“Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together,” said Mark Twain and he couldn’t be more right. Varanasi also known as Benares or Kashi as the natives would put it is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. Many come here seeking spirituality, attaining nirvana or simply finding themselves in the hustle of life. Varanasi has been a center of religious and cultural activity for thousands of years and still continues to attract tourists like no other place. Imagine a city living on banks of the Ganges having seen and survived so many eras, risen, perished and emerged again. Today, it’s narrow but vibrant lanes boast the quintessential culture and have many interesting stories to tell. For a first-timer, Varanasi can be a bit overwhelming, you’ll notice a significant culture gap and will definitely need some time to warm up to this place. Sadhus high on marijuana talking life, every nook and corner selling bhang, funeral pyres passing by like moving men every minute is something you’ll witness only in Varanasi. It’s a colourful, chaotic, beautiful mess immersed in culture and history that’ll leave you spellbound. We never thought that Varanasi would turn out to be one of the most fulfilling experiences out of all our travels so far.
How to Get There
Varanasi is well connected to all major Indian cities through both air and rail. You can book a direct flight to Varanasi at a pretty cheap price in advance. Prepaid taxis are easily available to the city from the airport but are slightly expensive. We instead opted to book ourselves an Ola for INR 600.
“Varanasi is well connected to all major Indian cities through both air and rail.”
Where to Stay
The hotels in Varanasi can be as surprising as the city. There are numerous options for all kinds of travellers. If you’re looking for a super luxurious stay we highly recommend the BrijRama Palace Hotel overlooking the river Ganga. The heritage hotel has 32 rooms and suites, marvellous interiors equipped with modern-day luxuries and you could literally just sit there all day and not get bored. Well for us, we were obviously looking for a budget stay and found a perfect hotel for ourselves— Stay Banaras. It’s a boutique hotel that displays beautiful contemporary aesthetics, pretty beyond imagination. You could either choose to crash in a dorm and enjoy the company of your fellow roomies or stay in a private room and make friends over breakfast. It’s tucked in a little corner and is just 3 kms away from the ghats which is great because you can stay in peace away from the hustle of the city yet dive into it in no time.
Getting Around Varanasi
If you really want to experience the city and have some fun just walk it out, literally. For all others, taxis, cycle rickshaws and autos are readily available but brush up your negotiation skills. The guys there usually take tourists for a ride!
Pro Tip: Just skip all the hard work and use Ola instead. It’s one of the most reliable conveyance options and easily available at just one click of a button.
What’s Varanasi without a boat ride? For an hour for two people is around INR 600( we ended up paying much higher because it was the monsoon and the water level was high but usually it should be around INR 300); you can also pay lesser and join a large boat instead.
Pro Tip: You can negotiate for a boat with the scalpers at the ghat; try arranging for one the previous day to get a slight advantage on the price.
What To Do
Ghats of Varanasi
The city is illuminated by the rays of the sun as it falls across ghats bringing everything to life. Enjoy the morning sun at Dashashvamedh Ghat. You can even take a boat ride first thing in the morning to get an enthralling view of the activities taking place at different ghats. You can also witness the open cremation grounds of Manikarnika Ghat from the boat or from a discreet distance from the pyres. The sight, smell and sounds at the ghats are truly mesmerizing. A special mention to:
This ghat is one of the most popular ghats in Varanasi because of the evening aarti, a colourful, euphoric event, that happens every day. It actually looks like a beautifully synchronized performance and the sound of the aarti is music to the ears. Much of the daily life in Varanasi takes place on its numerous ghats—cemented steps that descent steeply towards the river and disappear into the holy water.
This is the popular cremation ghat in Varanasi. Best seen at a respectful distance from a boat, you’ll come face to face with death at this ghat, this is where life and death meet. It’ll leave you with a strange feeling — one that almost makes you appreciate the traditions and celebrations of Hinduism even more.
You can head to Assi Ghat at the southernmost end; it is one of the most tourist-friendly ghats, with a cluster of lovely shops and restaurants. Even though it is the most loved ghats it’s still not crowded with tourists and you can easily sit back and enjoy the liveliness of this ghat.
Now this is where the real fun begins. Varanasi has numerous narrow dirty alleyways but it’s such a delight to observe the city life unfolding there. We could get lost in these streets for hours and not complain. If you want to experience the true Varanasi get dirty in the streets, yes literally. As we wandered further into the streets, taking turns one after the other, there seemed to be an endless chaos and we are definitely not complaining. On one hand where some foreign tourists were ordering freshly baked German bread on the other the Sadhus were interacting with us in fluent English (mistaking us for foreigners). Monkeys above cows below; don’t mess with either, we say. Varanasi Walks or Robaroo Walks is your best bet for an intimate whimsical introduction to the city and its colourful people. But if you’re on your own and get lost just keep asking people around, happily guide you.
Aarti on the Ghats
The evenings are often lit up by jamming of anything from the drum to tabla to the emcee reciting bhajans and the crowd effortlessly joining in. Your evenings in Varanasi could end by witnessing the beautiful aarti at any one of the ghats. These ritual ceremonies have become a good earning stream for the locals you’d actually have to pay money to grab a good seat on a boat, movie ticket much? The highlight of your trip might just be the post-sunset Ganga aarti at Dashaswamedh Ghat performed with the graceful swinging of heavy lamps, lighting of heavily scented incense sticks and the sound of the aarti echoing even in that farthest street. We preferred the serene riverside view from a boat and getting there early to get yourself a boat with a good spot or the perfect place along the shore is key.
