In our opinion Varanasi, the holy city on the river Ganges is the city (that we visited) that most embodies India. It is pure colour, chaos, madness and tradition. Although we were expecting Varanasi to be far too chaotic and weird to be enjoyable, it actually turned out to be our favourite place in India. India does it again – it’s full of contradictions and surprises! Or perhaps we are getting used to the madness – or becoming mad ourselves?!
A little about Varanasi
“Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” – Mark Twain
Varanasi is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on earth and some may know it as Benares. It is also one of Hinduism’s 7 most holy cities due its eminent position on the River Ganges and huge number of ghats (ritual bathing steps leading to the river).
The role of the River Ganges is multitude, and you bet you are going to witness it all in Varanasi! From ritual bathing to general bathing, to fishing to meditating to doing the laundry, to playing and, of course, having your loved ones cremated.
Perhaps the cremation aspect is what Varanasi is most known for, with families either bringing the already cremated ashes of their loved ones to scatter in the Ganges, or paying a small fortune to have them cremated at one of the two burning ghats on the riverside. Varanasi is also an auspicious place to die as the lucky/unlucky one achieves release from moksha- that is the cycle of birth and death.
Walking & boat trips
We recommend walking the ghats and also taking a 1 hour boat tour up and down. This can be at sunrise for the best light or at sunset in order to best experience the celebrations and the intense fire of the burning ghats.
Walking the length of the ghats is a very enjoyable experience, firstly because it’s not often you get the space to walk anywhere in India! That said, you will have to dodge a few pushy touts, boatmen, hash dealers, fortune-tellers, flower sellers, cows, stray dogs, water buffalo (and their effluent), weird stalkers and holy-man-for-hire! We stayed at Assi Ghat, the most southern ghat so it was simple for us to go out and get walking along the riverside.
A special shout out goes to the guesthouse we stayed in as Virendra, his wife and their family were hands down the kindest, most genuine and most helpful Indian family we met. We loved just spending time chatting with them and he’s probably the most helpful and knowledgeable person in the whole town, with a sense of humour to boot.
If you are in the Assi Ghat area and stuck for places to eat we also recommend these two places: Aum Cafe for healthy western food and Itihaas Alley Kitchen for delicious Indian and Middle Eastern food. Guaranteed not to get a dodgy tummy!
Some of the ghats hold nightly Hindu prayer celebrations, the most notable being Dashashwamedh Ghat where there are displays with fire, chanting and song. It’s a great place to just sit, soak up the atmosphere and people watch, although it does get quite frantic later on. If you are in a boat, you will be parked up along with many others to watch the whole show. Here you can buy a little prayer lantern with flowers and a candle to set free in the Ganges.
There are 2 burning ghats; Harishchandra Ghat which is the smaller of the two and Manikarnika Ghat, the main and most auspicious cremation spot. This ghat deals with 400-500 cremations daily and it operates 24/7. We saw both burning ghats from our boat trip, and on foot. We also decided to hire a rowing boat and guide specifically to get closer to Manikarnika Ghat.
These burning ghats are public places, but reverence is advised as you are witnessing funerals. Photographs up close are not permitted. To be honest you aren’t really going to see anything grizzly, (if you don’t count the dogs munching at things by the shore) it’s more in the imagination.
What is of interest is experiencing another culture’s way of dealing with death and dispatching their loved one to the great beyond. As with everything else in India, even death is a public affair. At first it can seem shocking, but after having spent some weeks in the country and having experienced the communal nature of most of their activities, you get to understand that even death (a guaranteed part of life!) is celebrated in public in a sort of ritual send off for everyone to say goodbye to their loved ones, and share the experience together.
The cremation ceremony
From what we could gather, the process is as follows; the body is brought down to the ghat on a bamboo stretcher dressed in funeral cloth and some gaudy fabrics and flowers which are discarded and picked over by the cows. The owner’s day to day clothes such as sari’s are often used as part payment for the cremation. The body is then doused in water from the Ganges by the family members (men only and very stoically. The women are not permitted and are left to mourn behind the ghats). We witnessed a family pouring a lot of Ganges water into the corpse’s mouth. The body is then lifted on to the huge pyre of firewood which you can see being carefully weighed behind the ghats.
