Travel to Varanasi in India and what to do in Varanasi

by Ale Werner

Our visit to Varanasi impressed us to the point of having to walk through the city several times just to understand what we where seeing. It is amazing how life and death mix (and chaos and karma) in only a few square kilometers … Do you wonder why? Then read on our travel guide to Varanasi, also known as Benares in Spanish. Here you will find where to sleep, where to eat, a little history and what to see in Varanasi.

A little history about Varanasi

Located on the banks of the Ganges River, Varanasi is one of the most sacred cities in all of India. It is for this reason that every year millions of people arrive here; either in search of closeness to Nirvana (in the case of the Hindus); or to appreciate and try to understand a completely different culture (in the case of tourists) that can both interesting and shocking to many.

Before visiting this city, it is important to understand where you are going. Why is this city so important? According to the Hindu belief, when you die in this city, cremated and your ashes are thrown into the river Ganges, you stop the cycle of reincarnations and get to the nirvana (something like heaven for Christians). But not everything is about death, also thousands of people come every day to bathe in the river and clean their soul and their karma. The Ganges river is believed to have healing properties.

To get to the river you must go down the Ghats, stairs that go down to the banks of the Ganges. There are common Ghats, which people go down to simply bathe or perform religious rites, such as ritual baths and ablutions). There is also the crematorium Ghats (or Shmashan ghats), where the cremated bodies are lowered to be thrown into the river. Of these ones, Varanasi has 2 main wichs can be visited but not photographed as signs of respect.

You will also see a huge number of palaces in ruins, which were built in the past by Hindu millionaires. Today many have been transformed into hotels and restaurants. They are completely refurbished inside.

Terminology and useful language in Varanasi

Before visiting the city, we leave you some terms that will help you understand it.

Varanasi, India

Ganges River

For the Hindus, the river personifies Ganga, the goddess of purification. It is born in the Himalayas and travels 2,500 kilometers. However, besides being sacred, it is the most polluted river in the world. It has been discovered that bathing in it is dangerous to health, no need to even talk about drinking its waters.

However, religion is stronger. Those who bathe in it believe that their souls are purified and even that it has healing properties. We do not recommend tourists to touch its waters or bathe in the river. First, inform yourself and make conscious decisions about all the factors.

Varanasi, India

Gath

“Ghats” in hindú are stairs that go down to a river or lake. In the case of Varanasi, it is the stairs that descend to the Ganges River and are used by Hindus and tourists to reach it.

Varanasi, India

The cremation

According to Hindu tradition, if your body is cremated and your ashes thrown to the Ganges River you stop the cycle of reincarnations. The crematory ghats of the city never sleep, hundreds of bodies arrive every day wrapped in sheets to get through the process. It is worth saying that not all bodies are cremated and some are only thrown into the river with stones. Given these exceptions, it is not unusual to find dead bodies floating in the river. (We see a child of about one year dead in the river while walking through the Ghats, one of the strongest things we have ever live). Here is the list of those who do not need to be cremated:

  • Children less than 3 years old (their souls are still pure at death)
  • Pregnant women (the fetus is a pure soul)
  • Leprosy people with an epidemic disease (propagation is prevented)
  • The yogis or brahmins, considered holy by the Hindus.
  • Those who have died from a cobra bite; an animal that represents Shiva and therefore its poison purifies when dying.
Varanasi, India

Sadhu

They are Hindu ascetics or monks, focused on following the path of penance and austerity to achieve enlightenment. They renounce all earthly bonds, ignoring human pleasures and pains. They usually live in forests, caves and temples. Because Varanasi is a sacred city many of them live here too.

Varanasi, India

Puja or puya

Religious rituals to present respect to gods in Hinduism. People offer incense, lamps with fire, water, flowers and other objects and dances for showing respect. The ritual is performed by a “pujari”.

Varanasi, India

Cows

The city is full of cows everywhere you look, and because they are sacred cannot be touched or moves outside of where they want to be. They eat from the garbage and defecate in the small alleys and streets, despite those who live there and try to keep their house entrances clean. They are not aggressive but are quite clumsy so you should be careful.