Kashi Vishwanath Temple
The concentration of cosmic light out of which Shiva manifested to prove his supremacy to Brahma and Vishnu is represented at the Kashi Vishwanath temple near Dasashwamedh Ghat. Adjacent is the Annapurna Temple to the goddess of nourishment, an incarnation of Parvati. The entire lane leading to the temple is dotted with shops selling colourful merchandise pertinent to the city and other shopkeepers coercing you to buy articles for the temple. Footwear and belongings are not permitted inside the temple; in case you leave them at a shop nearby in exchange for a fee and an offering bowl, remember that you are not obliged to do a puja inside. Beware of the monkeys, they are utterly notorious and we managed to save ourselves from them in exchange of the prasad we had in our basket, well actually they snatched it.
Boat ride at the Ganges
Varanasi is synonymous with the river Ganga. The old city of sages, gurus, travelers and traders begins and ends with the sacred river. Some say that just sitting at the ghats and observing people from different walks of life teaches you many things. It is also exhilarating to take a quiet boat ride at the crack of dawn and watch as the city turns into the chaotic bustle that it is. Sadly, one of India’s holiest rivers is also one of the world’s most polluted, despite efforts over the years to clean it up.
Ramnagar Fort was built in 1750 by Raja Balwant Singh and it opposite Tulsi ghat. On the eastern bank of river Ganga, the fort was built in Mughal architecture. It has a temple and a museum inside the campus. While the fort is in a dilapidated condition, the museum inside has some interesting displays. The Vyas Temple is a beautiful place to watch the sunset over the river. We enjoyed a serene sunset at the fort conversing with the temple priests and learning things about life and existence or atleast we tried.
Where to Eat
What’s a trip to Varanasi without getting your hands on some bhaang. Varanasi is the land of India’s edible cannabis. Sold by government authorised shops, bhang is used in beverages, especially ones made with milk. Word of caution: Be very careful about what you ask for, while it did not go too well with me, you might just pull it off. You must also pay a visit to Blue Lassi, located in the Manikarnika Lane. Its walls are adorned with passport sized photographs, letters and postcards, by many travelers from around the world and the variety of lassis will blow your mind. Our fav: Coconut Lassi.
Eat Apple Pie in Vatika Cafe
A lot of people come to Varanasi to experience the raw India and get a taste of spirituality. While we don’t know how to achieve nirvana we can surely recommend you a way to find happiness- eat an apple pie and delicious pizza along with some nana mint (popular minty fresh drink across Varanasi) at Vatika café overlooking the river Ganga. As you fervor, the hot piece of pie while enjoying the evening aarti life will seem to make much more sense.
Brown Bread Bakery
This restaurant's fabulous menu includes more than 40 varieties of European-quality cheese and more than 30 types of bread, cookies and cakes – along with excellent pasta, sandwiches and breakfasts. It’s flooded with foreign tourists all the time. Sit downstairs at street level or upstairs at the casual rooftop cafe, with seating on cushions around low tables and glimpses of the Ganges.
Run by an American woman who has been coming to India for more than 20 years, this colourful cafe has good lemon pancakes, astounding lemon or organic green-tea lassis and lots of healthy vegan options. It’s very cheap and the food is quite delicious.
Vegan & Raw
This casual courtyard restaurant is an offshoot of Brown Bread Bakery, featuring excellent vegan dishes, including a full page of salads from spinach-radish-walnut to papaya-pomegranate-linseed. The food is simple but it does tingle your taste buds. This courtyard setup is a wonderful place to come if you’re looking to enjoy a peaceful meal away from the city bustle.
Relish the Varanasi Street Food
Varanasi will turn you into a foodie even if you aren’t one! The desserts this city offers are sinful. Some of the most delicious ones are rabdi and kesar doodh (saffron flavoured milk). There’s also a sweet variation of paan and we loved every bit of it. One of the most popular street food here is kachodi with chole and we can not tell how finger-licking good it is.
Deena Chaat Bhandar
Varanasi is famous for its own style of chaat: dahi bhalla, tamatar ki chaat and palak chaat. There are two outlets of Deena’s but the one near Dashashwamedha Ghat is more popular. The tamatar chaat is finely cut tomatoes mashed up with spices and we undoubtedly loved it. You can also try some typical street food dishes like chole bhature, pav bhaaji and street style chowmein. yummm!
There’s a Little Korea in the gullies of Varanasi. In a narrow alley at Bengali Tola, is typical of the Korean cafés in Varanasi - low seating, Korean- language menus, home-style meals, and Seoul-style street snacks. Head out to this cafe if you’re craving some kimchee or spicy Korean food.
Varanasi’s is a beautiful blend of spirituality, art, culture and knowledge. It’s diversity attracts storytellers and all kinds of travelers. That’s what we love about this place, it inspires and pushes you out of your comfort zone. Every traveller seeking quintessential India, head out to Varanasi, it sure doesn’t disappoint.