For our third backpacking trip, my husband and I set our sights on India. While researching the places that we wanted to go and building an itinerary, we came across Varanasi. Blogs had mixed feelings about the city, and many simply warned tourists to stay away. I am so glad that we erred on the side of adventure and added it to the list, as it was my favourite city in India and remains one of my favourite places in the world.
Varanasi was our first stop in India and it is significant under-statement to say that we dove into India head first. Culture shock? Yes, you could say that. Nothing could have prepared us for the sights and sounds of this bustling city.
After landing in Varanasi very early in the morning, we were supposed to be greeted by a car sent by our hostel. Our flight had arrived about twenty minutes late and I guess the driver was eager to get back home because he left without us. As we exited the airport likely looking very confused, drivers swarmed us asking where we were going. They weren’t trying to swindle us for an unfair price or fight each other for our business as you might assume. They wanted to help.
After showing a couple of them our hostel information, a lively discussion ensued among the drivers and one got on his cell phone. After lecturing the person who had answered the phone about leaving us stranded, the driver told us he would take us where we needed to go, and we hopped in his taxi.
Two lessons were learned in that first early morning in Varanasi: 1) things will often not go to plan in India, and 2) it will be OK, because you will always be offered help.
As Varanasi was pitch black when we arrived, waking up in this city the next morning was truly a shock to the senses. When we walked out of the hostel, we saw cows walking toward us down the narrow alleys and stray dogs and their puppies nestled into the decaying walls of buildings. As someone who had previously only seen cows in fields on the sides of highways, this environment was…different.
In addition to the many animals we passed, there were crowds of people nearly everywhere we went. Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and over 1 million people currently call it home. Although we were among the only white people in most places, we did not garner much attention. One Indian man, however, smiled at us, pointed downward, and told us to watch out for the “holy shit” (a good tip, as it is impossible to walk more than a few strides without stepping in poop here). There were also many young Indian people who struck up conversations with us out of genuine interest and to take an opportunity to practice their English.
We spent the majority of our time in Varanasi exploring its 80+ Ghats, which are steps leading to the River Ganges. The Ghats are used for everything from bathing to washing and drying clothes to religious ceremonies. Dashashwamedh Ghat was the busiest and seemed to be where most people concentrated. It was also the only place in Varanasi that we found took interest in tourists (i.e., trinkets were being sold and there were many beggars). For that reason, we started going up to the street to avoid it. Each night, an Agni Pooja (Worship to Fire) ceremony is performed Dashashwamedh Ghat, which we had the privilege of watching from a boat on the river one night.
For me, the most interesting Ghat by far was Manikarnika Ghat, which is considered the holist and most sacred of all the Ghats. Elderly and/or sick Hindus from all over India come to Varanasi to spend their final days and be cremated so that their souls may find salvation from the cycle of rebirth. Each day, those who have passed on are carried down by mourners to the Ghat, where they are cremated out in the open. Ashes are placed in the Ganges, which is then sifted through for jewellery or other valuables.
Although it may sound morbid, I found Manikarnika Ghat quite peaceful. Despite being in the presence of death, I didn’t feel sad or afraid. Although I am not a religious person, I was struck by the deep importance of this place and felt privileged to have been there amongst the people who had passed on and the people who loved them.
Varanasi is a living paradox. It is loud yet peaceful. Decaying yet beautiful. Busy yet calm. It is exceedingly foreign yet feels like home. Most interestingly, death is constantly present but the city is also exploding with life. As someone who gets easily anxious when there is too much going on, I can’t quite explain how I felt so peaceful and happy in a place that should have overwhelmed me. All I know is that I would go back to Varanasi in a heartbeat.
Eat and drink: Chai (everywhere and anywhere you can get it, but especially out of the terracotta cups at Assi Ghat), Blue Lassi
Do: Both dawn and night boat tours (find a boat owner on a Ghat and negotiate a fair price)
Stay: Despite issues with the airport transfer, Lotus Paying Guesthouse was really good. The staff were very friendly, rooms were clean, and it was a short walk to the main Ghat.