Where: Varanasi (a.k.a Benares), Uttar Pradesh, India.
When: October 2011
Why: I visited Varanasi on my Himalaya adventure and Indian back packing trip. On this trip I visited Delhi, Dharamsala, Bir and the Himalaya, Agra, Varanasi, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Udaipur, Mumbai, Goa and Hampi.
Varanasi is nuts. All of life is here, including death.
Varanasi is like nowhere else I have been on the planet. It is just a crazy city, and not necessarily in a good way: the noise, the crowds, the dirt, the beggars, the cows with spiky horns. It’s a cacophony of a city that is slowly crumbling away into the huge, slow river that dominates this landscape.
I always suspected that Varanasi was going to be hardcore and full on, but I also thought that as a sacred place it might be more restrained and conservative in some ways. However, it’s the opposite and Varanasi is possibly the most extreme place that I visited in India.
Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world, and India’s most sacred city. Most people will be aware that many Hindu have their funerals in Varanasi, this is because if you pass into the sacred River Ganges, you will achieve moksha, or release from the cycle of birth and death, which is what Hindus seek to attain. So there are many temples in Varanasi and many people who come to the city towards the end of their lives.
However, this is India, and so the city also has crowds, traffic, shopping, crazy police, drug dealers, begging kids, menacing monkeys and huge, holy cows (and cow poop) everywhere.
To me, Varanasi appears to be unloved and falling to pieces, which is the case with much of India. What shocked me at the time of my visit was that the city was so uncared for. The sacred ghats (the palaces, steps and wharves that line the river front), that are the centre of the Hindu religion, are crumbling away into the river – which made me sad. Why are these unique places not being protected?
I have since been told by a Brahmin history teacher that I was looking at the ghats and their history from a very Western perspective and that I wanted to gentrify the ghats, whereas Hindus believe that everything has a life cycle, including the buildings. It’s an interesting idea, and it showed me not to be too judgemental, but it still makes me sad to think of these beautiful, unique, culturally significant architectural wonders disappearing into the slow moving waters of the river.
There is a lot to see in Varanasi and I’m glad that I went to see it, I just don’t ever want to go back there again. Maybe it was extra nuts as when I was there it was a festival (I think Bharat Milap), and there were huge structures being built all over the city, and the city was extra crowded and there was a much higher police presence, but I suspect that Varanasi is always crowded and crazy; it has that feel about it.
I do have nice memories of Varanasi: I loved being on the Ganges and watching the sunrise over the river from my bed. I loved the kite wars that took place over the city at sunset, the ‘special’ tea (beer), and the raving tuk tuk driver. However, most of my memories of Varanasi are of dirt and poverty, and bad food, and corruption and the general lack of care which pervades this country.
Getting there and getting around
I travelled from Agra to Varanasi by train. I caught the Marudhar Express and the journey took thirteen hours. I travelled 3rd class AC. The train was fine, except that I had a top bunk of three tiers, which I found very hard to get into (it was like sleeping on a cliff face), and sadly my Polish friends were robbed in the night on the train; but apart from this the carriage was cool and comfy and there were lots of refreshment sellers on the train.
There are a number of train stations in Agra, and this train left from the Agra Fort station. There are two station in Varanasi and most trains stop at Varanasi Cantonment Station, which is the main station. This is about ten minutes drive from the centre of town.
The train ticket cost 753 rupees (£11), and I booked it online, in advance, through Cleartrip.
We were met at the station by a contact from our hostel, who was to lead us to the hostel. He was a very strange guy who had bright orange tamarind paste smeared on his ears. He put us in tuk tuks to take us from the station to the city centre, but as we were there on the first day of the festival, the journey was just crazy and the traffic was gridlocked.
Eventually, we got to the main roundabout in the centre of Varanasi and we had to walk to the hotel from here; but our guide kept trying to talk to me whilst we were by a very busy road. I got distracted and then nearly got hit by a rickshaw, which left quite a nasty, oily gash on my leg. Ow!
Varanasi is a long, thin city on the one side of the Ganges River. The old town and the key sights are around Dasaswamedh Ghat. The old town is a tangle of tight alleys, so it is pedestrianised, as is the area around Dasaswamedh Ghat. For this reason, mostly I got around on foot.
We did take take an auto-rickshaw to the further out sights, such as the Monkey Temple and Asi Ghat. We hired a raving rickshaw driver to take us to the Monkey Temple and to Asi Ghat. He charged 100 rupees/£1.50 for each section of the journey, and he waited outside for us at each place. (You can see a video of him dancing above).
We also took a sunset boat trip on the river, which we booked through our hotel. Most boats charge 400 rupees or more for a boat trip (£6 – £7), but as this boat was linked to our hotel they only charged us 100 rupees (about £1.20). It was an interesting trip: the boat (which seemed to be operated by a piece of string) broke down in the middle of the river. They did get us home safely though.