You can access the map here.

What to see in Varanasi.

Boat trip (sunrise, sunset and anytime)

The best place to see and really appreciate the city and the ghats is from the river, so a boat ride is a must. The price goes around 100 INR per person (about $ 2) per hour, but it will depend on your negotiating skills and how many people are in the boat. You can ask for a shared boat with more tourists or a private one. Also, at dawn, they usually charge you a little more.

In our case we did 3 trips (sunrise, sunset and in the afternoon); the one we most recommend is at dawn when you see the city awakening and hundreds of people go down the Ghats to do their morning ablutions or ritual cleansing.

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Most of the boats are private and the “business magnates” subcontract the rowers for a paltry payment of USD $1 an hour. Help them with a tip, giving it to them directly before reaching the shore and not saying anything to the “boss”, who will most likely take it away from the rowers.

Walk through the Ghats

In addition to those that we have already named you, in total there are more than 80 ghats on the banks of the Ganges River. The Varanasi ghats are easily identifiable as they have their names painted on the constructions behind them, which are sometimes impressive palaces in ruins that were built by kings thousands of years ago. It is worth to pay attention to these ones:

  1. Scindia Ghat: Also known as Shinde Ghat, you will find a Shiva temple partially submerged in the river. That happened after the construction of the ghat about 200 years ago and makes it quite interesting.
  2. Kedar ghat: Painted with red and white lines on the stairs and one of the favorites to enjoy the bath, so you’ll see many people in the water here.
  3. Tulsi Ghat: More than important for the Hindu religion, we name it because around it is concentrated most tourist trade and restaurants.
Varanasi, India

The cremations

According to the Hindu tradition, if your body is cremated and your ashes throw down the Ganges you stop the cycle of reincarnations. Every day hundreds of bodies reach the crematory Ghats to be burned into ashes in a process that can last hours. The body burns in flames and then is thrown into the river.

Also, hundreds of curious tourists come to see the process but take photographs is strictly prohibited out of respect (you will see more than one tourist doing it but do not do it yourself. They can’t be just disrespectful or maybe have paid the family and get the permit to do it).

Anyway, as everywhere, there are many opportunists swindling. Seeing cremations from far is not illegal and is free, so if someone charges you a “fine” or ask you for an “entry ticket” they are just trying to scam you.

In Varanasi we find two crematoria ghats:

Manikarnika Ghat:

It is the largest and most important crematory ghat for the Hindu religion. By far the busiest and one of the oldest Ghat in Varanasi. Different stories tell how the earrings of the Goddess Mata fell here, so they named it Manikarnika (in Sanskrit “jewelry of the ear”) and revered the place. Given its importance, it is believed that the mere act of being cremated here allows one to reach Nirvana and receive the “Moksha” (liberation).

Harishchandra Ghat:

Important because it is the cremation Ghat where Raja Harishchandra cremated his son. However, it is much smaller and quieter. In here is an electric crematorium that the government installed in an effort to reduce the contamination of the river because the burned wood that is used, but religion is stronger and is not widely used.

Ganga Aarti Puja Ceremony at sunset

Every day at sunset a bidding ceremony is held in the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the “Ganga Aarti Puja”. This is the most colorful of all the Varanasi Ghats. The Puja or Puya is a religious ritual and in this case, it’s done to pay respect to the goddess Ganga looking at the river.

5 puyaris perform the ceremony in which incense, lamps with fire, water, flowers and more are offered to the goddess, while behind them hundreds of people observe (as well as from the river where many boats full of Hindus and tourists look at the ceremony)

During the summer it takes place at 7:00 p.m., but you can confirm in your accommodation the specific starting time on the date you visit. We recommend you arrive at least 30 minutes before (hopefully more) because it gets quite crowded and it is difficult to find good locations. The ceremony lasts one hour and is completely free to watch.

Temples of Varanasi

Kashi Vishwanath.

