Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world, and it holds a very dear place in the hearts of the Indian people. Varanasi is the holy city of India, and it has a few stranger traditions, including the incineration of the dead.
As I was outlining my trip to India, I had this sketch of the route, thinking I would like to see this place too. I saw Varanasi in videos, pictures and vlogs on the internet and wanted to get there. It said to be unique and perhaps more appealing than other cities.
Getting to Varanasi by accident
We took a bus from Agra. If you look on the map, it makes sense to see it like this.
But the story is funny, looking back. Back then it was just frustrating.
From what we understood from our host in Agra, who also helped us to buy the bus tickets, the bus ride was supposed to take 12 hours to Allahabad. We took a sleeper bus. It’s a special kind of coach which has places to sleep instead of seats. I woke up 2 hours before and saw on the map that we missed our stop and we were heading towards Varanasi. Nobody spoke English on the bus.
So we missed our stop and ended in Varanasi 2 days earlier. It was an entire adventure trying to get back because the hotel was already paid. And that’s why I rarely pay in advance for the hotel, but this time I did.
The whole Kumbh Mela event in the Allahabad had everybody on the road, train stations were extremely crowded, the trains were full, and the exact train we needed to take was cancelled.
Instead of waiting 2 hours more for the next one, we decided to take a taxi to take us back. That was a half-day wasted, but now I have a story of how we got lost in India.
Arriving in Varanasi by train
Long story short, after the 2 days spend in Allahabad, around the Kumbh Mela area, which was like nothing we’ve seen before, we took a train to Varanasi.
That vlog is the most viewed vlog on my YouTube channel. It’s actually the entire first day in Varanasi, so you should watch it if you consider visiting Varanasi, the holy city of India.
By this time, we were already really accustomed to the overcrowded train stations, bus stations, and traffic. It was madness. And we were identified as tourists since Edi is nothing short of a Norvegian skin type and our clothes were standing out.
We were standing out. There must have been hundreds of tuk-tuks and cars in front of the train station. I can’t begin to understand how traffic can even move, but they were moving.
We went to find a tuk-tuk to get us to our hotel, which I later realized that it was in the old centre of Varanasi. The first price we got was 3 times more than it was worth. Edi’s white skin wasn’t helping.
I realized I was going to pay more than locals, but I was already pissed with everyone trying to get a tip from us. This is a cultural difference which was starting to bother me. But I can’t change anyone, let alone a nation. At the same time, they can’t change me.
Well, all of this did change me a little, making me a lot more tolerant and willing to get by with smaller issues. But I took it as a lack of respect, and it was pissing me off.
Because there were so many tuk-tuks, I started to ask around about the prices for the area we were going.
When you want a tuk-tuk, they ask you where you want to go. It usually goes like this. You tell them where you want to go, and they reply with a price. You can then bargain or just walk away.
I was walking between them, saying the name of the area of the hotel. They were all keeping their price and following me, as I was telling them my price, 3 times less. In the end, one of them agreed on the price I was saying. I walked around 10 drivers. The market was huge, and I had plenty of other options. That’s why one accepted. And if you don’t get the price you consider to be right, you can always walk away, and on the next street, you will find others.
The traffic was terrible, and after around 25 minutes we arrived in a broader street. The driver stopped and said he will drop us there because the roads are too narrow for the tuk-tuk and we have to walk or get a scooter. He showed us which alley to take and off we went.
Again, I was a bit surprised to realized he dropped us off in the middle of the street. You see, Google maps has no idea how these cities look like. And it doesn’t always tell you where to go. Most of the times, it wasn’t showing the streets correctly.
The old city of Varanasi is crowded, with narrow alleys, wide enough to ride a scooter or a donkey. Cows were accustomed to the situations. So were goats and monkeys.
Accommodation in the old city of Varanasi
We walked the rest of the way, and we found ourselves in front of the hostel 10 minutes later. It wasn’t far away, but those tiny streets are built like a maze, and it was easy to get lost.
