What It’s Like In: Varanasi, India
Varanasi, India. Bodies burning on the waterfront; cows wandering through tiny streets; holy men, pilgrims, and paupers side by side on the ghats; and unending crowds pressing forward to catch sight of pandit holy men offering sacrifices by fire each evening to the Ganges River that the town is built alongside. Varanasi is intense even for India, yet for many travelers it is a favorite exactly because of this. It’s hard to justify skipping it if you’ll be traveling in the country, so before you go here’s a look at What It’s Like In: Varanasi.
On the Streets
Most independent travelers will limit themselves to the Old Town of Varanasi, the stretch along the north shore of the Ganges River which is home to both the majority of the major historic and cultural attractions as well as the hostels and guesthouses. This area is characterized primarily by its small winding alleyways, and the fact that they eventually seem to open out onto the ghat staircases that lead down into the Ganges. All throughout motorbikes zip past pedestrians as everyone dodges the countless cows and the waste they leave behind, alongside touts soliciting tourists to eat at this restaurant, shop at this store, or come to this very special one-time-only musical performance. The riverfront, more open but no less crowded, plays host to a constant flow of people that rarely stops. Boatmen paddle across the river, young boys play cricket, and the cows… they just sort of keep wandering around.
India is cheap for independent travelers, regarded as one of the best budget destinations in the world. More than most cities in the country, Varanasi is an easy place to spend more than you expect – particularly because there are a ton of restaurants selling all sorts of Western and East Asian foods that, after being in India for a long time, all of a sudden become incredibly tempting. For around $25 per day you can easily share a private room with a travel partner, eat one or two meals at restaurants that cater to foreigners, and do a bit of sightseeing. Downgrade the food or accommodation and you can get by for half that or even less. For all but the most extreme budget travelers, however, it’s worth paying a bit extra to get above the most basic level of accommodation. Sure you could pay $5 for a dank overcrowded dorm… but do you really want to when a private room somewhere nicer is only $12, and can be split with a friend?
The dead bodies are certainly a peculiarity, but one you’ll eventually grow accustomed to. The ghats of Varanasi see a continual stream of cremations of those who are lucky enough to die in Varanasi and be released from the cycle of rebirth in Hindu theology, and if you take a long stroll along the riverfront you won’t be able to avoid coming across this facet of the city. Keep in mind that it’s considered improper to take photos of the cremation ceremonies… but also that if you’re surreptitious you can probably get away with it if you decide to try. Once the bodies have been carried through the streets of town to the burning ghats and laid upon wooden fires on the riverfront, the ashes are scattered into the sacred Ganges.
Also peculiar, particularly in light of the above, is that fact that you will regularly see devout Hindus bathing in and drinking the water of the Ganges. While it certainly isn’t suggested that tourists join in, this ritual bathing is believed to clear away all sins and purify the bather.
The major attraction in Varanasi is the Ganges River itself, and the many temples that line the river along the ghats. Take time to hire a boat for a ride out on the river, whether to be paddled up and down for an hour or just across the river to a sandbar on the other side where boats are built and, for some reason, horse rides are on offer. Also well worth seeing is the nightly ‘Ganga Aarti’ puja ceremony at Dashashwamedh Ghat, popular with both travelers and local pilgrims who gather to watch pandits from a local temple perform a ceremony using fire to honor the Ganges river and the deity it embodies. Try to show up early, before it really starts getting dark, as the ceremony is quite popular and the best vantage points fill up very quickly.
Varanasi has long been a backpacker hub in India, and the food throughout the old town is reflective of this. Many of the restaurants in the area have a huge menu, Italian pasta and Japanese omelette rice and Indian curries all side by side competing for stomach space. There are curry shops as well of course, the ‘veg’ and ‘non-veg’ joints that abound throughout the country, but these are more numerous beyond the warrens of the old town. If you’re just looking for a quick nip, many of the transition points from old town to new also host small bazaars where fried samosas and fresh fruit are available. (Be careful about hygiene, or your stomach WILL hate you.)
Regarding intoxicants there are a few bottle shops in the old town that are well hidden, but ask around at your guesthouse and they probably ‘know a guy’. Alternatively, bhang is readily available, a cannabic concoction most often served in a lassi yogurt drink. Not that we’re recommending you partake, but it’s a bit of a legal grey area and speaking practically much stronger than you’re expecting, so if you do decide to give it a try be careful on both counts. You’ll still need to navigate those small streets back to your guesthouse at the end of the day, after all!
Have you been to Varanasi? What do you think of the holy city on the Ganges?
Let us know in the comments!