Exploring India: A Guide to Varanasi and it's Ceremonies
April 20, 2019
by Ellie Cree
If you are interested in Indian culture and Hinduism then you cannot miss Varanasi. It’s like nowhere you will have ever been before and can be a little overwhelming but it’s also fascinating, beautiful and an unforgettable experience. Here is a little information on how to make the most of your trip to Varanasi.
Top things to do in Varanasi
Go to a sunrise and sunset Aarti. Dashashwamedh always has a huge Aarti, the steps are packed and people pile onto boats to watch the ceremony from the Ganges. I would recommend seeing it there but also walk along the ghats to see smaller ceremonies and people going about their daily lives.
Kashi Vishwanath temple
It’s the main temple at the heart of Varanasi The temple is so popular there is often a queue for locals to get in and the security is tight due to a bombing in 2010. There’s several entrances but it’s entrance 2 for foreigners. Don’t forget your passport! There’s lot of police and you’re better off asking for directions once you’re close as Google maps isn’t aware of the random road blocks. It’s a beautiful temple, slightly confusing but well worth a visit.
Go to a burning ghat
The main one is Marnikarnika Ghat and there’s somewhere you can view at a comfortable distance. It is totally up to you whether you want to go but I would recommend it. It’s a huge part of the identity of Varanasi and seeing it alongside the knowledge of it’s meaning (see below), helps to understand Varanasi as a whole. No photos and don’t get too close, especially women.
Go to Blue Lassi
This tiny lassi shop is in most of the guide books but it is SO GOOD. It’s honestly on another level to all other lassis. You choose from hundreds of combinations and there’s fresh fruit on top. I went for coconut and pomegranate.
Get lost in the alleyways of Varanasi
Make sure you walk all the way along the ghats but also just wander through the back streets. They are very narrow but bustling full of life and colour. Do watch out for motorbikes, cows (and cow poo) and also bodies being carried through.
Where to stay in Varanasi
Near Kashi Vishwanath temple
The main centre of Varanasi where the shops, cafes and tourist attractions are is near the main temple – Kashi Vishwanath temple. Dashashwamedh ghat is the largest and most popular and this is very nearby. The largest Aarti (sunrise and sunset ceremony) is held here. So, if you want to have all the attractions right on your doorstep, then stay in this area. However, this area can be very busy.
If you would rather somewhere a little less busy but still amongst it, head south to Assi Ghat area. This area has a number of lovely cafes and restaurants and you can walk all the way up to the centre along the ghats, which is a beautiful walk.
Where to Eat in Varanasi
Cheap, clean, delicious food in a cosy airconned restaurant very close to Dasashwamedh ghat. The Thali was 130rps and so tasty.
Vegan and Raw
This place is fantastic fresh food and has a beautiful courtyard that’s great to spend a few hours with a deliciously fresh juice.
Awesome view of the river. It’s expensive so I sipped one drink for 3 hours but they didn’t seem to mind! They also have beer but its 500rps for a can.
Brown Bread Bakery and Monalisa Cafe and German Bakery
These two bakeries are opposite each other and are both great options for an easy and satisfying meal, or treat yourself to one of the many pastries and cakes on offer.
Run by an American lady this place does the most perfect comfort food, especially for breakfast. I had lemon pancakes (2 big fluffy pancakes covered in sweet lemon sauce with cream on top…) and as you can tell I’m still thinking about them.
What to buy
I didn’t rate the shopping in Varanasi but it is famous for silk so if you’re in the market for a silk scarf this is the place to be! I paid 500rps for a beautiful scarf but I think you could get one for less.
Religion, Culture and the Ceremonies
In order to get the most out of your trip to Varanasi you need to understand its importance and also a bit about the rituals.
Varanasi is regarded as the spiritual capital of India and Hindu pilgrims from all over India come here to bathe in the Ganges, take part in rituals but most importantly to perform funeral rites. Hindus believe that if a person dies and their body is burnt on a funeral pyre in Varanasi, they are guaranteed to ascend to Nirvana (Hindu heaven). Therefore people travel from all over India with sick and elderly relatives to ensure they are in Varanasi when they die.
The burning ghats – The main burning ghat in Varanasi is Manikarnika Ghat. Whilst here I met a lovely man called Babu who talked me through the ritual. This was from a viewpoint as women (even relatives) are not allowed near the pyres. Babu explained that this is because ‘women have emotion and cry and this stops a person from ascending to Nirvana’.
The ritual begins with the men of the family carrying the body on a wooden stretcher through the winding back streets of Varanasi, usually accompanied by chanting and bells. Women are buried in red saris and men in white. Once they reach one of the burning ghats the body is washed in the Ganges. It is then dried on the steps of the ghat for about 30 minutes. The family have to buy wood for the pyre. The wood is from Banyan trees, a very holy tree in India, and can cost between 5000 and 9000 rupees (about £55-£100). This is a lot of money for the majority of families in India. A body usually takes about 1.5-2 hours to burn but the maximum amount of time on the pyre is 3 hours. After that, the head man of the house will look in the ashes for any large bits of bone left. Babu said that for men this is usually chest bones ‘because they lift heavy weights and are strong’ and hip bones for women ‘because of the sex and babies’. These bones are put into the Ganges. After this water is splashed on the pyre and the ash is removed and taken to the river where there are people who sift through the ash to collect the jewellery. This jewellery is then sold in the markets, so maybe don’t buy a nose ring in Varanasi! Apparently at Manikarnika Ghat around 150-200 bodies are burnt every day. It is worth seeing and strangely it isn’t that emotional an experience to witness. Emotion is literally banned but in Hindu belief, there is no better way to go and now they are in Nirvana.
So there you go! I hope these tips help you make the most of your trip to Varanasi. Make sure you walk around and have the occasional cafe stop and I am sure you will love it as much as I did!