Luckily, they write on every turn the names of hotels and hostels and they point you which way to go. And even so, we got lost a couple of times. Finding ourselves in someone’s house or in a dead-end wasn’t hard at all.
We stayed in the Bangali Tola area, at the Stay Inn Heritage hostel. They have shared rooms, but we were lucky to have a private room.
It is a clean enough place, with friendly staff, and they offer a good basic breakfast.
Comparing to other places I’ve stayed in India, I can’t complain, especially for this price and location.
The hostel is 2 minutes away from the Ganges, which is kinda the same as having accommodation on the beach. They have a nice rooftop, monkey-proof (they have fences all around and on top) and the view of the Ganges is beautiful.
If you aren’t a fancy traveller, and I’m guessing you’re not, since you want to go to Varanasi or even India, then you will be fine here. The rooms have no windows, but this is a common issue in India. Even bigger hotels have such rooms.
Discovering the old city of Varanasi
The city itself is very condensed and crowded. I’m not sure if they ever respect any traffic rules, they just honk when they overpass another car, and they basically honk for everything.
So it’s a great deal of noise all the time.
But the old city is like another city within the bigger city. Because the streets are so narrow, you can only see scooters passing by, and they as well honk for people or animals to get out of the way.
The old centre has a certain charm, and many foreigners can be seen around. There are many restaurants and cafes, and the prices are huge for India, but they are still cheap for foreigners.
Here is where all the old temples are and the famous Ghats. Every day, all day long, there are a lot of activities going on, on the ghats, near the Ganges. The bustle starts before sunrise, around 6 am, when the boats’ owners wait for their customers for a 1-hour sunrise boat ride on the Ganges. This is probably one of the most famous things to do in Varanasi, but it might not be for everyone.
When I was there, in February 2019, a big part of the old city was demolished by the authorities, to make the temples visible again. The Hindu temples are not big, but during the centuries, people have cramped up and built their homes around them, some even incorporated a part of the temple if not all, in their small backyard. The temples were extremely hard to find, as I told you before.
Because the process of demolishing the extra buildings was not over yet, there was like a patch of desert in the middle of the old city, and the dust levels were unbearable.
Walking along the ghats is probably what most tourists do and that way it’s much easier to get somewhere because otherwise you might get lost.
Varanasi, the holy city of India?
As you might know by now, India has a mix of religions, but most Indians are Hindu, and they worship many Gods like Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. I tried to understand more of their religion, but it all seems really complicated to me. I don’t know why.
So this is what I go about Varanasi, and of course, I could be wrong, so don’t kill me if I say something not entirely accurate.
Due to its advertisement, many foreigners come to Varanasi. Some come to meditate on the Ghats, to make friends with the many Sadhus (Hindu holy men), who live on the Ghats.
Sadhus are religious people who have left all material things behind and live for their Gods. Hindus go to them for their blessing with a strike of some peacock feathers and give them a small donation. The smell of pot isn’t something rare. I saw Sadhus with mobile phones and they wash off the paint at night and wear clothes. I am not sure how
I believe that some foreigners come here to isolate themselves from their lives back home, in the pursuit of another vision over live. Many meditate on the streets and smoke pot.
Unlike other Indian cities, I found this one to be amongst the dirtiest and smelliest of them. Everywhere you go, someone tries to sell you something, it smells like poop, pis and pot, and everything was in ruin. The ruined part was because of the local restoration of the temples.
Going back to the central piece of the city, the Ganges.
In the Hindu religion, the Ganges is the sacred river and that’s why all the festivals revolve around the Ganges. They say bathing in the Gange is purifying and must be done at least once in your lifetime. Some Indians travel to these sacred cities just to take a bath. And some take water from the Gange to bring back home.
For example, every evening, they have an Aarti ceremony, the ceremony of light, which is one of the most popular ceremonies in the Hindu religion. The Ganga Aarti ceremony is performed at the three holy cities of Haridwar, Rishikesh, and Varanasi in India. It’s a very powerful and uplifting spiritual ritual. I was in all the 3 cities and I think the one in Varanasi is the most spectacular.
