Varanasi (Beneres) is one of the hardest cities in India to travel through, especially alone. It’s in the state Uttar Pradesh and the Holy Ganges runs through, bringing people from all over the world to see the religious ceremonies that take place here.
Varanasi is the most fascinating place I’ve been.
this is my FAVORITE photo from all my travels. It just makes me smile. Men in India hold hands as friends which I think is a nice sentiment- but catching them holding hands and guns just is SO India!!
It is THE holiest of the 7 Holy cities in India. Death in Varanasi brings Hindus salvation (moksha). This means the cycle of reincarnation ends and you go directly to heaven. I’ve verified that on many many sources, yet when I tell my Indian friends they’re surprised there is a way to end reincarnation. Throughout India’s long history, Buddha, Gandhi and so many other influential people have spent time on the Ganges River in Varanasi. It was considered Lord Shiva’s favorite place.
a sadhu smoking while tourists watched and donated money to him
What to Expect at the Ghats in Varanasi
Nowhere I’ve been and nothing I’ve seen could prepare me for what I’d see in Varanasi. The pollution is intense, the honking is absolutely deafening, and the amount of peole jammed in seems worse the Bombay or Delhi. Unlike the rest of India, it does not seem to be “organized chaos”. The smells of urine in the alleyways is somewhat overwhelming.
Coming home after spending time at the ghats I had human ash covering my body and images of bloated bodies in the river. Men get in that same river in their shorts, going for a dip in the most polluted water in the world while I’d look over my shoulder and see teenagers taking selfies with their deceased grandma… who was just carried over the heads of people in bike rickshaws through the streets of Varanasi.
a holy man covered in ashes and his dogs
Only 29% of people are employed in Varanasi, making it one of the hardest places to prevent scamming in India. Like I mentioned before, a friend was pickpocketed. The rickshaw drivers here were some of the hardest to deal with in all of India.
Like much of India, Varanasi is a contradiction: spiritual and disheartening, exciting yet frightening, and beautiful yet absolutely filthy.
rowing a boat down the Ganga at night (100 rupees per person fee)
Varanasi has 84 Ghats (places with steps down) along the river. Some of which are used for cremation: Dashashwamedh, Manikarnika, and Panchganga. Others are used for washing clothes and bathing (needless to say, I did my laundry by hand in my room).
I didn’t stay at the Ghats long. They were hard to be around for me, although I suppose if you are Hindu and used to seeing cremations then you may find peace in this place. The ceremonies are really neat and the poojas offered can be over the top beautiful. The wood is expensive for families and many touts will beg for wood money or to give you a tour. Seeing bodies dipped in the river, and lit on fire, and watching them with a crowd is… well indescribable. Not a place that shows sadness; instead all over the Ghats people are having a party.
in this last photo, you can see the haircut of Brahmin children
I’ll share some things Indian friends have taught me: Not all people can be allowed to burn along the river. Some are too holy (babies, pregnant women) and some not holy enough (prostitutes). They still go in the river, but are just thrown with weights tied on… their bodies eventually float up and boat drivers take people out on sunrise tours guaranteeing you’ll see a body. I didn’t want to, so I skipped the tour. I felt a little sick about it. I had been warned dogs eat what washes up on the shores (which really scared Sophie when a dog bit her), and I made sure to look away when I saw dogs eating alone the edges as it was very clear what they had a piece of.
80 people are cremated per day on the Ganga in Varanasi.
Along the edges of the river are people having a fun night out, Sadhus smoking with crowds watching, multiple religious ceremonies, and street vendors selling food and crafts. Beware of the touts who were a little rude here.
Do NOT take your camera! The fact they even allow tourists to watch such a personal time in their lives is incredible so don’t offend them by taking photos of the actual cremations.
It’s interesting, but as an outsider with little understanding and insight, I felt a little uncomfortable and like an invader. It would be best not to go here alone or you might feel too out of place.
We did take a boat tour at night to see the lights from the river which was pretty neat and a nice end to a LONG day. I have loved sharing about this holy place because it’s one of my favorite cities in India, only because it’s so intense and interesting, lastly; a list of Varanasi travel tips. I stayed for 3 days in Varanasi before taking a train to Delhi (just to catch a cheap flight to Goa).
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