Travel to Varanasi, India's Mystical Heart

Laura Crawley - Freelance Writer

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With almost 20,000 temples in the city, Varanasi is considered one of its holiest cities in the Hindu religion. It is thought that Lord Shiva created the city of Kashi (Varanasi) with his own hands and therefore is the spiritual center of India.

Hindu mourners flock here to cremate their dead to be released into the Mother Ganga river. It is thought among Hindu followers that if you die in Varanasi and return as ashes into the river, you can break the cycle of rebirth and reincarnation. This mystical city isn't only for the dead, though. Worshippers come to bathe, do laundry, and gather water for blessings. Varanasi should be on everyone's itinerary to India with deep religious and cultural roots.

Death and cremation

Manikarnika cremation ghat Varanasi India

It is a common sight to see mourners following the recently deceased down the streets of Varanasi on the way for cremation. There are two crematory ghats in the holy city, one that uses the traditional way of burning and one uses more modern equipment. Manikarnika crematory still uses traditional methods by stacking wood and placing the body wrapped in ceremonial cloth on top. A relative traditionally lights the wood as part of the ceremony. Funerary attendants will then maintain the fire and place the ashes into the Ganges. Even in cases where the body was cremated elsewhere, Hindus prefer to have their ashes released here.

There are a few exceptions to cremation in the Hindu religion: holy men, young children under two, pregnant women, animals, and people that died due to cobra bites are not traditionally cremated. In most of these cases, the bodies will have a heavy stone tied around them and sunk to the bottom of the river. Holy men are often buried in a special way instead. In some instances, where someone has died of infectious diseases such as leprosy and smallpox, they will be buried as well.

Aghori baba with closed eyes sitting with a stick against ganges river in Varanasi, India

If you've ever seen pictures of holy men painted in white along the banks of the Ganges, these were likely Aghori monks. The white coloration comes from using human ashes to paint their body. Followers of this offshoot of Hinduism have been known to eat human flesh, drink blood, or even bite the heads off of animals during their rituals. They are considered contradictory to orthodox Hinduism, but many still respect and revere them. You may see many of them here along the banks of the Ganges.

When to go

Varanasi burning grounds at night view from a ghat on the river ganges

The best time to visit is from November to February in the winter. The temperatures are cooler, rain is infrequent, and the mosquito population is low. Considering that Malaria is common in India, make sure to check if Malaria prevention is recommended during the times and areas you will be visiting. During the summer months, there is more frequent rain and high temperatures. The water level of the river rises with the rainy season. Winter affords you the more picturesque view of the long staircases at each ghat that would otherwise be submerged in summer.

Things to know before you go

Holy town Varanasi and the river Ganges

Along the river here, laws prevent new construction close to the water, so hotels and buildings closer to the water's edge will be older. Cows are considered holy in India and can roam free in narrow streets. When one approaches, be sure to move out of the way quickly, they have the right of way. Male cows here may live almost feral on the streets, so it's best to keep your distance. Watch out for cow manure as you walk. Monkeys are also common even in this urban area. They will bite and steal food or other objects. Monitor your food and personal items and keep your distance. However, they can be entertaining to watch from a rooftop restaurant while you dine.

Sadhu - Indian holymen sitting in the temple

You may encounter security at many temples and attractions in India. Men and women will queue up separately and be checked by someone of the same gender. For women, there is often a small booth with closed curtains for modesty. In general, this is a quick pat-down, but you will likely experience this several times on your journey around India, and there is no way around it. You may have multiple screening points in the airport as well. Some holy sites may even restrict what can be brought in on your person. They may not allow bags or have restrictions on where one gender may or may not be able to go. It's best to check ahead before arriving.

Tap water is not recommended for drinking for foreigners. Bottled water is cheap and available everywhere. For those with sensitive stomachs, consider brushing your teeth with bottled water as well.

Crowded street food market of Varanasi, India

Some rules to consider for food safety are:

Eat at mealtimes when turnover is higher at restaurants. If you eat mid-afternoon, you may get something that has been sitting out for a few hours.

If you want to eat fruit, either wash it thoroughly (with bottled water) or buy foods with skin removed before eating, such as bananas. Avoid salads or other raw fruits and veggies unless it's expressly noted that they were washed with filtered water.

Indian popular drink lassi on the street in Varanasi

If you like street food, eating food that has been cooked fresh in front of you at high temperatures will help reduce the risk of stomach trouble.

Wash or sanitize your hands prior to eating. If eating with your hands, use your right hand as the left hand may be considered traditionally unclean by some.

Squat toilets are common, often without toilet paper or soap provided. Bring a small amount of toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you in your day bag. You'll thank me later. In general, all toilet paper should be thrown into the trash and not into the toilet to avoid embarrassing plumbing disasters.


Indian woman seller in farmers market counting money - Varanasi, India

In general, do NOT take bills that have rips or pieces missing as they will be difficult to use later on. Any change you get, make sure to inspect them before tucking them in your pocket since banks may only give credit for the partial value of a damaged bill. For example, a 500 rupee bill with a corner ripped off may only garner 400 rupee credit at the bank. ATMs are available to withdraw cash. Credit cards can be used at many hotels and businesses, but cash is king.

