India is mental! There’s no doubt about it.
We had heard tales from other travellers about many aspects to look out for in Varanasi. The burning area where people travel from near and far to have their dead relatives cremated. Burnings which go on 24 hours a day. The small alleyways where you have to dodge out of the way of scooters, cows and funeral processions. Often having to dive into someones home or store to get out of the way. And the trash – we had heard about the trash.
I have to admit, I was prepared to absolutely hate every moment of the time we had planned to stay there. But India is a land of surprises. And Varanasi is no exception.
But rather than tell you, let me show you – why Varanasi turned out to be one of my favourite cities in India
In many parts of Northern India it’s common to find cycle rickshaw drivers. It’s a fun way to get around, but prepare yourself for a bumpy ride. It’s not for the faint hearted, especially at rush hour – which is pretty much all the time.
If you’re too chicken to take a cycle rickshaw (and it’s ok if you are – we won’t judge) there are the motorised rickshaws to take you around. There is, however, only so far either rickshaw motorised or cycle, can take you. The alleyways leading to the Ganges are too narrow for them to fit and you have to go the rest on foot.
Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the history of mankind. The Ganges has played an important part in life and death throughout the centuries. Some Hindus believe that dying at Varanasi brings salvation. So many families will make pilgrimages to the Ganges for a traditional ceremonial burning. You are allowed to go down and view the burning area however no photos are allowed to be taken. Don’t even show up holding a camera – people will become angry very quickly or try to extort you for fake fines.
A great way to see the city of Varanasi is by row-boat. As you stroll along the banks of the Ganges, you will have someone ask you every 2 seconds if you want a boat ride – trust us. It’s actually really worth the money, and it’s a nice relaxing way to see a city that is usually anything but relaxing. Prices vary depending on how good you are at bartering but generally expect to pay between 200 – 500 rupees per hour for a ride.
If you want to do something else a bit more “touristy” then why not get a henna tattoo. These tattoos are painted on you using the ‘henna’ plant. Once dried the design will last a week or so. This one cost 300 rupees ($6), but costs vary depending on design and size. Remember to barter.
At around 6pm every night The Dashashwamedh Ghat holds a traditional Hindu ceremony. The Ghats priests perform the “Agni Pooja” (Worship to Fire) where a dedication is made to Lord Shiva, River Ganga (the Ganges), Surya (Sun), Agni (Fire), and the whole universe. It can get pretty busy so get there early if you want a seat with a decent view.
As with many places in India – be prepared to be the centre of attention. Many locals are fascinated by us tourists. They will often ask to shake your hand or have a photo taken with you.
Varanasi is a very ancient city – in fact earliest known archaeological evidence suggests that settlement around Varanasi began in around the 11th or 12th centuries BC. Town planning was not a science back then, the place is a maze and though filthy, it really has an amazing charm to it.
Thankfully it is in no way as bad as we had prepared ourselves for. It’s like many places – go there with the lowest possible expectations and you’ll always be impressed.
Kidding! In fact I knew straight away that it would be one of my favourite places we visited in India.
Looking for somewhere to stay? Here’s our top picks
Nestled in the heart of Dasaswamedh Ghat, Ganges Inn is an ideal spot from which to discover Varanasi
Granny’s Inn is a 10-minute walk from the Dashaswamedh Ghat. Free WiFi access is available in some rooms (so ask before booking).
Situated on its own ghat, BrijRama Palace – A Heritage Hotel was built in the 18th Century and is considered as one of the oldest structures in Varanasi.
(Click the hotel name to learn more)
Get the best tours – without having to barter…
- Boating down the Ganges River during sunrise is one of the main attractions in Varanasi. You can observe here the Hindu way of life along the banks of the Ganges (Ghats) River.
- Duration: 3 hours
- Experience the beautiful Hindu ritual Aarti on this evening tour in Varanasi, where Hindu mythology says the soul is liberated from the body. You’ll learn about the combination of physical, metaphysical, and supernatural elements as you listen to religious songs sung in praise of the gods and watch lamps being raised into the sky on the River Ganges
- Duration: 3 hours
- Immerse yourself in a true 5-hour Banarasi experience atop a Bajda (large boat) in the midstream of Ganga. Enjoy the sunset as you cruise arguably the holiest river in the Indian subcontinent. Delight in a delicious, traditional, home-cooked meal while on the boat before heading back to your hotel.
- Duration: 5 hours
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Have you been to Varanasi? What was your experience in this ancient city?
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