It is one of the most important temples of Varanasi and of the Hindu religion, since it is one of the 12 jyotirlingas (stone phalluses that represent the god Shivá).

Non-Hindus will also be impressed by the huge golden domes, covered by 750 kilos of gold. Given its importance and public affluence, it is mandatory to show your passport to go in and photographs are strictly forbidden inside. We could not enter because we did not have our passport with us, so really you need to take it with you.

Outside the temple are rental lockers to leave your belongings, because you can not enter with backpacks or bags.

Durgakung Temple in Varanasi

Durgakung Temple.

Painted of a beautiful red color, tourists call it “temple of the monkeys”. We do not know why, as we have not seen any in our visit. Photographs inside are not allowed (but we get a permit after a couple of smiles to the guards).

Varanasi, India

Nepali Temple

Dedicated to the god Shiva, it is one of the oldest and most important in Varanasi. It was built by the king of Nepal, Rana Bahadur Shah, during his exile in Varanasi. It is a small replica of the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Dawn on the river and ablutions.

At dawn, hundreds of people arrive on the banks of the river to perform their ablution; a washing of his body with the aim of purifying himself before religious acts. They bathe in the river and drink water from it in containers that they then take to the temples.

The truth is a true experience to see all these people start their day between prayers and laughter. You can not lose this.

New Vishwanath Temple

Banaras Hindu University and New Vishwanath Temple.

Why would you go to a university in Varanasi? Well, more than a university, the territory is a huge park away from the busy city, with several green areas. You can walk through it and visit the New Vishwanath Temple.

Important information to plan your trip to Varanasi

Best time to travel to Varanasi

The best time to travel to Varanasi is from September to March when it is not hot or rainy.

During the months of April and May, the heat can reach up to 50 Celsius degrees making it impossible to walk and enjoy the city; while between June and August it is the rainy season (and when it rains the river floods the city and it is difficult to go down to the banks or even walk).

How to get to Varanasi

Airplane:

The nearest airport to the area of the Ghats and the Ganges is 1 hour away by car. However, depending on where you come from, it may be the most convenient and fastest option. Given it is international, you can find flights from some nearby countries as well. To get from the airport to the city you have two alternatives

  1. Bus: It takes about 90 minutes to get to the city. They do not leave directly from the airport, so you will have to walk to “Babathur Crossing” and take a state bus to the “Varanasi Junction” train station. From here travel the remaining 4 km to the city center in a tuk-tuk The cost of the bus is 30 INR per person and tuk-tuk about 120 INR, depending on your negotiation ability and number of passengers.
  2. Taxi: It takes around 60 minutes on the road. Inside the airport, there is the taxi counter with fixed rates, 700 INR per car at the time of writing this post. Since all tourists go to the same place, we recommend you to look for other travelers with the same destination as you to split the rate.
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You can find more information on this link. Remember never to hire an unofficial taxi, you can end up in another hotel or even in another city. It is one of the most common scams in India not take you to the destination you ask, charge more or any other option that is invented at the time to scam and take your money.

Train:

Undoubtedly, the best way to travel around India is by train. The huge number of stations and roads make it possible to move between any city without problems. To book, you can do it through the ClearTrip webpage; but you will need a phone from India to confirm your registration.

You can also buy the tickets and book the itineraries directly at the train stations. The one in Varanasi is an excellent place to do it because the workers speak English and the attention to foreigners is very good.

There are different kinds of wagons: with and without air conditioning, with beds or seats and more options. Your comfort will depend on how much you want to pay. On this page, we have found a good description that you may find useful.

Bus:

Being the country so well connected in trains, and given the prices of these are very accessible, we do not believe that buses are a good option to move between cities unless it is strictly necessary. The roads are not in good conditions everywhere and Indians are crazy drivers.

Why travel to Varanasi

Varanasi is a religious city, but the active life that you will see in the city is impressive. Hundreds of markets, local restaurants, street stalls and much more that you can see.

We believe that the most important thing is to walk through the Ghats and the streets behind them. Get a glimpse of Indian life and the Hindu religion. Talk to the locals and smile at the thousands of children in the streets.