What I did on my holiday
Explored the old town
The old town of Varanasi is a maze of tight, pedestrianised alleys, located between Dasaswamedh Ghat and Gay Ghat. I stayed in Meer/Mir Ghat, which is in the old town, so on my first day I just walked and explored the alleyways. Varanasi is an interesting place, and the old town was full of cluttered curiosity shops, hidden temples, bakeries, avatars, cows, monkeys, colourful pilgrims, touristy-tat shops, boys splashing about in the river. It was a very foreign, fascinating place for me.
The alleys were easy to explore and get lost in, but they were also quite dirty. There is a lot of poverty in the old town. Whilst I was in the city, it was a holy festival, so to wash the streets they left huge hoses running through the alleys. This meant that there were huge puddles to navigate, filled with all the dirt and the muck from the streets. It wasn’t very nice. Holy cows with pointy horns blocked my way and soiled the streets; old people who had come to Varanasi for the end of their days, clustered around the temples, waiting for a few coins and some free food; children hung around the hotels waiting to follow the tourists about; aggresive police clustered at the alley-entrances to the old town, so they could prevent trouble.
I only went into one temple, which I think may have been Kashi Vishwanath Temple (The Golden Temple), although the temple that I visited was so quiet and low key that I’m not sure that it was The Golden Temple, as I think this is a very important temple.
Dasaswamedh Ghat is the most famous ghat in Varanasi. Whenever you see pictures of pilgrims at Varanasi, or ceremonies taking place in the River Ganges, this is usually at Dasaswamedh Ghat.
My hostel was one ghat downstream of Dasaswamedh Ghat, so I passed by here a few times. Dasaswamedh Ghat is nuts! It’s a crazy, holy place, but also really interesting. This is where you will find the saddhus, their faces painted orange. People float small flames on lotus leaves onto the Ganges here, containing messages for their dead loved ones, further downstream. Each evening the Hindu holy men perform the Gamga aarti, a choreographed fire ceremony, that sadly, I didn’t get to see. You can find out more about this on the Go India site.
Dasaswamedh Ghat is interesting, but it’s also very noisy and very busy. This area of the riverfront is very, very crowded and this is where you will get the most hassle in the whole city. It is definitely worth a visit though.
Sunset trip on the River Ganges
The one thing that I loved about Varanasi was mother Ganges. You can see why people worship this river. She’s really wide and she just flows, on and on and on, calmly and smoothly. Because there is no obvious infrastructure on the other side of the river, she does feel like the end of the world. She feels like a powerful natural force that dominates this land. Soon before I visited Varanasi, the river had been in flood, as evidenced by the huge layers of mud covering the steps of the ghats.
In truth, I wouldn’t go anywhere near this holy water as it is filthy. Not only do people put their dead bodies directly into the river, but it is also full of raw sewage and heavy metals from the industrial plants upstream. This doesn’t stop people bathing in the river and washing their dishes and clothes in it, even though they will probably emerge more dirty than when they went in. They also wash their cows in the river. I shouldn’t judge though, sadly they probably have no choice but to bathe here
The one thing that I would recommend doing in Varanasi is to take a boat trip on the river, preferably at sunrise or sunset. This is the best way to see the city and the best way to understand just how powerful this river is and why it is so sacred to Hindus. Varanasi is ultimately a water city, built around the holy river – and so the best place to appreciate it is from the river.
We hired a boat through our hotel. It cost 100 rupees (less than £2) and hiring the boat this way took all of the hassle out of navigating the touts (who I hear are awful). Our boat departed from a small dock at the base of our hotel on Meer/Mir Ghat (which is where death was defeated). Our guys sailed us upstream, past the fort like Munshi Ghat, the main ghat of Dasaswamedh Ghat, past Man Mandhir Ghat and I think we went as far as Lali Ghat.
We went past Hrishchandra Ghat, which is one of two burning ghats, where most of the cremations take place. I really ummed and ahhed over whether to go to have a look at the burning ghats. Cremations are not tourist sights, not something ‘to see’, but the cremations here are a fascinating and an integral part of this city, and so I was interested in them and wanted to know more. Taking a boat trip was a way to discreetly see the burning ghats, without intruding on the funerals, and the men who ran our boat were really informative about what happens and why. I wouldn’t visit the burning ghats on land though, as I feel that this is too intrusive.
Anyway, so we sailed as far as Lali Ghat and then the engine stopped working, so we just drifted with the current back to Scindia Ghat with it’s submerged Shiva temple, and then we pootled back to our hotel.
Whilst we were on the river, there were many pilgrims making their puja in the river, and because it was sunset there were hundreds of kites fighting above us, and swallows circling around. It was amazing, and this trip made my visit to Varanasi worthwhile.
We spent about an hour on the river. It was the best thing I did in Varanasi and a great reason to come here.
Sankat Mochan Temple (a.k.a Monkey Temple)
The monkey temple is about a ten to fifteen minutes drive out of the centre of Varanasi. It is a temple full of monkeys, and I love monkeys.
