This holy city, also known as Benarés, is located at the banks of River Ganges in Uttar Pradesh, Northeast side of the country. In the past, it was also known under the name of Kashi, which in Sanscrit means “bright and gorgeous”. It´s considered one of the seven holy cities in India, with due respect I must admit it has a powerful energy: you may love it or hate it. But one thing is true, if you have come that far to reach India, you can´t miss such a special city as Varanasi.
From my humble point of view, there aren´t so many attractions in Benarés as you may find in other places of India, but where else are you expecting to find a place where bodies are burned twenty-four seven, three hundred and sixty-five days a year without stopping, not even in rainy season? To look death in the eyes is quite a worthwhile experience.
When is it the best time to go to Varanasi?
You should avoid monsoon season. It rains insanely for months, Ganges overgrows and some parts of the city remain under water. So the cool time to go should be from September to May, as it happens in Northern India.
What´s a ghat?
All the “ghats” are stone steps that end – like most of the things here – in the holy Ganges, the river of illumination and life, water that can break the chain of births and rebirths and set souls free from reincarnation cycles. This is the most mystic, polluted and commercial river that ever existed, with a whole network set up especially for tourism – like most things in India.
Things to do in Varanasi
Manikarnika, the cremations ghat.
Here millions of bodies have been burned by the banks of Ganges for hundreds of years. According to Hinduism, this is the best place for a body to be burned: it´s here where souls have more chances to reach “moksha” and release themselves from reincarnation cycles. Taking pictures is forbidden – it´s forbidden for foreigners like me, cause I saw a few Indian guys taking pics and nobody complained. If they catch you doing it, they automatically annoy you and ask for money. This is not the only burning ghat, Harischandra Ghat has an electric crematorium as well.
Walk through the ghats.
This is quite a sight you may treasure forever. In some ghats, there are laundries – that wash the clothes in the river, of course – and public showers. In other ghats, gods are worshipped by their followers and dying persons await their end. In almost all of them, buffalos and cows drink water and cool themselves. Beyond there, “poojas” – rites and ceremonies to the river – are carried out. Old women jiggle their cans from the ground to ask for money, kids improve their selling skills by making people buy little trays with candles and colorful flowers as offerings to Mother Ganges – each tray is around twenty rupees. Altogether, the city has more than one hundred ghats.
You can also enjoy the city from the Ganges itself. Every now and then, serial salesmen prey on tourists to take their boats and depending on your face and the time of the day, prices change hilariously. So you may have to bargain if you don´t want to be cheated. The best times to take a boat ride are sunrise and sunset when main poojas are performed. At those times, prices get higher and salesmen smarter, but nothing you can´t deal with. The spectacle is probably worth it.
Evening Aarti Pooja.
This is truly a charming and unique experience. Every single evening, at Dashashwamedh Ghat, happens a beautiful ceremony with prays, chants and eye-catching large brass lamps lit with fire. The usual time for the ritual is around 6.45 in the evening. I recommend to get to the place some minutes before, so you can get a good spot to cherish the scene. If you miss it, don´t worry, it occurs every evening, so you will be plenty of chance to watch it the next day. Also from a boat, you can have a completely different view of this magnificent ritual.
Loosing through the labyrinthine streets of Benarés.
This could be a fantastic opportunity to buy some good memories to bring back home. But it´s also a great chance to live and breath the way they do. Narrow colorful roads, full of animals, shops, motorbikes and places that will make you feel inside a bizarre movie. You must remember this is a crazy maze, so guide yourself back to the hostel might not be that easy. I´m not one of those who like to rely on others, especially when it comes to India and the wild prices they pretend us to pay just because they think we all have a lot of dollars to spend. So, it would be a good idea to get yourself an Indian chip to have internet access – this will be helpful everywhere. It´s practical and it´s cheap.
Kashi Vishwanath Temple
This seems to be one of the main attractions, it´s also known as the Golden Temple, probably because of its 800 kilograms of golden domes. It was built in 1780 and it´s dedicated to Lord Shiva. But I must warn you, there are usually long Indian rows to get in, which makes those tight streets hard to walk along. You cannot enter with cell phones, cameras or anything else but your passport. There are a bunch of servicemen attached to machine guns guarding the surroundings. Apparently, Muslims and Hindus claim for this Temple, that is the reason why it suffered attacks in the past.
Curious Typical dish
Near Vishwanath Temple, right in the middle of the neighborhood, it´s Blue Lassi Shop which has become legendary over the years. It´s a very small place, doors in blue, where you can buy lassi: a typical Indian thing made of yogurt. You can have it natural or mixed with spices, fruits, and chocolate… or you can even ask for the “special lassi” – winking to the owner – and take your lassi with hashish. Obviously, it´s not in the menu, but it comes smooth, average and strong.
How long should I stay in Benarés?
Well, of course, this is a very personal decision to make: it depends on how many days you can spend in India and how much you fall in love with a certain place. But if you are wondering how long do I need to spend so I can enjoy the main attractions of the city, well, I was there for five days and for me was more than enough.