What to take on your luggage

If hygiene and cleanliness is an issue in your life, you may find yourself in trouble walking the streets. Alcohol gel for your hands and your own toilet paper can be very useful.

Appropriate clothing especially if you are a woman. If you do not like to be looked at, cover your shoulders and knees. If you do not want anyone to look at you, cover your hair with a handkerchief (this is the sign for men that they should not bother you).

Bottled water. For the benefit of your health, drink only bottled water. Remember that a few meters away from you is the most polluted river in the world that for the locals is sacred… they like to drink its water, but you shouldn’t!

Tips and advice for visiting Varanasi

The Ganges river.

As we already told you, the Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Every day tons of wood in ashes, biological waste and garbage end up in the river. Many bathe in it either because of their religious beliefs or ignorance, but it has been shown that their waters can spread diseases like hepatitis and others. Do not bathe in it or drink from their water.

See the cremations on the Ghat.

If you decide to see the cremations, you should do it with respect. Do not go near families or bodies, stay away and keep your phone and camera well kept. For you, it can be something new and interesting, but for the families of the dead, it is a very important and delicate moment.

Diseases and poverty in the city

Many people arrive at Varanasi elderly or terminally ill to die, hoping that their bodies will be able to end up in the Ganges according to the Hindu tradition. There are even several buildings where these people live while waiting to die and then they are cremated thanks to donations. Do not be surprised to see hundreds of old people in the streets.

How to tour Varanasi

Walk.

Unless you want to go somewhere far, the city of Varanasi is perfect for walking. On the banks of the river is not allowed any transportation and you find many steps, so walking, walking and walking…

Tuk tuk

Traffic in Varanasi streets

Tráfico en Varanasi

Highly recommended for journeys of a few kilometers, for example to the train station or the surroundings. For reference, a trip from the Varanasi Junction station to the center of the old city can cost around 120 IDR (about $ 2).

Tricycle.

Tricycle to move around Varanasi

Carro tirado por bicicleta en Varanasi

You will see many cars pulled by a bicycle. It may seem like hard and exploited work because of the amount exercise that those who pedal do. The truth is, this is India and things are different. Our sense of fair trade made us pay more than a tuk-tuk, but in general, they can charge less and enter streets where larger cars are not allowed. If you take this alternative to move, be generous and buy a bottle of water to your driver. You will win a smile

Boat:

Transfer boats to the other side of the Ganges river

Transfer boats to the other side of the river

Although in general, this means of transport is more used for sightseeing than as means transportation itself, you can pay anyone with a boat on the coast to take you from one end of the river to the other, or from one Ghat to another farther away. There are public boats that go from north to south of the river and also others that cross to the opposite shore.

Whether you use it for sightseeing or transport, from the river you will have a spectacular and unbeatable view of the city. Do not miss this experience.

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Taxis:

The only scenario in which it might be advisable to take a taxi is to get to the airport (approximately 700 IDR per section). It is best to book it at your hostel or hotel to ensure the price and trusty service.

Where to sleep in Varanasi

The most “touristy” area of Varanasi is relatively small and the hotel offer is very wide. You can find from hostels with shared rooms for 2 dollars a day, double rooms with air conditioning for 15-20 dollars a night or luxury hotels for prices closer to 3 digits (from 100 to 150 dollars per night for a double room).

The best area to stay in Varanasi is near the Ghats, which is where you will spend most of your time in the city. Any hotel or hostel between the Ghat Sant Ravidas (south) and the Jantar Mantar Mandir temple (north) will be well located, because of the proximity to the river and its ghats as for the restaurants and shops in the area.

Where to eat in Varanasi

There are many places to eat and, in general, they all offer both Indian and Western food.

Where are the restaurants?

Regarding the zones, we highlight two for the variety of the offer:

  1. Nagwa Rd and surroundings of Tulsi Ghat, north of the river.
  2. Bangali Tola Rd, behind the Ghats and surroundings to this street. In general, here the largest number of tourists is concentrated and therefore you will find a lot of restaurants, cafes and “Lassi” stalls.