And all the cities which are alongside the river have old traditions regarding the Ganges. But Varanasi is the oldest, and it’s also considered a holy place. They also believe in reincarnation and karma.
Reincarnation and Karma in the holy city of India, Varanasi
What does that mean for Hindus?
They say that if one dies in Varanasi, their soul doesn’t reincarnate, but goes straight to Mocksa.
Moksha. Hindus believe that the soul passes through a cycle of successive lives (samsara), and its next incarnation is always dependent on how the previous life was lived (karma). … Moksha is the end of the death and rebirth cycle and is classed as the fourth and ultimate artha (goal).
The holy city of Varanasi grants that the souls of those who die in the town, will not go through the painful reincarnation, but go directly to live forever in Moksha.
Also, those who die are burnt on the shore of the Ganges, on three different high levels, depending on the rank of their life. Those who are too poor to afford the woods for the incineration are taken by boat on the river and discarded a bit further away from the city, with weights hanging on them.
But not all are allowed to be incinerated. Children, pregnant women, or those who have committed suicide have the same fate as those too poor to be burned.
Animals can be seen everywhere, walking freely on the streets and ghats of Varanasi. Their waste and even corpses end up in the Ganges. I’m talking about cows, bulls, dogs, monkeys, goats.
There have been cases reported all over the media that strange bodies have raised from the water, arrived at the shore, and some photographs even show how stray dogs eat them.
Even so, many take boat rides on the Ganges all day long, and one highlight of that is the ghat where they burn the bodies.
I will not try to judge this, as this is their culture and what they praise the most. I, by no means, try to disrespect Hinduism or their practices. Everything I wrote here was my personal experience and stories about the local practices can be found on other blogs as well, and I decided to pass on this story as objectively as possible.
The incineration Ghat of Varanasi
I’ve never seen anything like it, it’s like a set of campfires, burning 24/7, and everything is grey around it. The ashes are grey, and they throw it in the Ganges.
The first time I saw this place was on our first evening there. We were walking along the Ganges, and at what it seemed to be a dead-end, a boy said to keep on walking, if we want to see the incineration place.
There I was filming, and some other guy came to say it is not allowed. Out of respect to the family of the dead, they try to minimize the media exposure.
Then, the same guy started to explain that he was working as a volunteer there, trying to raise money for the wood, because not all families afford to pay the wood needed for the incineration.
We felt compelled to make a small donation, and then he disappeared. Later on, we were told, and I also read online that the entire area of Varanasi is full of touts, trying to scam foreigners. There are no volunteers.
The next day, when we were on the boat, I took pics of the place, and everyone else was doing the same, because all boat rides had this place set as a highlight and they didn’t hurry around it, to make sure you see it. Basically, all the boats were stopping in front of the incineration site.
The morning was crowded on the Ganges, people were roaming around it on both shores. I’m guessing some were even crossing the river by boat to explore the other shore. But there is nothing. It’s a wide beach with dogs, cows an camels.
Things to do in Varanasi, India
- Go with a boat on the Ganges at sunrise. It’s nice, but make sure to read my observations about it or any other blog out there on the internet.
- Observe the Aarti ceremony.
- Admire the Hindu temples. Hopefully, it will become easier to spot them once the construction site is over.
- Try to observe and understand the Hindu culture.
- Try the local food. I used Authenticook to cook and have dinner with a local family from Varanasi, and I loved it.
- Visit an Ashram. We visited Shri Satua Baba Ashram Mandir and witness a guru teaching how to play the sitar to his student. THey elders women in the city were also raising money to feed and to give the less fortunate. They offered food to us too. Heartbreaking.
If you are planning your first trip to India, make sure to read my other posts about my Indian experience:
- First time in India, All you need to know!
- Travelling to Delhi for the first time
- My first contact with India
- What to see in Jaipur
- The beauty of Taj Mahal
- The greatest peaceful gathering on Earth, Kumbh Mela 2019 in Allahabad