Varanasi: how to survive - and thrive - in India's most atmospheric city

You’ve visited Delhi, Agra and Jaipur and now you’re searching for a new experience to stir your soul. Look no further. Varanasi, often described as India’s 'most spiritual' city, emanates enough magic and intrigue to delight even the most well-trodden traveller. So take a trip to this unique destination on the banks of the holy Ganges river and immerse yourself in its atmosphere.

What to expect

Sadhu on the ghats by Arian Zwegers. Creative Commons Attribution Licence.

The oldest city in India, and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, is frenetic and intense, colourful and chaotic. It's also an exhilarating and captivating place to visit once you get past the initial culture shock. Also known as Benares and Kashi, Varanasi is famed for its ‘ghats’, giant steps leading down to the river, where Hindu pilgrims come to cleanse their souls of sin in the waters of the River Ganges. Hindus believe that Varanasi is an auspicious place to die - dying and being cremated here offers moksha, liberation from the endless cycle of rebirth. These rituals of cleansing and cremation take place in full view on the riverbank.

Arrival and orientation

Man on a ghat in early morning by Akash Mondal. Creative Commons Attribution Licence.

Varanasi’s old city stretches back from the Ganges to a pedestrianised maze of alleys, or 'galis'. Although claustrophobic and crowded, this is the most interesting area of the city. The embankment is lined with almost 100 ghats, with central Dasaswamedh Ghat being the busiest.

The main railway station Varanasi Junction, also known as Varanasi Cantonment, is west of the old city and a short rickshaw ride away; the bus station is also close by. Cycle or auto-rickshaws can be found outside the station; if heading to the old city just ask for Dasaswamedh Ghat. The airport is 16 miles away.

What to do in Varanasi

Sadhu watching dawn break on the Ganges by Akash Mondal. Creative Commons Attribution Licence.

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

Ganga aarti by Akash Mondal. Creative Commons Attribution Licence.

  • 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

Sadhus by Arian Zwegers. Creative Commons Attribution Licence.

  • 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!