Brace yourself. You're about to enter one of the most blindingly colourful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners. But if you're ready for it, this may just turn out to be your favourite stop of all.
Also known at various times in history as Kashi (City of Life) and Benares, this is one of the world's oldest continually inhabited cities and is regarded as one of Hinduism's seven holy cities. Pilgrims come to the ghats lining the River Ganges here to wash away a lifetime of sins in the sacred waters or to cremate their loved ones. It's a particularly auspicious place to die, since expiring here offers moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death), making Varanasi the beating heart of the Hindu universe. Most visitors agree it's a magical place, but it's not for the faint-hearted. Here the most intimate rituals of life and death take place in public and the sights, sounds and smells in and around the ghats – not to mention the almost constant attention from touts – can be overwhelming. Persevere. Varanasi is unique, and a walk along the ghats or a boat ride on the river will live long in the memory.
The old city of Varanasi is situated along the western bank of the Ganges and extends back from the riverbank ghats in a labyrinth of alleys called galis that are too narrow for traffic. They can be disorienting, but the popular hotels and restaurants are usually signposted and, however lost you become, you will eventually end up at a ghat and get your bearings. You can walk all the way along the ghats, apart from during and immediately after the monsoon, when the river level is too high.
Most places of interest, and much of the accommodation, are in the old city. Behind the station is the peaceful Cantonment area, home to most of the top-end hotels.
What to do in Varanasi
From visiting temples to soaking up the atmosphere in the galis, there is plenty to do:
- Take to the water: a magical dawn boat ride on the Ganges will give you an unparalleled view of the ghats and temples - and you might even spot a river dolphin. Watch the morning bathing rituals, and witness cremations taking place at Manikarnika Ghat (but don’t take photos out of respect for the dead). Book a ride with Sankrit Tour Zone (www.sankritstockbroking.com) or just stroll along the embankment - a boatman will find you.
- Traipse around temples: okay, maybe not all of them - there are hundreds, so select a few. The Durga Temple (known as the Monkey Temple due to the monkeys hanging around) is one of the most significant, dedicated to goddess Durga who protects the city, and the Kashi Vishwanath Temple (Golden Temple), dedicated to Shiva, is one of the holiest in India – with the strictest security.
- Get lost in the galis: these dusty, noisy alleys can be disorientating, but that’s part of the fun. You’ll see shops selling silk, crafts, food, tucked-away shrines, candlelit deities in alcoves, and the odd sacred cow wandering around. Prepare yourself for the galis' pungent smell of cow dung, incense, rotten fruit and urine – it certainly awakens the senses.
- Stroll along the ghats: see women doing laundry, bathers, men fixing boats and boys playing cricket. Dasaswamedh Ghat is busy with masseurs under parasols, brightly-painted Kedar Ghat is a bathing spot, and Manikarnika Ghat is a burning or cremation ghat; ashes are then placed in the Ganges. (Uncremated bodies are sunk in the river and it’s not unknown for them to be washed up, so don’t be too alarmed if you spot one - it’s all part of Varanasi’s life and death experience).
- Escape to Sarnath: take a rickshaw for an exhilarating eight-mile ride through Varanasi’s busy, hot streets to sacred Sarnath for some fresh air and to see where Buddha preached his sermon in the Deer Park; the spot is marked by a stupa.
- Attend puja: Every evening the mesmerising puja, or prayer ceremony, takes place at Dasaswamedh Ghat and the air is filled with prayers, chants, music, and incense. Cymbals crash, bells ring, drums bang, and tea lights are cast into the Ganges. This intoxicating ceremony with a festival-style atmosphere attracts crowds – sit back, drink chai from clay cups, and enjoy the events unfolding.
Where to stay
- The old city: this atmospheric quarter has several budget guesthouses overlooking the Ganges. Ganpati Guest House has rooms with balconies overlooking the river and a restaurant with picture-postcard views. Shiva Kashi Guest House (http://shivakashiguesthouse.blogspot.co.uk) also overlooks the river and has a restaurant and western toilets.
- Lahurabir: close to the station, this area isn’t particularly atmospheric and you’re a rickshaw ride away from the action. Budget and mid-range hotels can be found here such as three-star Hotel Varuna with restaurant, garden and rooms with cable TV.
- Cantonment: north of Varanasi Junction, this is where upmarket and international hotels can be found such as Ramada Plaza and the luxurious Nadesar Palace.
Scams and tips
- Rickshaw-wallah scams: your driver may say your hotel has burned down or the road is closed but they know another hotel – this just means they want commission. Refuse to pay unless they take you to your destination - and check you really are at your destination before getting out.
- Boatmen: bargain hard, and before you board check you know how much you’ll be paying and how long the ride will take – boatmen have been known to stop halfway along the river saying you’ve only paid for 30 minutes and you need to pay more to continue.
- Burning ghats: if watching cremations at Manikarnika Ghat you may be approached by men claiming they are from hospices and need money for expensive wood to cremate the poor – don’t believe them. If you refuse to pay, be prepared to receive ‘karmic’ emotional blackmail – just ignore it.
- General hassle: you’ll constantly be approached by people asking “massage, sir/madam?”, “boatride?’ or “ear clean?”. Although harmless, this can quickly become annoying. Smile, say no firmly, and continue walking (unless you do want an ear clean). Keeping calm is the only way to cope - just accept this is the culture and embrace the chaos that is Varanasi!