I have been here before, a place in time where all my troubles seem irrelevant, where everything I thought I knew has just been turned upside down. The colours, sounds and people unfold in front of me in a dazzling display of culture. All the descriptive words I can write, but nothing will give this place the justice it deserves, this is Varanasi, India. You see, Varanasi is where traveling became something different for me, it’s the place where I abandoned my previous life and entered my new one. This place of life, death and everything in between is the place I keep returning to for many reasons, although many are still understood. Varanasi will change you, walk these holy shores and she will take a hold of you as she did to me. Varanasi, the ultimate traveling destination!
Why is Varanasi so Special?
Those who have visited here will tell you that there is something special about Varanasi. Its chaotic, its peaceful, its sad, and at times you will shed a tear of happiness. Quite simply, Varanasi is India and if you want to experience India’s soul, then you must come here.
Varanasi is the spiritual heart of Hinduism, being cremated here and having your ashes put into the Ganges Rives is believed to wipe away all sins and assist in attaining Nirvana. Varanasi is also one of the most continually inhabited cities on earth making this ancient sight a part of the birthplace of humanity.
There are many obvious reasons why Varanasi is so special, but for travelers like me its not the history or religious values, there really is just a feeling about it. Since my first visit in 2008 I have returned to Varanasi five times. There is something that continually draws me to this spectacular place.
When someone asks me why Varanasi is so special, my mind conjures up a stunning sunset dropping over the Ganges River, the fog creeping into the shores, colourful celebrations in every direction and a peaceful tranquil moment in a scene of utter chaos, but in the end, I always reply “if you want to know why its special, then you must go there to find out for yourself”.
Getting to Varanasi, India
Getting to Varanasi is easy thanks to the Indian Railway and cheap domestic airways. From Delhi, Agra and Calcutta there are direct train connections all taking upwards of fifteen hours. If you plan on taking the train in the busy seasons be sure to book well in advance from the Delhi tourist ticket office in the Delhi train station otherwise you will most likely end of in a lower class.
For any other major hub in India hop on a cheap Indigo flight. Indigo is India’s budget airway, they offer insanely cheap prices. I flew from Mumbai direct for 50 dollars.
Sights of Varanasi
Dedicated to Vishveswara – Shiva is lord of the universe, this is the centre point for all temples in Varanasi. It can be hard to find, and entry is not guaranteed as non-Hindu’s are technically not allowed, but I have entered several times. Be sure to bring copies of your passport as I have been asked in the past for them.
You will need to follow your guide book as the entrance is tucked away in an alleyway. Once near its obvious due to all the pilgrims and soldiers. The tower and dome feature 800kg of gold, but for me the real sight is watching the faithful enter with offerings. It’s a colourful and chaotic experience.
Assi Ghat is the furthest south of the main Ghats. For worshippers it is the symbolic place to worship Shiva Lingam a phallic image of Shiva. For travelers it’s a wonderful place full of exotic entertainers. You can see Sadhu (holy men considered dead), Holy men with pet monkeys, Musicians with the cobra coming out of the whicker bucket and plenty of holy cows.
Assi Ghat is also a great place to start your boat ride down the Ganges. Come here near sunset!
Dashashwamedh Ghat is easily one of the most vibrant and eventful places in Varanasi, but also one of the most frustrating. Here it seems like every single person is trying to sell you something, but if you brush past the hawkers you will find a photogenic beautiful scene. Worshippers bathe in the river while Sadhu’s murmur Hindu Manta’s and by night wonderful displays of fire are preformed by ten Brahman Priests.
If the Ghat itself is to intense for you then head to one of the nearby hotel restaurant roof tops and grab a chai. From here you can spend hours people watching all while enjoying a stress-free environment.
Many of the Ghats are vibrant with life and celebration, Manikarnika Ghat celebrates the cycle of death. Here is where Hindu’s come from across the world bringing their deceased family member to be cremated and have their ashes placed into the holy Ganges.
For the first timer to Varanasi, Manikarnika can be quite intense, but its all part of Varanasi’s spiritual self. Entering the Ghat you will be lead by a guide or priest to a viewpoint where you can watch the live cremations in front of you. It is important to remember that this is not a celebration of death, but rebirth. This is why the family are wearing white to symbolize the cycle of death and rebirth. It’s a powerful experience to visit Manikarnika Ghat.
Best Experiences in Varanasi
Walking the Ghats in Varanasi
Walking the river bank from one Ghat to another is probably what most travellers love most about Varanasi. You will walk past kids playing, cremations, elders washing their clothes, pilgrims praying and a vast number of sacred animals.
Exploring and simply getting lost here is all part of the fun, when you think you have seen it all you will be surprised by yet another awe-inspiring sight here in Varanasi. Its also a bit of a photographer’s dream, with so many stunning visuals it will keep you snapping all day.
Be sure to wake up early and walk the Ghats, this is when it is at its most peaceful, many come at this time to preform prayers. Evening walks are a vibrant spectacle of celebrations, and music!
Boat Ride on the Ganges River
Every time I have visited Varanasi I have taken a boat ride. As you slowly glide past the ghats you can take your time to ponder and watch Varanasi come to life as people have for centuries. You will see cremation ghats, pilgrims, water buffalo, and many other boats but seeing Varanasi itself from a boat is a wonderful experience.
I highly recommend taking the boat from Assi Ghat at sunrise. The mornings here are so beautiful. The silent morning river is covered in dense fog that slowly dissipates to the bright sunrise. Everything moves slower at this time it’s a surreal eaperiebnce.
If you opt for the evening you can see the chaos unfold amongst the river banks. Also watching the Brahma ceremony at Dashashwamedh Ghat from the boat is worth the extra tip!
Every evening ten of the holiest Brahman priest hold a ceremony at the Dashashwamedh Ghat. Hundreds of worshipping pilgrims gather round and sing mantra while the young Brahman priests swing large oil lamps bursting with fire. The bells, music and chants are entrancing and its hard not to become part of the ceremony.
Learning to Play Sitar in Varanasi
Just as George Harrison did, I to learned how to play sitar on the banks of the Ganges River. Near Assi Ghat there is a plethora of music schools who teach classical Indian instruments like the Sitar, Tabla Drums, Sarod and Flute.
As I sat on a roof top looking over the Ganges, I plucked away practising this instrument in such a gorgeous setting. Well worth it!
Searching for the Legend of the Aghori
Mention the Aghori in Varanasi and many will whisper faint words of fear. These misunderstood religious Sadhu’s are essentially Shiva extremist. Varanasi happens to be one of the best places in which you can see an Aghori.
Draped in black clothes the Aghori hang out around the cremation ghats. Often, they are covered in white ash from the cremations. The Aghori are also famed for eating human flesh during these ceremonies where they enter trance like states.
On the ghats you will see graffiti portraying these ceremonies, but if you would like to see a real Aghori it takes patience and a bit of luck. Late at night I have seen many lurking around Manikarnika Ghat and the river bank shores east of there. Good luck!
Varanasi Travel Information
Location: Varanasi, India
Favourite Accommodation: Ganpati Guesthouse
Music Lessons: International Music Centre Ashram
Varanasi Guidebook: Lonely Planet India