Things to do in Varanasi

Things to do in Varanasi

Varanasi was one of our favorite places we’ve visited in India. You will be greeted by chaos, color, and the feeling of stepping back in time. Not many places have fascinated us such as Varanasi. It’s packed with extremes and intensity like we have never seen before. 

 In this post, you will find our favorite things to do and plenty of tips for your trip to Varanasi. We stayed for 3 days in Varanasi. 

Varanasi, located along the banks of the River Ganges is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, and one of the holiest in Hinduism.  Pilgrims come to the Ganges here to wash away sins in the sacred waters, to cremate their loved ones, or simply to die here, hoping for liberation from the cycle of rebirth. For us, Varanasi was a magical place but it’s not for the faint-hearted. Intimate rituals of life and death take place in public, and the sights, sounds, and smells of the old town can be intense.

How to get there

Varanasi is located in the Uttar Pradesh state in India so it’s a little further than the typical Golden Triangle route but it is easily accessible from most major cities. Other options are by car, bus or plane. There are daily flights from New Delhi to Varanasi airport. From the airport, you will need to take a taxi to the main city which can take up to 2 hours due to the quality of the roads and traffic. 

Where to stay 

We stayed at the Brijrama Palace around the Dashashwmedh Ghat. This hotel has amazing views of the Ganges River. It was not that cheap but we decided to treat ourselves! We had dinner every evening at the hotel’s restaurant because the restaurants outside didn’t look that hygienic.  Overall highly recommended. 
 

Walk along the Ghats

Varanasi has almost 100 ghats, which are riverfront steps leading to the banks of the River Ganges. A walk along Varanasi’s ghats is a fascinating experience. No matter where you stay it isn’t far to get to the ghats and once there, there is plenty to look at; people that are taking ritual baths, wash clothes, do yoga, offers blessings, sell flowers, get a massage, play cricket, wash their buffaloes, improve their karma by giving to beggars, or simply to stare at the Ganges. If you are into photography you will have a great time taking beautiful shots here but be aware taking photos of sadhu men (holy men dressed in orange) will cost you a few coins. We loved walking along the Ghats and mingle with the locals! 

Make sure to explore the back alleys of Varanasi as well, you will see a lot of interesting things there!

Manikarnika Ghat

Manikarnika Ghat, the main burning ghat, is the most auspicious place for a Hindu to be cremated. Dead bodies are handled by outcasts know as doms and are carried through the alleyways of the old town to the holy Ganges on a bamboo stretcher, swathed in cloth. The corpse is doused in the Ganges prior to cremation. 

Huge piles of firewood are stacked along the top of the ghat; every log is carefully weighed on giant scales so that the price of cremation can be calculated. Each type of wood has its price, sandalwood being the most expensive. There is an art to using just enough wood to completely incinerate a corpse. Purified butter is placed on the body to make it burn faster. The whole cremation process takes around 6 hours. Once the cremation is complete, the family returns for the ashes in 13 days. After the family collects the ashes, they release these into the River Ganges. It is said that if a person’s ashes are scattered here, their soul will achieve nirvana (liberation). 

Pregnant women, very young children, and priests are not allowed to be cremated as they are seen as too holy. Prostitutes are also not allowed to be cremated because they are seen as not holy enough. They will still go into the River Ganges but with weights on their bodies. 

You can watch cremations but always show reverence by behaving respectfully. You are almost guaranteed to be led by a priest, or more likely a guide, to the upper floor of a nearby building from where you can watch cremations taking place, and then asked for a donation towards the cost of wood. If you don’t want to make a donation, don’t follow them!  

Take a boat ride 

We recommend you to take a boat ride in the morning! It was our favorite experience in Varanasi. We saw one of the most beautiful sunrises we have ever seen and we saw the locals do their morning rituals; bathing, shaving, brushing their teeth and performing puja (prayers). We booked a boat ride at our hotel for 300 rupees for 2 hours but you can get a 2-hour journey for 200 rupees if you bargain. 

