Varanasi. It’s a name that conjures up thousands of images and fills a traveller with wonder. Varanasi is the holiest city in India and is also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
Many Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi will bring liberation from the cycle of life and death, so many pilgrims travel to the city when they realise their end is near. There are numerous homes for the dying set back from the River Ganges and over 200 bodies are burnt daily at the two cremation ghats.
Varanasi is an incredibly beautiful, atmospheric city and somewhere that Ollie and I had wanted to visit for a long time. We spent three days soaking up the spectacle that is Varanasi; it is not a city with many tourist sights to be seen. Rather, it is a city to be experienced and felt. The scene of life and death that plays out beside the Ganges is one of humanity, in all its forms.
The Ghats of Varanasi
Along the Western bank of the River Ganges, leading up into the old city, are 84 ghats, which stretch continuously along the river for 6.8km. One of the joys of Varanasi is walking along the ghats, from north to south, and watching how life unfolds before the river.
At all times of the day, Hindu pilgrims bathe and perform rituals in the holy Ganges. The most atmospheric time to witness this is at sunrise and sunset. Walking along the ghats, you will also notice many holy men (sadhus), who are on a spiritual journey across India. Some are genuine, others are not.
The two burning ghats are Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat. Both are piled high with wood for the open-air cremation ceremonies and have specific areas in which bodies are burnt. The bodies are carried through the streets of the old city by low-caste men, who perform all the necessary handling duties.
Many rituals are performed before the burning takes place; for example, the corpse must first be fully submerged in the Ganges to wash away the sins of the deceased. Needless to say, the scenes you’ll witness at the cremation ghats are pretty harrowing and moving at the same time. For obvious reasons photos are not allowed.
The other main ghats of interest are Dasaswamedh Ghat, also known as the Main Ghat, and Assi Ghat, nearby where we stayed. Dasaswamedh Ghat is where the nightly Aarti ceremony takes place; it’s a beautiful nightly ritual that combines music, dance, fire and light into one great spectacle of celebration.
What is ironic is that Manikarnika and Dasaswamedh ghats are just a short distance from one another; on one life is celebrated in all its flamboyant glory and on the other lives have ended and are being bid farewell.
Boat Trip on the Ganges
A sunrise or sunset boat trip along the Ganges is one of the most special journeys you will ever take in India. Nothing quite beats the view of Varanasi and the ghats from the middle of the river, the sun rising and setting the temples of the old city aglow in golden light. The scene is pure magic.
We started our trip from Assi Ghat as it was just getting light and journeyed down to Manikarnika Ghat where cremation fires were burning strong. The sun rose over the city and created the most magical of scenes. Down on the ghats people performed their early morning rituals or took a dip in the holy river.
After about two hours we returned to Assi Ghat in time for breakfast. We were both left in awe; Varanasi at sunrise is without doubt one of the best and most memorable sights we have ever seen.
Temples in Varanasi
Varanasi is unmistakably a temple city. Wandering the twisting, turning alleyways of the old city will lead you to discover many small hidden Hindu temples and shrines.
The most important temple to Hindus is Shri Kashi Vishwanath (Golden Temple), where security is very tight. No bags, phones or shoes are allowed inside and foreigners must take their passports to gain entrance.
The Nepali Temple near Lalita Ghat is also worth a visit for its traditional Nepali architecture, which is different to Indian styles. The old city itself is a fascinating place to wander and get lost. The sights, smells and sounds overwhelm the senses; there’s something at every turn to grab your attention.
Don’t miss a visit (or many) to the Blue Lassi shop, the most famous shop in Varanasi. The guys here have been making lassis for generations and probably make the best in the city. They have more than 50 flavours in their menu but the original sweet lassi is undoubtedly still the best! We made it here every day during our time in Varanasi!
Varanasi is, without doubt, one of the biggest highlights and one of the most unmissable places in all of India. A trip to this ancient city is unforgettable; we will forever treasure our memories of Varanasi. We hope that nothing changes and that the traditional ceremonies, riverside pujas and unmistakably Indian ways of life continue as they have for centuries.
Whilst you’re in Uttar Pradesh, don’t miss visiting three of Buddhism’s Most Important Pilgrimage Sites. For the fourth you’ll need to hop across the border into Nepal! For more wonders in Uttar Pradesh check out Lucknow and Orchha and Gwalior!