Varanasi is one of the world's oldest continually inhabited cities, and one of the holiest in Hinduism. Pilgrims come to the Ganges here to wash away sins in the sacred waters, to cremate their loved ones, or simply to die here, hoping for liberation from the cycle of rebirth
The holy city of Varanasi goes by several names including Benaras and Kashi. Indians like to have multiple names for their important cities (some of this was done when the colonial names were shed!). The city is old, really old, and is widely believed to be one of the oldest living cities in the world – its origins as a centre of learning and civilisation stretching back over 3000 years. Author Mark Twain was fascinated by the legend of Varanasi and once wrote: “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together. ”
The heart of Varanasi is the most sacred of rivers, the Ganges. According to Hindu legend, Lord Shiva unleashed the Ganges from the knot of his hair. For centuries, its rich floods lent fertility to the soil of the central Gangetic plains, which nourished some of India’s most prominent ancient civilizations.
Varanasi’s legends go back some 10,000 years, to the oldest epics of Hindu literature, including the Puranas, the Vedas and the Mahabharata. They say Varanasi is the city of Lord Shiva, who walked here with his wife Parvati at the beginning of time. It could also be the battlefield where the god Krishna set fire to a duplicate but imposter Krishna, or the place where the Lord Rama came to do penance after slaying the demon Ravana. Of course, none of these myths and legends can’t be proved but they suffice to draw millions of Hindu devotees to this ancient city every year to bathe in the Ganges which they believe has the power to wash away the sins of mortals. Some come here just to die. Hindus believe that one who is graced to die in Varanasi would attain salvation and freedom from the cycle of birth and re-birth.
The area surrounding Varanasi is not just important to Hindus it also has significant symbolism to other faiths. Sarnath, the place where Buddha preached his first sermon after enlightenment, just 10 km away and it is also a pilgrimage centre for Jains, as Varanasi is believed to be the birthplace of Parsvanath, the twenty-third Tirthankar.
Considering its theological significance it is not so surprising that Varanasi has also become a centre of learning, health and the arts. For example, it is home Benares Hindu University, the biggest University in Asia and Ayurvedic medicine is believed to have originated here.
Varanasi is also famous for its trade and commerce, especially for the manufacture of the finest silks and gold and silver brocades.
Life along the Ganges in Varanasi
We visited Varanasi with little knowledge beyond what we had seen on television or read in books. Nothing can really prepare you for the real-life experience. On the negative side, it is one of the nosiest, busiest and dirtiest places we have ever visited – and this does put some people off from visiting. But, it is a truly fascinating and amazing place that will overload all your senses with the variety of experiences that surround you wherever you go in this incredible city. We highly recommend putting Varanasi on your travel plans in India.
This blog article gives you a snippet of our experiences on the sacred river Ganges and the along the ghats of Varanasi that border it.
Cremations on the ghats
I had seen quite a few documentaries on Varanasi and many of the enduring memories I had of these shows was where they showed the cremations that happen on the ghats of Varanasi. For some folks visiting the city this could be upsetting – but when you are here it is almost impossible to miss.
Shortly after arriving at our hotel and grabbing some food, we headed out along the river, where it is possible to walk for four and a half miles. Not long after leaving, we came to one of the Ghats where the Hindus cremate their dead. Coming from a culture where putting your loved ones on what is essentially a bonfire (in fact some looked more like barbeques) it felt a very alien practice.
Just as we arrived we saw a group of men carrying a body on a stretcher down to the area where the cremations took place. We had not been there more than an hour or so and we were already being confronted with a dead body, which did make us feel a bit awkward. Although we were carrying our cameras, it didn’t seem appropriate to take pictures (the family were taking pictures as though it were a wedding), but nonetheless, a tiny man approached us and told us to be respectful and not take any photos. He took us to one side and started to tell us about the ritual itself.