The Aarti Ceremony

One of the best things to do in Varanasi is watching the Ganga evening Aarti at the Dashashwamedh Ghat. Aarti is a part of the Hindu ritual of worship and the name literally means to remove darkness which is why it always involves flame or light. Pilgrims gather by foot to sit on the stairs of the ghat and also arrive by boat to watch the spectacle. We were one of the few tourists amongst the huge crowd of several thousand people. It was one of the most unique things we have ever seen. 

The Aarti ceremony takes place every day 45 minutes after sunset at the Dashashwamedh Ghat. We recommend you to get there early to get a good view. 

Tips 

  1. If you are walking in the narrow streets and you hear bells behind you, look around and get to the side of the street as soon as possible. It usually means that people are running through the streets with a body for the pyre.  
  2.  Be prepared for the fact that this is the place where Hindus wish to be burned after they die to move onto the afterlife. Therefore, you will see open cremations at the various burning ghats on the river Ganges. We didn’t know how we would react to seeing this as in western society we treat death as a taboo. 
  3. Watch out for bulls! Varanasi is the holy city of Lord Shiva and Hindus believe that bulls embody the soul of Lord Shiva on earth. There are dozens of them roaming free. The narrow alleys, monkeys, noises,… can startle the bulls and make them charge. 
  4. Make sure you wear closed shoes or sandals with a thick sole. 
  5. There are many stray and starving dogs in Varanasi that needs help! Although they wouldn’t mean to harm you, that doesn’t mean that they don’t bite you when they feel threatened, want to protect their babies or they’re hungry! Not all dogs have rabies, but it’s good to be wary of them to avoid it. Don’t taunt them with food. If you do get bitten, seek medical assistance immediately.  
  6. Be careful where you choose to eat! Varanasi is a very crowded and filthy city and the hygiene of the restaurants is questionable. 
  7. Keep your valuables safe! Varanasi is known for pickpockets, especially around the train station.  
  8. Be careful when you go out at night! Varanasi is not a party place and walking down the labyrinth of alleyways can be a tough job in the day, let alone at night and there are a lot of hawkers.  
  9. Wash after watching the cremations! There is ash flying everywhere around the burning ghats whether you are watching from above, from the ghats, or on the boat offshore. Some priests cover themselves in the ashes of the dead. To make sure, I would wash your hair and your clothes after you have watched the cremations leaving no trace on you. 

Scams to avoid 

  1. The wood donation scam at the burning ghat; the most common scam in Varanasi happens at the burning ghat. You will be asked by a local “tour guide” to donate money for cremations for the poor. They don’t work for an organization. If you would like to help, you can find respected organizations in Varanasi that help the poor and would put your donation to good use. 
  2. Boat tour scam; Avoid popular ghats like Assi Ghat, Manikarnika Ghat, and Dashashwamedh Ghat. Walk away from those ghats and negotiate a good price with a boat owner who approaches you.  A good price is around 200 rupees per person for an hour for one person. For a group tour, you can pay as little as 100 rupees per person. 
  3. Photo license fee at the Burning Ghats; If you want to take photos from further away and someone sees you they will ask if you have a license to take photos. Refuse to pay anything and walk away. 
  4. Bindi scam; As you walk around during the Aarti Ceremony, you will find some “priests” coming up to you to put a red dot on your forehead without asking. They will ask you to donate money. You don’t have to give anything. 
  5. Fake Nepal bus tickets; You can find a number of buses heading to Nepal from Varanasi, but not all of them will take you there. The bus will leave Varanasi only to break down before it gets to Nepal. Then you will need to buy more tickets to get another bus to continue your trip. Make sure you read reviews before buying tickets. 
  6. No money massage scam; Near the Dashashmedh Ghat, you will find a lot of men coming up to you and massaging your arms and head without asking. Even if you refuse they are going to ask for money. 
  7. Expensive taxi scam from the airport or train station; They will ask you 5 times more than the price to get to central Varanasi. The normal price from the airport to central Varanasi is between 500 and 700 rupees.

Varanasi was pretty intense but definitely one of the most magical cities we have ever visited! 

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2 Comments

  1. Narendar
    July 15, 2021 / 6:33 pm

    Beautiful holy place

    • decoster_7@hotmail.com
      Author
      July 15, 2021 / 7:09 pm

      We loved it! ❤️

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