Varanasi: A Sacred City on the River Ganges

Days 48-51: ‘Go to Varanasi’, they said. ‘It’s amazing’, they claimed. ‘OK,’ and off we went. Jess is a Wanderer spent three days in India’s fascinating Varanasi…

We didn’t know what to expect but the city came to us heavily recommended. Having spent three weeks tramping around the country and sampling life in a few different places, my conclusion is that it’s so big you’d never be able to visit everywhere and therefore, everyone has their favourites, their must-sees. And Varanasi is one of those must-sees.

So, what should you expect? Well, I’ll get the not-so-great out of the way first… it’s a dirty city, the beggars (adults and children) are on every corner (and very persistent) and there’s a big ‘weed’ culture. I can’t actually count the number of times I was asked if I wanted to buy drugs. This was not what we expected, nor what we had been told. I would have much preferred knowing this before heading in so blind as the recommendations from previous visitors didn’t mention these things at all, therefore it was a little surprising to find this was not the reality! However, it’s good to see somewhere for as it is and not with blinkers on. And no where is perfect after all…

Nonetheless, Varanasi is a lovely city – in parts – with plenty going on. It’s a city of colour and sights that will wow you around every corner. The bustling market scattered throughout countless alleyways is a place where it would be impossible to spend too much time. Sipping lassis, sampling street food and generally getting lost whilst sweating in and amongst the crowds is an experience in itself. There are more than 80 ‘ghats’ lining the riverbank – these are steps that lead down to the water. Some are fairly quiet, some are more lively. Most are perfect for sitting on and watching the world go by. You’ll definitely see some interesting shenanigans.

There are so many fantastic restaurants and cafes that you could eat yourself silly during your stay. You’ll be hankering after full portions of breakfast, lunch and dinner each day due to wanting to sample all of the available options! We particularly enjoyed Bona Cafe and Spicy Bites Restaurant.

Each night at

Dashashwamedh Ghat – around 6:30pm – they have an Aarti performance. It’s an incredible display of men in costumes doing traditional dancing with fire, feathers and conch shells. There’s not much more I can explain other than that. Fascinating to see. My favourite was when they threw the petals at the end but… could I get a decent picture?? Of course, no!

Varanasi’s most famous Ghat is Manikarnika Ghat where locals gather to cremate their deceased. There is a whole ritual which must be carried out which involves bringing the linen-wrapped body and washing it in the river.

It is then left to dry for 20 minutes. Following this, it is placed in the burning place and set alight for three hours. Extinguished by water from the Ganges, the chest bone (for males) and hip bone (for women) is removed and tossed into the water. Bystanders are able to sort through the ash looking for precious metals and jewellery which they will go on to sell. The family are ok with this situation. Women do not attend the ceremony in Varanasi as it is believed that they are unable to control their emotions and any tears shed for a deceased person will prevent them from going to Nirvana (heaven).

Each body must be burnt using 200kg of wood and the wood is purchased from near to the Ghat. It costs £2-2.50 per kg so is an expensive affair! Family, friends and tourists stand looking on as up to 300 bodies are burnt each day.

Another highlight would be to take a boat trip down the River Ganges. Choose your starting point carefully if you don’t wish to pass by a body that’s been sent overboard. Photographs are not allowed but that’s OK, I’m not sure anyone would actually want to take/see pics of the ceremony!

All in all, Varanasi was an exciting mix of hustle, bustle and colour. I seriously don’t know that I’ve ever been anywhere like it in the world – or whether I ever would. I’ll definitely remember it as a unique place to visit. Would I recommend it? Yes to a photographer looking for some colourful pics. Yes to someone genuinely interested in Hindu rituals. No if you’re only going to see what all the fuss is about. India has a lot to offer so do your research and see what places would genuinely interest you before hopping on a bus!