For the Hindus, Varanasi is very special, and many hope to spend their final days and hours in the city, so they can have their cremation by the Ganges and their ashes cast in the river. The cremations take place within hours of the person’s death. As we had observed the bodies are carried down to the river, by an all-male wedding cortege (apparently women get too emotional), their bodies wrapped in white cloth, a simple garland around their necks and covered with a brightly covered drape. The bodies are washed in the water of the Ganges and are carried back and placed on the funeral pyre. The chief mourner will be the older son in the case of the father or the youngest son in the case of the mother if there are no sons, other rules apply. He has his head shaved and wears a simple white robe. They perform the rites of washing the body and setting the fire on the pyre. Everyone hangs around until the body is fully burnt, which can take three or four hours, at which time ashes are taken and cast into the Ganges along with a major bone which has not been consumed in the fire. In the case of a woman this would be a hip bone and in the case of a man his sternum. After this, there is then a process of mourning.
We learnt that there are groups of people who are considered to be already spiritually clean and therefore do not require to be cremated. This includes pregnant women, holy men, children under two, lepers and those who die of snake bites. Instead of cremation these people are weighted down and dropped into the Ganges. The cremations in Varanasi take place 24 hours a day and total somewhere in the order of 200 each day.
Our new friend also explained that his family was a member of a caste, the Doms, that is responsible for maintaining the cremation grounds and the holy fire that was used to light the pyres. This fire has been maintained for thousands of years and it is only this fire that the Hindus believe can be used to light a pyre. The Doms make their living from death and cremation, charging families for their services. They are considered as Untouchables, but everyone, even the rich, wanting to use the cremation grounds and the sacred fire has to employ their services.
One of the most spectacular sights is to travel down to the cremation ghats on the Ganges after night falls.
Our evening plans were an official tour, consisting of a boat ride on the river Ganges, followed by dinner. We were met by our guide around dusk and taken down the Ghat below our hotel and onto our boat. This was not a motor-powered boat, but instead was propelled by a young man with a set of oars that looked cobbled together with bits of driftwood, but they worked fine. We travelled down the river to the main cremation ground where about 15 cremations were in progress. We watched the rituals in complete fascination. The ceremonies were at various stages, we saw one body being washed, another pyre being set and others in full flame. One cremation had completed its cycle and the chief mourner collected what looked like a hip bone, walked down to the river and cast it into the water.
We set off down the river to watch the Aarti, a religious ceremony held nightly at the Dashashwamedh Ghat. Before setting out on our trip we had bought some candles set in a cup of leaves from one of the small children hawking on the Ghat below the hotel. As we travelled towards the Aarti, we joined the nightly ritual of lighting the candles and casting the little leaf rafts out onto the river as a tribute to family and friends struggling with illness. This was a truly profound spiritual moment.
Watch the Aarti, a spectacular daily religious ceremony
The Aarti is a daily ceremony that takes place after dark at Dashashwamedh Ghat. Many people chose to watch the Aarti from boats on the Ganges, which is what we did on our first night in Varanasi.
By the time we arrived the waters around Dashashwamedh Ghat were packed with boats full of tourists and pilgrims. The Ganga Aarti is a colourful ceremony that pays homage to Lord Shiva. The Aarti is performed by seven young priests who are pursuing their Vedas and Upanishads. The priests stood on a highly decorated platform and follow a highly choreographed ceremony involving mantra chants, conch blowing, incense and a seven-layered camphor lamp (something resembling an inverted chandelier with flames). The whole thing lasted 45 minutes and was fascinating to watch.
Equally fascinating was to watch the people and boats around us, it was somewhat chaotic as boats shuffled positions to get the best views, and at the same time, young men leapt, risking life and limb, from boat to boat trying to sell trinkets to the passengers. When all was done the armada of vessels set off in every direction, through which our oarsmen skillfully navigated our safe passage back to the hotel.
A different experience is to watch the Aarti onshore, which is what we did on our last night in Varanasi.
