An Ultimate Travel Guide to Varanasi
Varanasi is a separate world, located on the banks of the Ganges River. It is a challenge for reason, for the senses and for the morbid. It is chaos, spirituality and karma. It is a unique, unbridled and picturesque city. Maybe that’s why he earned the reputation of being the city that Shiva created for himself.
For Hinduism, it is the oldest city in the universe. For travel guides, an essential stop on any itinerary through India.
Varanasi is one of the seven sacred cities for Hinduism and for centuries, receives thousands of souls a day. From all parts of India (and the world), there are many people who come in order to take a holy bath in the Ganges and thus, cleanse their karma. Others arrive dying and, in turn, many bodies are brought to be cremated. It is assumed that being cremated and thrown into the river allows the soul to be freed from the cycle of reincarnations. It is an auspicious place. Where death and life co-exist on the shores of one of the most sacred and polluted rivers in the world.
Varanasi is a unique city. In its narrow alleys there are stalls of souvenirs, of flower offerings, of clothes. Cows, chai stalls and western restaurants. Beggars, pilgrims and motorcycles. Bicycles, lost tourists and opportunistic scammers. Do not be surprised if they want to sell you eggs or beer in secret (being a sacred city, there are several foods that are forbidden). It will not surprise you to lose yourself again and again among the labyrinthine streets of the old city. This is Varanasi and there is nothing that can be done. Let yourself be infected by mysticism. Do not judge, do not seek to understand the unintelligible life cycle. He takes a deep breath and Namaste.
Varanasi is a city that fascinates you or that surpasses you, but it is never going to be an indifferent city or a simple stop anymore.
WHEN TO GO IN VARANASI?
As in all India, the heat and rainy season are something to avoid. In Varanasi, when it rains, it rains. The Ganges River overflows and a good part of the city is under water. The ideal is to avoid the monsoon season (from June to August). It is also advisable to avoid the hot season. We were in the month of May with more than fifty degrees of wind chill at eight o’clock at night. It really was a suicidal act. If you can choose, the best time to visit Varanasi is from September to March. When it’s not raining or so hot.
WHAT TO SEE AND WHAT TO DO IN VARANASI?
One can dedicate a day to the city, as well as a week. It is not easy to get bored. We share some ideas of things to do:
Varanasi lives and is in the ghats. On the stone steps that lead to the sacred Ganges river. From dawn to night closed, there is constantly life (and death) in the ghats. In total there are more than 80 and can be walked. In the majority you will find people taking sacred baths, washing clothes and cows refreshing themselves. Children learning to swim, gentlemen washing their teeth, women
washing dishes and pots and boys playing cricket. But there are other ghats, and those are the complicated ones, where thousands of bodies are created daily. Under the light of day. The ashes are thrown into the river, where the cows drink water and the children play.
The best time to visit the ghats is sunrise and sunset. Not only to avoid the sun and the scorching heat, but because those are the magical moments where the ghats are filled with sadhus, pilgrims and onlookers.
A good way to have a general view of Varanasi and to observe the ghats, temples and mysticism gathered in a single postcard image, is from the river.
The bank of the Ganges is full of boats and boats willing to take you for a walk. For us the best time is at sunrise. Where you see how the sunlight gradually dyes each one of the staircases. The boats are also a good way to get closer to Manikarnika, the cremation ghats (but of that, we’ll talk below).
The standard tour does not last more than an hour, nor does it cost more than 100 rupees per person. Bargaining price is achieved with love and patience. Do not worry about how to get a boat, they will find you very quickly. Many hotels and guest-houses also offer this service, but in the price you pay your commission and profit is included.
Bid at sunset
Every day at 7:00 pm a bid is made on the river known as “ganga aarti”. It lasts one hour and consists of a fire ceremony, incense and devotional songs to Mother Ganga. It is celebrated in Dasaswamedh Ghat and no entrance fee is paid but towards the end of the ceremony several men pass asking for donations.
It’s nothing special, but it’s worth it to sit down and observe the ceremony in detail.
The morbid can more and many tourists are tempted by the idea of seeing a burning body up close. Manikarnika is the largest and best-known cremation ghat. It is the most propitious place “of the universe” for a body to burn and reach thus, the moskha : liberation.
The ghats is easy to find. From the river you can see the pyres of burning wood, you can smell the smoke up close and you can see the different types of wood. Through the alleys of the city the bodies are seen on stretchers marching towards the ghat. It is impossible to avoid seeing death closely, although one can choose how close or far to see it.
Manikarna has a free and free access but it is forbidden to take photos and shoot the cremations for a matter of respect. But you have to be careful as it is full of opportunists who charge fictitious tickets, invented fines or who invite you with sympathy to the terrace of a neighbour from where you can take pictures. Invitation that will surely cost you dearly.
Our advice is to avoid Manikarka. Harish chandra is another much calmer cremation ghat. Without opportunists or scammers, without so many people and so much dirt. It is close to Assi Ghat and you will recognize them by the great electric crematorium that is there.
Ten kilometers from Varanasi, Sarnath is located. The fame is because here Buddha gave his first speech after having attained enlightenment in Bodhgaya . Sarnatah is a pilgrimage site, one of the four sacred cities for Buddhists.
From Varanasi you can go on the day in autoricksaw or by public transport.
Vishwanath Temple: Temple of Shiva or Golden Temple
Many call it the “Golden Temple” for its massive gold domes, others call it the temple of Lord Shiva and for others it is one of the oldest temples in India. Be that as it may, you will easily recognize it.
Although it is hidden among the alleys of the old city, there are always long lines at its doors. The Indians wait for hours for their moment to enter.
For Westerners, the lines are a little shorter. That yes, you can not enter with photo cameras, or cell phones, or anything else than the passport (requirement necessary to enter). Since there were several attacks against the temple, security is excessive. Do not be surprised to be walking among gendarmes, machine guns and cows through Varanasi!
In addition to the temple of Vishwanath, Varanasi is full of temples, temples, hermitages and even mosques.
HOW TO MOVE?
Inside the old city, it is best to walk. From one place to another, by the ghats, by the narrow streets or where the cows allow it.
While Varanasi has public transport, for us the best thing to get around is to get into the shared ricksaws. A rickshaw to the train station costs about 100 rupees (by dint of haggling as there is no meter), but the shared rickshaw is 20 rupees. It may not be easy to get up with backpacks or luggage, but it is a good alternative to get around the city. Also, check out the Maharajas Express luxury train cost and reach the destination.
HOW TO GET THERE?
As always in India, it is best to move by train. Varanasi Juction is the main railway station of the city. The good thing is that there is an office for tourist attention exclusively. With air conditioning and employees who speak very good English, it is a good opportunity to take advantage of and buy several trips and get official information.
If you want to know more about the trains like luxury trains such as Maharaja Express train India, types of tickets, quotas and classes we recommend you this Train Guide in India .