The actual temple is very open and very pretty, but when we were there it had extremely(!) high security, which annoyed my friend, and we weren’t allowed to take in cameras (which is why I sadly have no pictures of the ickle monkeys). The monkeys were cool: they jump and play all over the temple, but in fact they were also a little bit scary – as real monkeys are.
We only spent about ten minutes here, as my friend had to wait for us outside, but ten minutes was enough. The temple is too busy and noisy to want to linger here. It was an interesting visit though.
We did get a lot of hassle outside the monkey temple and one particular group of youngsters stuck to us for the whole time, even after we gave them some food. This is another reason why I did not enjoy the visit so much. It’s also why we ran away in our rave rickshaw to the peace and quiet of Asi Ghat.
Asi Ghat is the most southerly ghat in Varanasi and is located quite a long way from the centre of the city. It’s in a more peaceful, more hippyish part of the city, with cafés and book shops etc. We travelled to Asi ghat after visiting the monkey temple, as we wanted to see a quieter side to the city and we wanted to just escape from the craziness for a little while.
At Asi Ghat we spent some time on the river front, just relaxing and watching the pilgrims bathing in the water, watching the women wash their clothes in the river, laughing at the goats. We visited quite soon after monsoon season – and so there was a lot of mud left on the ghat steps when we were there (we think because the water level had been a lot higher) and so we couldn’t get right to the river.
Asi Ghat is a great place to go to to see the quieter, more normal side of Varanasi, away from all the pilgrims, the puja and the tourists. It has a village feel to it and a slower pace of life. Many of the repeat/long-term Indian visitors stay in Asi Ghat, rather than the centre of town, as it’s a place to linger rather than hide.
Asi Ghat was just very chill. We had a pizza in a river front restaurant and this is one of the only times in India that I really felt like I was on a holiday. We just sat in the sunshine, relaxing and watching the world and the river go by.
We felt so revived after our pizzas that we decided to walk back to the centre of Varanasi and we had a fun walk, wandering in and out of stores, looking at the different parts of the city, laughing at the touts. It was nice.
What I didn’t do on my holiday
So, even though I went to the most holy city in India, I didn’t actually go into many of the temples. This was partly because I didn’t want to intrude into these places of worship, but also because they were quite hard to find and were lost in the tangle of alleyways that make up this crazy town.
Sarnath is where the Buddha is said to have preached his first sermon, after being enlightened. Sarnath is only 13km from Varanasi and you can do a day-trip or get an auto rickshaw here (apparently there are buses too, but they’re crazy). An auto-rickshaw should cost about 300 rupees for the round trip. wikitravel.org/en/Sarnath.
I didn’t swim in the sacred waters. As Wikitravel says: ‘due to sewage pipes discharging into the river along with sunken corpses, it is not recommended to join in.’
The Ramnagar Fort lies about 14 km. from Varanasi and is situated on the opposite bank of river Ganges. It is the ancestral home of the Maharaja of Banaras (not bananas). It contains a temple and a museum.
Where I stayed
The Ganpati Guesthouse was my refuge in Varanasi. It was a small oasis of calm in the heart of this crazy city.
The Ganpati was based around a gorgeous Moroccan style courtyard, with picnic tables, a fountain and flowers. On the roof there was a restaurant overlooking the river, which is where we chilled out at night. There was also an open sitting room area, overlooking the river, which was a nice place to chill with a good book.
My room was great. I had a large double bed and two courtyard doors which opened onto a balcony, directly over the river Ganges; and so I could watch the sunrise over the river – from my bed. It was magic. I also had my own gecko (well, he’s his own gecko – but he came to hang out with me, which was nice).
The Ganpati had an okay restaurant, hot showers, their own boat trips and wifi throughout.
The hotel is quite hard to find at first, but the hotel arranged for someone to meet me at the station, to lead me to the hotel for free.
The hotel is located at Mir Gat, which is where Yama, the Lord of Death, obtained his jurisdiction over all the dead of the world, except here in Varanasi – which is nice – and not something that you get in a Travelodge.
Where I ate and drank
To be honest, I mostly ate at my hotel because I found it hard to find anywhere else that I wanted to eat and the Ganpati had a lovely terrace overlooking the river front and the rest of the city.
Lots of people rave about the bakeries in Varanasi, but I only found one and the cake from it was really dry, as it had been sat in a window all day. I mostly ate at my hotel in Varanasi as I couldn’t find anywhere else to eat. I’ve been told that you have to be careful with restaurants in Varanasi as many of them wash their plates in the river, although my hotel seemed to be OK.
Also, there are no bars in Varanasi, as this is a holy city and no alcohol is to be served in the old town. Some places will serve you ‘special tea’ though, which is basically beer in a teapot; a funny and novel experience. Asi Ghat, to the north of the city, has more traditional restaurants, tea shops, cafes and bars – including some nice relaxing ones by the river.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is our own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny, unless otherwise stated. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.