Varanasi, India: The Holy City You're Not Ready to Visit

By Lori Kackenmeister

Varanasi is a city that envelopes you. It doesn’t happen immediately (arrival to the city is delayed by a rather long, hot and dusty cab ride is required from the airport to get to the city’s heart), but once you’ve begun to wander its tangled streets you can’t help but feel transported to a different time and place.

City view of Varanasi, India from the rooftop of our guesthouse.

From the chaotic and steamy main boulevards to the shadowy twisted knots of narrow cobblestone back alleys filled with shouting open air vendors, food stalls, and an assortment of wandering animals (be prepared to hang out with cows, water buffalo, goats, and packs of dogs), it is worlds away from anything you’re likely to have experienced before. It’s a city filled with mysticism and intrigue, and if one thing is guaranteed, it’s that you’ll quickly be drawn out of your comfort zone and thrust into a curious and forbidding adventure.

The city’s lifeblood, the Ganges River - the holiest river in India - inauspiciously flanks its eastern limits. Upon first glance, it’s clear that this river is vital to all that Varanasi is, intertwined with so many aspects of daily life of its inhabitants. From the tour groups that flock down the numerous towering ghats (steps that lead down to the riverbanks from the city above) for sunset cruises, to much more fundamental functions like providing drinking water (note: it’s definitely NOT advisable to drink the water here unless you are local), as well as water to bathe and wash clothes and linens, it is hard to imagine the city without the Ganges.

A swami in deep thought along the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi, India.

 

As such, a trip to Varanasi should focus on taking in the life and death (more on that to come) that surrounds this mighty river. We recently spent three days here, which to be completely honest felt a bit long if your goal is to experience the city as a tourist (although plenty of people stay weeks or even months for in depth yoga seminars and spiritual studies). We’d recommend limiting your stay to two days and one night - which is just enough time to get a feel for what the city has to offer.  With very few Western comforts to be found, challenges abound - from acrid poor quality air and oppressive smells to persistent vendors peddling everything from jewelry to hashish  - the enveloping nature of the city can feel suffocating after a few days.

The highlight of our trip was taking in one of the infamous funeral ceremonies that takes place in open air along the banks of the Ganges. From what we observed, there are two main locations (colloquially called “burning places”) that these funerals occur - Harishchandra Ghat which is  more southerly and Manikarnika Ghat which is about a 30 minute walk north along the riverbank from Harishchandra.  It may seem a bit morbid to Western eyes, but it is quintessential to the Varanasi experience.

Some things to know before you go include:

Bring a mask or bandanna to wear whenever possible, specifically when near the ghats.

The constant burning of funeral pyres combined with the dusty streets leaves the air quality poor at best. Saline nose spray is also a good option to help flush out some of the ash and dirt at the end of the night. It’s far from sexy, but trust us, you’ll be thankful you came prepared.

A temple rising above the ghats along the Ganges in Varanasi, India.

Layer up.

Walking by the river and on busy main streets can be very hot, but once you dip into the dark alleyways near the Ganges, the temperature drops significantly. Nighttime is also rather cool so you’ll be glad you packed a sweater.

Be prepared to be less than comfortable.

We pride ourselves on doing adequate research on restaurants and accommodations before signing up; we like to know what we’re getting into. In Varanasi we found ourselves constantly asking, “Holy crap, how did this get rated ‘excellent’ on Tripadvisor?” Both the guesthouses and restaurants we visited were, regretfully, some of the worst quality we’ve seen thus far on our trip. Perhaps there are better out there, but after putting in the due diligence, we weren’t able to find them.

Expect to get dirty.

All those wandering animals leave the streets and sidewalks less than clean. You’ll inevitably step in excrement of one variety or another, so closed-toe shoes are recommended.

Ear plugs are necessary if you want sleep.

You’ll most likely want to stay near the ghats in Varanasi; it’s the hub of the action. The downside is that all of those ceremonies and nearby temples begin very early in the morning, with burning ceremonies actually occurring 24 hours a day. Windows often don’t have glass (just bars to keep the monkeys out) so the noise that results can be detrimental to a solid night’s sleep.

With all that said, Varanasi has been the most immersive and transformative experience thus far on our trip. Beyond the ghats there are yoga retreats, ashrams, and plenty of lassis waiting (Blue Lassi is famed for its unique yogurt drink offerings). If you’re up for the challenge, you’ll be rewarded with a unique travel experience and plenty of stories to tell in the future!

If you’ve been to Varanasi and have any other tips or insights to share, we’d love to hear from you! Let us know your thoughts below.