The walk to the site to Aarti was only a short stroll from our hotel and we arrived in plenty of time to get a prime place on the steps of the Ghat. Once settled in, we spent our time people watching. Viewing the Aarti close up was a very different experience to watching from a boat on the river. This was a more intimate experience and we were able to observe more of the detail and intricacies of the ceremony. The procedural sequences were well-rehearsed, with the four priests (one who remarkably looked like Jon Snow – a.k.a Kit Harrington – from the “Game of Thrones” TV series) synchronously moving through the various phases – it was truly mesmerizing, and the forty-five minutes passed by so quickly.
Take an early morning boat ride to observe the devotees bathing in the Ganges
Sometimes watching people going about their daily business can feel obtrusive and awkward so I was a little unsure of the prospect of taking a boat down the river in the morning to watch Hindu devotees bathe in the Ganges. But it was incredibly interesting and I soon forgot any discomfort I might have felt.
When we rose and looked out of the window all we could see was a thick blanket of fog; our view of the Ganges, only a hundred feet or so away, had disappeared overnight. The plan for the morning was another boat ride on the Ganges to view the morning rituals of the devotees and pilgrims who come down daily to the river to wash in the holy waters. The prospect for this did not look great! So, after breakfast, we were surprised to see our tour guide.
We had thought the trip might get cancelled. Anyway, we headed down the river, where Karen managed to find a very slimy patch (probably a patty from a passing water buffalo moistened by the mist) to slip in and crash to the ground. It was not a great day for being wet and stinky on a boat (although the general smelly atmosphere would have covered the evidence of the fall) – so she popped back the room to change. Take 2! We went down to the dock again, being careful this time where we were treading, and boarded our little rowing boat. Casting off down the river, we travelled close to the shore as the fog still persisted! Through the gloom, we could just make out people on the Ghats bathing in the water. Although the weather was not ideal it certainly added to the atmospheric drama of the experience. After we had gone half a mile or so, the guide ordered our oarsman to take us ashore, so we continue the rest of the tour on foot.
Stroll along the banks of the Ganges and enjoy some people watching
After a very foggy start, miraculously, the sun came out. We decided to go out and walk down the riverfront toward the main funeral Ghat, which was a couple of miles downriver. By the time we set off the weather was fabulous, and we got some great photographs of people washing their bed linen in the river and drying them on the steep banks of the Ghats, holy men and their disciples chewing the fat and various scenes of people and animals going about their daily business. Before long we had reached our destination. As expected there were several cremations in various stages of progress. We walked among the huge stacks of wood and little shops selling everything you need for a Hindu funeral. Among all this humanity, the animals of Varanasi carve out a little slice of life for themselves. Things don’t always work out for these creatures, and one example presented itself to us in the form of the tiniest, scrappiest little puppy we had ever seen. It had got lost from its family, but Karen came to the rescue, picking up the puppy and reuniting it with a mummy and group of puppies, who seemed to be thriving better (we assumed this was its family, if not hopefully it would be adopted!) As providence would have it we were about to rescue another lost soul, this time in the form of an elderly, well-spoken English lady from Devon. She was with her travel partner, also an elderly English lady, and seemed overwhelmed by all that was going on around her with the cremations taking place.
We did our second good deed for the day and guided them back to a place along the river they recognized and could navigate their way back to their hotel
Lookout for the holy men
Varanasi is an incredibly important city for Hindus and draws millions of pilgrims every year who come to pray, comtemplate and bathe in the sacred Ganges. Among these pilgrims are numerous priests and holymen. As you wander around the city, and particularly down along the Ganges you will see many of them in prayer or just going about their business. This is all a part of the rich tapestry that makes Varanasi a very special place.
Be wary of crafty salesmen
Our friend who picked us up on our first trip out in Varanasi unescorted by a guide to tell us about the cremations turned out not to be just a friendly local. He had an ulterior motive! This is very common in India and like many tourists, before us, we fell for it hook line and sinker. To be fair these ‘salesmen’ are very crafty and good at their job.
