and wash away their sins. 💦

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It’s also one of the top 10 most polluted rivers in the world! 😮

Even more, to die or be cremated in Varanasi is seen as the highest of honors, and the assurance of ultimate salvation. 27993247458_d6baeae7a9_cBodies 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.😲40054966950_07d6098a62_cStrange fact: apparently they even have annual frog weddings here in Varanasi in order to please the rain God. 🐸💍

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courtesy of Google images

Varanasi also attracts a high population of Sadhus, or holy men, who come to the river bank to pray, meditate, and offer blessings. 27993247378_686f2876ff_cThe holy men wear a deep saffron color, as it represents sacrifice and the quest for salvation.40963261165_d02633d39c_c

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. 40963261155_0193d1e836_c40054874990_3bba114605_cA ghat goat…try saying that three times fast. 😂 🐐<27993247348_1cbb4842f7_cNow one of the most famous ghats is Dashashwamedh Ghat. 41144730854_9bf8565853_c

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spiritual street art in Varanasi

During the day, visitors can come here to receive a blessing by a Sardhu, or holy man. 41819027452_98b7160015_c41819027542_864bdd2fac_cWhen 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…”40054875160_eabf3911f6_c40054966700_06fa21ea50_cMany 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. 40963261095_41d58fdd26_c40054874690_755d286d0c_cPersonally, I found it entertaining enough just to wander along the waterfront, and watch the extreme combination of calm and chaos that surrounded me. 41819028152_8c612c9afc_c27993247288_281d566350_c26993777337_e5e5d51070_cIt’s also impressive just to marvel at the architecture in Varanasi, since it has such a long history, and an eclectic religious influence.41819055562_7636f0c7f6_c40962844665_f6f3cfe5e5_cI even met my friend again along the way!
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Watch an Aarti Ceremony

Now in the evening, that same ghat holds a fire procession, called a Gange Aarti.

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items and offerings of spiritual significance in the Hindu religion

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.40981959575_7fec748a7e_c40982030145_7883d24ed2_cI 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.41838090302_59e28dce1c_c40074138640_fed74052c7_c27013118117_2e3bca1cc9_cEveryone seemed in good spirits though, and the crowd was chanting and clapping along as well. 👏40981935195_ee7dec3844_c40981856455_898a7972f7_c40981781175_c8096d587a_cHere’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. 40962844615_1b0e073a1c_cWalking 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! 🐒 41819071202_89890508b7_c26993778427_bcbe0f2254_c40054966740_790ff1c918_c40054477590_488b44dee8_c40054477700_07dfc0b7db_c41144730754_fc76e83285_c41144730664_f50db7d7dd_cMonkey 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. 40054966970_c512617ab2_cOne 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. 40963334685_2285ea2970_c
40963334655_d80467be59_c (1)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. 🐄40054477610_f7840f9675_c40054477550_c8c99bd845_c40962844705_3925d083bc_cAnd even though a thick layer of manure coats the cobblestone, many people still walk barefoot through the streets.40962844735_c541e9b068_c41144730784_d0cc71789b_cNow equally as pungent as the smell of manure is the smell of incense wafting through the air here.41144730704_a9069a14f2_cNot 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. 🧘‍♀️

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Try local cuisine 

Now aside of from strolling the ghats and the city streets, Varanasi also serves up a lot of classic Indian cuisine. 🤤

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puri: deep-fried bread, served with curry
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jalebi: deep-fried dough, covered in sugar syrup
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masala tea: black tea with Indian spices, like cardamom and cinnamon
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local bakery in Varanasi

Varanasi has a very active street food scene, where you’ll find cheap eats like this roti bread filled with veggies and herbs.41819071252_892ac0d614_cYou’ll also find quite a few street markets here, where you can buy fresh fruits and vegetables as well. 26993778207_c7b02cb335_cMy 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. ❤27993471528_3ffc9fbc0d_c

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! 😉41164862964_deca5b071a_cAnyway, 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! 😀

Getting there:

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. 40037803330_1b12e95e1a_cI 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.27976047088_c3df69c337_cIn 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!<41127832694_87bb523a5e_cOnce 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! 😲41127832804_19b3588af6_cAt 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.40945636525_0c4ca694ed_cMy 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.

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nowheresville

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!

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contemplating whether I should just get out and walk

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.27976046948_0a668f0a22_cI 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! 😀

Accommodation:

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!
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Cost: 6 USD/ night, including breakfast, WiFi, filtered water, and organized tours

 

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4 thoughts on “Travel in India: Varanasi and the Holy Ganges River

  1. India is a place so full with cultures!! would love to go there one day:) and wow that hostel for 6 dollars a night!! If I ever go that would definitely be my place of choice! thanks for sharing :)x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jesica, I hope you get to travel here one day too! I think you will love it! ☺️ Yes, it’s easy to travel here on a budget too. 😉 Thanks for checking out the post! Take care!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Megan:
    Thank u for taking me along on your journey!
    Best thing about it is I don ‘t have to leave my home.
    I have enjoyed all your blogs and then talk about them with your mother.., Stay safe !
    Melody

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Melody! Thank you so much for continuing to follow the posts. ☺️ I’m so glad you enjoy them! Hope you’re doing well! Take care! Xx

      Megan

      Like

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