Sunrise and Sunset

Varanasi Ganga aarti rituals at Assi ghat performed by young priests before sunrise at the Ganges river ghat at Varanasi India.

One of the best ways to experience the true heart of what this city offers is to gather at sunrise and sunset at the Assi Ghat for the religious rituals to welcome and end the day in service of the sacred river. Dressed in orange robes, priests hold circular tiered candelabras and chant and pray in a coordinated dance. The haze and light from the burning candles set against the hues of the rising sun are truly magical. The service lasts around an hour or so, with sunset being more heavily attended by worshippers and tourists alike.

Boat rides

Hindu sadhu sitting on a boat overlooking Varanasi city architecture at sunset

One of the best ways to see life along the Ganges is to hire a boat. Sunrise allows you to see more of the locals' daily activity along the water's edge. As you travel along the different ghats, you may see the Aghori Monks waking up along the banks or Hindi students participating in laughing meditation. At sunset, it's common for people to rent a boat to watch rituals from the river. It gives you a different view to observe the priests and the crowds that come without feeling crowded.



Varanasi ancient city architecture at sunset as viewed from a boat on river Ganges

With 87 ghats in Varanasi, there is a lot to explore. In general terms, a ghat refers to the staircase leading down to the river. Each ghat will have its unique flavor, some with temples, others may have a religious school or a palace. Most have some distinguishing characteristics. Hiring a local guide is recommended to get the most out of what you're seeing and helps the local economy.

Below we've listed some of the standouts:

Manikarnika Ghat, the largest crematorium in Varanasi, India

Manikarnika ghat is the oldest and most sought-after crematory because it still uses traditional cremation. However, do not take pictures of the bodies being burned. It is considered rude, and a police officer may approach you to pay a fine.

Assi Ghat is the best place to see the Ganges River's sunrise and sunset aarti rituals.

Chet Singh was constructed by Maharaja Chet Singh in the 18th century and is fortified.

Lalita Ghat was built by Rana Bahadur Shah, the exiled king of Nepal. He wanted to make a replica of the sacred Nepalese Hindu Pashupatinath Temple in Varanasi. There is also a temple dedicated to Lalita here, an incarnation of the Goddess Adi-Shakti.

Munshi ghat is home to the Darhanaga palace, which the royal family of Bihar built. The Darbhanga ghat adjacent houses most of the palace, part of which has been converted into a hotel. With beautiful architecture to explore, both are worth a visit.

Dasaswamedh is the main ghat on the river and is associated with two Hindu legends. It was thought that Brahma built it for Shiva in one tale and that Brahma sacrificed ten horses during Dasa-Ashwamedha yajna in the other. Special religious ceremonies and daily aaritis are performed here.

Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple

Shri Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi, India

Also known as the golden temple, it's considered the holiest temple in Varanasi dedicated to Lord Shiva. One of many paths to Moksha (liberation) is to visit the temple and bathe in the Ganges. As a pilgrimage site for Hindus worldwide, many try to visit at least once in their lifetime. One tradition is that you should give up on a desire while visiting. For foreigners, it may be impossible to visit without help from a guide or priest, as it's meant for Hindus only. In addition, there will be security due to the site's significance. You are only allowed to bring money and identification inside with you, and foreigners, if allowed, will have to register before entry.

Food tours

Thali, traditional Indian food with different ingredients and chapatti, Varanasi, India

A great way to get to know the local cuisines and go off the beaten path is to do a food tour. One of the most famous places to eat in Varanasi is the Blue Lassi. This popular restaurant focuses on Lassi with extensive flavor options, some with fresh fruit mixed in. Having a tour guide will help you sample many dishes and help avoid foods with a higher potential of stomach upset. For those with limited knowledge of Indian foods, this is a great way to dip your toes in the water.

Day trip to Bodh Gaya

Big statue of Buddha, Bodh Gaya, India

While visiting the Hindu's most sacred city, you can also visit the holiest of Buddhist sites. As the spiritual mecca and UNESCO World Heritage site, Bodhgaya is thought to be where Prince Siddhartha (Buddha) became enlightened underneath the bodhi tree. The tree that stands today is believed to be a cutting from a tree in Sri Lanka that was grown from a piece of the original sacred tree, a grandchild, if you will. The Mahabodhi temple and a large sitting Buddha are located in the complex too. So it's well worth the day away from Varanasi.

Final Thoughts

early morning shot of Varanasi in north India

While there are many other options, sometimes it is best to wander around and see what locals are up to. Immerse yourself in the sights, smells, and sounds of the city. It's easy to get lost in the narrow streets, but ultimately once back at the water's edge, it's easy to get your bearings. Remember to be respectful of cremation practices. Experiencing humanity here at different times of the day will help you see the full spectrum of life along the banks of the Ganges.

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