Sitting on the banks of the River Ganges in Utter Pradesh, Varanasi is the spiritual capital of India; one of the seven holiest sites in Hinduism and Jainism, and widely regarded as the birthplace of Buddhism. Hindus believe that if they die in Varanasi and their body is cremated on the banks of the River Ganges, they will achieve instant ‘moksha’ (release) from the cycle of rebirth.
Stepping through the iron gates at the entrance to my hotel, I find myself on an old side road, relatively quiet aside for a few locals making their way to and from the town centre, the odd bull here and there, and even the occasional monkey scurrying along the rooftops.
As I turn the corner, the quietness descends into sheer chaos. All my five senses are awoken at once. The streets are bustling with the sound of tuk tuk and car engines, horns blaring, while my eyes are blinded by the hundreds of colours worn by the swarms of people who push past me, brushing against my skin. Meanwhile, the aroma of spicy street food wafts over from the road-side vendors, combined with a floral scent so sweet and pungent, I can practically taste it.
Early morning boat ride
With less than 24 hours in which to explore Varanasi, I have no time to waste – although I’ve managed to miss my 5.30am wake-up call for a 6am sunrise boat ride along the River Ganges with some other tourists from my hotel, so I stroll down to the ghats (the stone steps leading down to the river) and in no time at all, I find a man who will take me out on a boat for just 200 rupees.
Sailing along the River Ganges is the perfect way to take in all there is to see on the river banks, from the many different ghats (each of which has its own name – more on those later), to the temples and the rituals…
…not to mention the crowds of people that gather on the river bank to watch cremations (visible below), bath in the holy waters, perform rituals, sell souvenirs and beg for money.
Walking tour of North Varanasi (the ‘Old’ City)
In the afternoon, I hook up with local tour operator, Roobaroo Walks, for a walking tour of North Varanasi (the ‘Old City’).
At 3pm, I meet my tour guide, Aayush and a fellow tourist at St Thomas’ Church. From here, we embark on a walking tour that lasts just over four hours. Aayush is really friendly and knowledgeable, taking us to all the must-see spots and telling us everything there is to know about the city.
Varanasi is full of temples, but this one seems lesser known as there isn’t much information available online about it. Kali Temple of Phulwadi is situated next to Gautameshwar Mahadev temple. Carved in sandstone, it was built in 1886 by Maharaja Ishwari Narayan Singh of the Kashi Naresh dynasty.
Bansphatak Flower Market
When we reach Bansphatak Flower Market, I realise where the floral smell is coming from. The Flower Market is another explosion of colour and aroma, as local residents and traders come here to buy flowers to gift to the gods/deities at temples, or to sell in neighbouring cities. The flowers are of a high quality, and their scent is very strong. They are sold individually, in bunches or as flower garlands.
The ‘Old City’ of Varanasi is a labyrinth of winding streets and alley ways, but luckily Aayush knows the area like the back of his hand and leads us through the seemingly endless maze with ease. The Chowk is one of Varanasi’s most famous street markets, known best for its ‘Banarasi’ silk sarees and silk brocades.
We pass several shops with open fronts that have mattresses laying just inside them. Aayush explains that shop-keepers like to invite their customers inside to take a seat on the mattress as they enjoy a cup of hot tea (chai, no doubt), while the shop-keeper tempts them with their available range of fabrics and designs.
A moment of calm
Amongst all the chaos and colour in Varanasi, there are also moments of serenity and calm. Aayush leads us through an elaborately decorated stone archway into a beautiful garden courtyard, secluded within the grounds of a large house. Aged around 300 years old, this was the home of famous Indian poet and social reformer, Bhartendu Harishchandra, who set out to improve conditions for the lower classes and secure rights for women.
The garden has its very own stone gazebo-style structure, still housing the original table and chairs, which are now quite ricket-y.
It even has its very own parrot, sitting in a cage hanging in the corner of the garden.
As we continue on our tour we come to the Alamgir Mosque, or Dharhara Masjid, built in the 17th century by emperor Aurangzeb, over the ruins of a Hindu temple that was demolished when he captured Varanasi and ordered the destruction of all Hindu temples.
A stroll along the ghats
As mentioned previously, the stone steps leading down to the river Ganges are known as ‘ghats’ and there are many of them, each with its own name.
Manikharnika Ghat is where the majority of the cremations take place, situated in the centre of the ghats on the river front. The fires burn 24/7, and apparently there is never a moment when a body is not burning on Marnikharnika. If you stand close enough, you can actually see in quite graphic detail what actually goes on during these cremations. I kept my distance, but could still make out the figure of a body in the fire. If you want to get a closer look at what goes on (as morbid as it sounds, this is what draws many people to Varanasi), a boat ride is a less intrusive way of doing so.
At the nearby Scindia Ghat, you’ll find the landmark Ratneshwar Mahadev temple, commonly known as ‘the leaning temple’ because it is half submerged in the river and it is now impossible to perform worship or rituals inside.
Don’t miss your chance to light a flower boat, made from leaves, marigold petals and a diya (small wick) and set it afloat in the River Ganges – this is seen as an offering to the river, which can bring you good karma.
Perhaps the most powerful and moving experience you can have in Varanasi is that of the Ganga Aarti ceremony, which is held every evening at the Dashashwamendh Ghat around sunset, at 6.45pm.
A group of priests perform the Agni Pooja (Worship to Fire), in which a dedication is made to Lord Shiva, River Ganga, Surya (Sun), Agni (Fire) and the entire universe. Fast-moving flames, resonance of sonorous music of bells, and hymns sung to devotees, combine to produce a mesmerizing effect against the backdrop of the River Ganges.
Where to stay
If you’re only spending one night in Varanasi, don’t splash out on an expensive hotel. By the time you’ve got back to your room after the evening Ganga Aarti ceremony, all you’ll want to do is sleep. You can’t go wrong with Granny’s Inn, which is right in the heart of the city centre and only around a 15-minute walk from the River Ganges. When I booked through Booking.com, it only cost me £14 for the night, including breakfast.
The accommodation is very secure, with iron gates at the main entrance, and big padlocks on each door. The only theft that occurs during my stay is carried out by a cheeky monkey, who pinches an apple from the fridge!
Admittedly, showering is a grim experience; the walls and floor are bare stone, albeit painted vibrant shades of green and yellow, and the water is cold. But it’s only for one night, so this doesn’t bother me too much (and this is nothing compared to the shocking levels of poverty that lie outside my hotel gates, so I almost feel blessed that I am able to take this shower).
Varanasi is one of my most memorable travel experiences, and my favourite part of India. It was everything I hoped it’d be, and more. I loved all of the sights, sounds and smells and meeting people from all walks of life – although I do wish I did more tasting…
If you have more time…
- Explore Varanasi’s many other temples and mosques
- Sample some authentic street food (but be picky – many of the vendors cook using tap water, which can cause an upset stomach)
- Go to the South of Varanasi – see handlooms and weaving, Tulsi Ghat, Lolark Kund (ancient bathing and ‘pooja’ (prayer) site), Sankat Mochan temple, and more…
- Visit the Durga Temple, a.k.a the Monkey Temple
- Go to holy Buddhist site, Sarnath
Would you like to visit Varanasi – what is it about India’s spiritual and cultural capital that you’re drawn to?
I financed my own transport within India, in addition to my tour arrrangements in Varanasi, but I owe a big thank you to Expedia for covering my flights from London Gatwick to Indira Gandhi International Airport, Delhi!