From the cremation grounds by the river, our “friend” took us up the street past the huge piles of wood provided to mourners, for a fee, to use on the pyres. There are different types of wood depending on what could be afforded, the most expensive being sandalwood, which provides a sweet smell (better for masking the smell of burning flesh). We were also shown a more traditional crematorium. From here we were led through some very narrow alleys. I was becoming a bit concerned about being mugged or killed but eventually arrived at a small house where we could hear the clacking of a loom. Varanasi is famous for the production of very fine silk cloth, and our informal guide took us to see the loom at work (more on silk cloth production later). He then led us some narrow stairs into a room, with a mattress covered floor and shelves packed with silk scarves, bed linen, table cloths and pashminas. As from nowhere another man appeared; an enthusiastic salesman with good English. From that point on we were shown dozens of products of all shapes and sizes. Karen selected a few items, we paid our money and our “guide” took us back to our hotel. It was obvious to us by this stage that we had been taken for a ride, and had not heeded the warning about hawkers, but having said that we had learned some interesting facts about the Hindu culture and its links to the Ganges and Karen did get a couple of silk scarves.
Beware of the water buffalo
One of the first things we noticed from the balcony of our hotel was a small group of water buffalos. Water buffalos should not be confused with cows – which are highly sacred to Hindus, and are protected by society (injuring or killing a cow is a big deal!). Water buffalos are not revered in the same way they are killed, eaten and sacrificed. Despite this they are very handy beasts – they provide milk with better production and flavour than cows and meat.
For the most part, the water buffalo wander around the ghats not too concerned about what is going on around them. But they occasionally get agitated and these are large animals so it would be best to hurry and get away from them!
Where to stay?
We stayed at the Amritara Suryauday Haveli which is a small hotel set on a ghat in Varanasi with wonderful views across the river Ganges. It was a great place with very comfortable rooms and helpful staff.
We ended up taking most of our meals at the restaurant in the hotel and it was a pleasurable experience. The rooms are set around an inner courtyard where you can lounge and take your meals.
There is a lovely rooftop area where you can lounge and watch the world go by on the river or on the ghats below.
For more information check the listing on Booking.com
Located on its own ghat, BrijRama Palace – A Heritage Hotel was built in the 18th Century and is considered as one of the oldest structures in Varanasi. Overlooking the Ganges, the property is a stone’s throw away from the popular Dasashwamedh Ghat.
Every room at this hotel is air-conditioned High-tea, yoga sessions and bottled water are complimentary.
Kedar Ghat is 2,300 feet from BrijRama Palace while the Kashi Vishwanath Temple is 1,300 feet. The Nepali Temple is 0.6 mi and the Sankat Mochan Temple is 2.8 mi.
For more information check the listing on Booking.com
Located in Varanasi, 1,000 feet from Kedar Ghat, Shiva Ganges View Guest House features a restaurant, private parking, a shared lounge and a garden. Boasting family rooms, this property also provides guests with a terrace.
The rooms at the guest house are fitted with a seating area, a flat-screen TV with satellite channels and a private bathroom with a hairdryer and a shower. The rooms also have a desk and a kettle.
Popular points of interest near the accommodations include Harishchandra Ghat, Dasaswamedh Ghat and Assi Ghat.
For more information check the listing on Booking.com
Varanasi is 76m above sea level. The climate here is mild and generally warm and temperate. The rainfall in Varanasi is significant, with precipitation even during the driest month. In Varanasi, the average annual temperature is 25.7 °C | 78.3 °F. The rainfall here is around 982 mm | 38.7 inches per year.
In summary …
- Never try and drive in Varanasi unless you are crazy
- Always look down while you are walking as you’ll never know what you are stepping in
- Don’t stop and talk to locals at the main tourist areas – they want to sell you something
- Don’t wash, drink or clean your teeth in the Ganges
- Cow dung and water makes a slippery hazard
- Lassi is very tasty