The price of the cremation depends on the type of wood, with sandalwood being the most precious. After being set alight, the body is burnt for several hours before the pyre is collapsed and cleared away for the next cremation. You can see big piles of ashes and it is here that you may start to imagine what the dogs are eating. When the ashes are cool, untouchables (societal outcasts of no caste) rake through them searching for gold teeth or precious jewellery. The parts of the body that aren’t fully reduced to ashes are left to float away in the warm embrace of the sacred river, to carry them to the next world, finally free of the cycle of life and death.
The Old City
There is more to Varanasi that just the riverside, if you are a little patient with the chaos then you can explore the labyrinthine alleyways that make up the old city. As many other places in India this will seem overwhelming at first but then you will be won by the ancient and beautiful alley ways making up a sort of maze in which to lose yourself, as well as your sense of self and time (no we didn’t take drugs!). Here you will see local produce such as yoghurt and cheese, spices, teas and religious goods surrounding the Vishwanath Temple (which is apparently a nightmare to visit. We didn’t bother as it seemed too complicated!). Instead we went to a very famous lassi shop called Blue Lassi. It’s just a bit of a hole in the wall but it is very famous for its delicious lassis (flavoured yoghurt drinks/desserts).
Many people visit Varanasi to work on their spiritual pursuits; there are many courses in Ayurvedic medicine, massage, yoga and meditation. Jess has a 4 hands Ayurvedic massage recommended by our guesthouse. Alex doesn’t like to be touched so he missed out. It is our recommendation to do your research ahead of arrival or ask your guesthouse as there are many imposters to navigate!
Ayurveda medicine is widely used here, these medicines are mainly made of herbs but also of metal and sometimes cows urine – yikes!
These products are as widespread in India, probably even as much as mainstream medicine, and remain the medicine of choice for those who cannot afford “proper medications”. However there are Indians and western alike swearing on its effectiveness. Unfortunately we don’t have the scientific evidence to back it up, but hey, if it makes people feel better, we see nothing against it, especially since it’s so affordable.
Varanasi is also “home” to many sadhus, wandering holy man who have renounced all material possessions in order to achieve closeness to God. They are usually quite respected and mostly live on what people offer them. Many of them have given up a life of comfort to pursue their spiritual goals entirely.
Sarnath – A sacred Buddhist site
As a side half day trip, it is possible to visit Sarnath, where the Buddha gave his first sermon on the middle way to nirvana. Here you can see the remains of magnificent 3rd century BC stupas and monasteries, but the rest of the monuments in the area are more modern. The visit involves an hour each way from Varanasi in crazy traffic and we didn’t really feel like the trip was worth it, especially as the museum was closed on the day we went!
Varanasi is quite simply the quintessential Indian experience. We advise making it your last stop as the assault on the senses (and on everything else) is quite powerful (more so than in other parts of India, believe it or not!), and will leave you with a lasting impression of everything that is this unique whirlwind of a country.
The streets may be chaotic and over-populated, but walking on the Ganges by the ghats, you will experience a sense of timelessness that shows that you are in a magical place. There is no doubt that suggestion plays a big part in it; you come to Varanasi primed to the fact that this is sacred soil and you have seen the documentaries and the pictures. There is something to be said about experiencing a sacred place, filled to the brim with holy ceremonies and saturated with so much faith (whether you are a believer or not), you cannot help being enveloped by the atmosphere that is just perfect to connect you to whatever your idea or the divine is. We are sceptics and we felt it, that alone was worth the trip.
Varanasi can also make you question the way we deal we life and death in the West, and perhaps it will lead you to conclude that the two are part of the same continuum, both to be respected and celebrated. The idea of death does not necessarily need to be feared, but incorporated into life and embraced, who knows, maybe the great wheel does keep turning and death marks only the beginning of something else. In other words, not your average holiday in the sun!