Varanasi is not for the faint of heart. Of course, this can be said about pretty much anywhere in India, but Varanasi is on another level. It’s probably the most intense place in India. It left us speechless and shellshocked in equal measure, and I don’t think we’ll ever forget our time here.
A quick primer: Varanasi is the holiest city in India for multiple religions, and this has been the case for pretty much the entire 2000-plus years people have been living here. The city sits on the banks of the holy Ganges (Ganga) River, the most sacred river in India, and bathing in it is said to cleanse one of sins…despite the terrifying pollution levels. Some of the temples here are among the country’s most important. It’s also considered the holiest place to die (or be cremated) in Hinduism. Yeah, there’s a lot going on.
So obviously Varanasi is extremely important to Indians, but it’s also a popular stop for foreign tourists. I can understand why - there’s nowhere else in the world like it, period. The Ganges is the lifeblood of the city and there is always a flurry of activity both in the ghats (the steps/walkways along the riverbank) and in the narrow alleyways leading back to the old town. You can see people bathing, eating, pooping (yep…), washing clothes, worshiping, attending funerals, meditating, feeding cows, running from stray dogs…the list goes on. Every aspect of life (and death) can be observed on a simple morning walk along the ghats, it all takes place in public and it’s all totally normal to the people who live here.
Our first outing in Varanasi was to walk from Assi Ghat, where our guesthouse was, all the way north to Dashashwamedh Ghat, the main center of activity near the old town. During our walk we saw all of the things I just listed and more. To say it’s an assault on the senses is too mild a description - we saw, smelled, and heard things I’ve never quite experienced before.
At one point we were trying to weave through a massive crowd when I heard hysterical sobbing from somewhere behind me. I turned around only to realize it was a family attending a funeral. It occurred to me that no one around me was reacting and then I realized this must be an everyday occurrence - cremations take place at all hours of the day and night on the ghats, so there’s always a funeral happening. There were samosa vendors and shop owners and policemen on the street just going about their business like nothing was amiss.
I’ll never forget our visit to Blue Lassi, a famous lassi shop in the heart of Old Town. It’s in a narrow alley that leads directly to Manikarnika Ghat, which is the main cremation ghat. We ordered lassis and as we waited, we saw three different corpses pass by, wrapped in colorful fabric and borne on stretchers, bound for the funeral pyres. The first time confused me, the second one startled me, but by the third body I had begun to accept that this is just how things are done here.
I’d love to say that we found the chaos exciting, that we threw ourselves into the intense energy of this city with vigor, but that’s not true. We found ourselves emotionally and physically drained each day. In some ways it’s crazier than Delhi, although overall we liked Varanasi more. But the city is so compact, yet so crowded, that everything fells that much more intense here - crowds are denser, car horns are louder, smells are stronger - it’s sensory overload to the extreme.
So, like in Delhi, we adopted a strategy that would allow us to experience Varanasi without going insane. We’d head out in the early morning to explore. People wake up early here, and it’s basically impossible to avoid being active at sunrise if you don’t want to miss out on all the activity. We’d stroll along the ghats, grab a chai, and just people-watch for a couple hours. After pushing our way back south to Assi Ghat from the narrow streets of old town, we’d be exhausted and would retreat to our room for a few hours to decompress and escape the worst of the midday heat. Later, we’d head back out for the evening ceremony on the ghats before dinner.
By FAR the best thing we did in Varanasi - probably the #1 thing to do in town - was to hire a boat for a sunrise cruise on the Ganges. We arranged it through our guesthouse and paid 350 rupees each, which was very reasonable. I definitely recommend doing it that way because I’ve heard that if you wait until dawn to arrange a boat, the going rate is like 1000 rupees per head which is insane. Plan ahead. It’s worth it.
We got on the boat while it was still dark out. It was just us and the guy rowing, and he spoke enough English to explain things to us as we rowed north. The city is at its absolute best during sunrise. Like I said before, the river is the lifeblood of the city and the ghats come alive in the morning with all kinds of people coming out to do their daily tasks, as well as lots of sadhus (holy men) wandering around, groups of religious students doing yoga, and yes, as we approached the burning ghats, even a cremation.
Basically, if you go to Varanasi and spend 2 seconds anywhere near Manikarnika Ghat, you WILL see a cremation, and this is doubly true on a boat ride. You’re not supposed to photograph the cremations, and even though our guide told us it was OK to do so from the boats (since we were far away), we opted not to out of respect. It was somber, but also very strange - there were these crowds of tourists on boats gathered around the ghat while a family watched their loved one be cremated. It felt weird and voyeuristic and honestly I was pretty uncomfortable, even though it’s seemingly accepted for tourists to be there.
Even so, being on the boat was WAY better than walking around near the burning ghat. The smell is overpowering, it’s very crowded, I felt out of place (like I was gate-crashing a funeral, because I was!) and the energy was really intense. I just became terribly anxious and wanted to get out of there ASAP. I felt more at ease on the boat where I could observe the action from far away.
So yes, Varanasi is every bit as intense as you’ve heard. But fear not. There are places where it’s possible to escape the chaos and emerge a little zen, a little more chilled out. There are some great little cafes, including Aum Cafe, which is run by an older American lady who converted to Hinduism and now runs a pure-veg (basically vegan) restaurant next door to a temple. The matcha lattes are life-affirming, the pancakes tasted like home, and the owner gives the best hugs in all of India. Sparrow Cafe, with its twice-weekly Bollywood movie nights and friendly vibe, is also worth a look, and The Open Hand has the best coffee in town (trust us).
Plus, bhang lassi is readily available to calm even the most frazzled nerves. We obviously partook in some, mostly on accident because I found a highly rated lassi shop on TripAdvisor and when we got there we realized it was a special shop. Don’t mind if I do! It makes cow-watching (Varanasi is FULL of cows) much funnier.
As far as logistics, we stayed at Banaras Paying Guest House in Assi Ghat and definitely recommend it. Where you stay in Varanasi really depends on what you’re looking for in terms of atmosphere. Assi Ghat is at the south end of the main stretch of ghats, and it’s relatively calm. We liked being away from the chaos, and the guesthouse had a nice rooftop to chill at. Plus all the good cafes were nearby, although most of the good Indian restaurants are up north near Dashashwamedh Ghat, but a rickshaw ride should only be around 100 rupees, except for right after the evening ceremony but you should be able to bargain to 150 then if you put in some effort.
So, was Varanasi worth it? For sure. Neither of us had ever been anywhere like it, and I’m pretty sure we never will. It’s got a flavor all its own - it’s colorful, loud, vibrant, chaotic, and sometimes downright ridiculous. Our four days there felt like a nonstop rollercoaster ride, and we left feeling worn out yet exhilarated. Would we go back? That’s tough to say. I think it’s worth visiting at least once, but it’s a little intense for my taste. I might consider it in the far future, but for now I think once is enough.