It is worth mentioning that most of the hotels and hostels have their own restaurants, many of them on terraces where you can also have a nice view of the river or the city.

What to eat?

As we said, Western offerings including pasta and pizzas are not lacking. Regarding Indian food, we recommend you to try:

  • Lassi: It’s a kind of yogurt shake typical of India. It comes in a huge variety of flavors and they put different kind of topping on them. The shop “Blue Lassi” is the best known and recommended by travelers and locals.
  • Curries: Spicy is part of India’s day-to-day life. you can’t leave India without trying the curries.
  • Chai Tea: An Indian classic; they use it to lower their body temperature on very hot days and it’s really tasty.

What about the meat?

As you know, cows in India are sacred and that means they can not eat them. We recommend changing your diet to white meat animals such as chicken or fish to prevent not actually eating cow. They sometimes offer meat dishes made of cat, dog or other undefined animals.

Shopping in Varanasi

Like any other city in India, commerce is not lacking. The closer you are to the river you get more and more shops with souvenirs designed for tourists and foreigners can be found. But, as you move away to the main streets such as Ramapura Luxa and Benia Bagh, you will find local commerce of technology, jewelry, clothing, and accessories, among many other objects.

Street markets are also recurrent, with stalls on the streets that can sell anything; from clothes to children’s toys… Also, lot’s of street stalls with fresh fruits and vegetables (and not so fresh too).

What to buy?

Women! You can not leave India without a Sari, traditional Hindu costume based on a long cloth of 5 to 8 meters that covers the body.

Souvenirs: You will find everything you might think off. Figures of gods and religious objects especially in Varanasi.

Important dates and festivals in Varanasi

Makar Sankranti

January 14. Festival of kites. The sky fills with paper kites for a day.

Mahashivratri

February or March according to the lunar calendar. In this festival, the god Shiva is worshiped through many religious rituals and dances in the ghats and in the temples. Hundreds come to the city to enjoy this festival.

Holi

March, according to the lunar calendar. The festival marks the victory of good over evil and is celebrated by throwing water and colorful paintings to people and objects. India and its streets are full of color for a day, and every corner is immersed in music and celebration.

Ganga Dussehra.

It celebrates the goddess Ganga, who descended from heaven and formed the river Ganges. It is believed that bathing in the river during this day can erase up to 10 deadly sins of a person, so thousands arrive each year to celebrate this festival, the most important in the city.

Diwali

November, according to the lunar calendar. It marks Lord Ram’s victory over Ravan.  It is celebrated with fireworks and rites near the ghats.

Dev Diwali or Karthikai Deepam.

15 days after Diwali, thousands of candles are lit in the ghats and Hindu houses, processions are performed to the temples and celebrated with fireworks.

Scams and dangers in Varanasi

It must be said, despite a large number of good people India is known to be a place with tons of scams. You should always be with one eye open in the back and aware of what you say and negotiate with the locals. If you reach an agreement, you must respect it if you do not want to be pursued all over the city. You will feel harassed at all times because there will be plenty of people who offer you food, lodging, transport, clothes, souvenirs or whatever they can sell you (their soul included if you feel like buying one hahaha).

If you feel overwhelmed (as it happened to us the first days) the best advice is to take it with humor. If you definitely do not want to be chased, do not answer them or look them in the eye. It may sound bad, but it is the only way that worked for us so that they did not harass us.

The most recurrent scams are:

  1. Set a price, but not a currency: For example, you say ok to “100 until the station” but when they arrive they charge you 100 dollars, not Indian rupees.
  2. Tour around the souvenir shops: If a transport charges you a very small price, you will surely end up in a business where you are encouraged to buy more things. Do not trust prices that are too low and wonderful.
  3. “I’ll go there with you”: For example, in the crematoriums, you will be stopped by many that want to “tell you the story and the process”… they may seem nice but will never go until you give them money. They walk by your side asking you where you are going and offering to take you there, but in general, they then ask you for a “tip” which, if it is not good, can end in conflict.

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