A Guide to the Holy City of Varanasi
Varanasi, the holy city of the Ganga (Ganges) and ghats is an easy place to get lost and maybe even lose yourself. As with most busy cities in India, bazaars and shops are everywhere. Whilst the lanes and bazaars near the Ganga are a nice place to amble around, the holy river of the Ganga and the many ghats that line its banks are the main draw to this photogenic Indian city. In North India this is one of the cities that visitors to really feel India.
The Ganga / Ganges River
Worshipped by Hindus the Ganges is a fascinating place to people watch and soak up the atmosphere of Varanasi. People bathe to absolve their sins and wash their clothes in the river, boatmen hawk for business, and kids play around in the water.
Whilst the Indian government has tried to clean up the heavy pollution of the Ganga in recent times, the fact that Hindus use the unsanitary river to wash, clean and sometimes even drink from gives an insight as to just how important the river.
Not only is it of religious importance, but it also provides India with tourism and indeed food in terms of fish and crops in its basin. Alarmingly for some tourists you’ll even see bedsheets from hotels and guest houses being washed in the Ganges.
When the heat does get too much, the tight lanes of the bazaars around Dasashwamedh Ghat provides some shade but exposes you to retailers inviting you into their clothes, toy or souvenir shops every 40 seconds.
If you decide to visit the nearby Kashi Vishwanath Temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu do not have your camera or mobile phone with you or you will be refused entry.
Ganges River Boat Trip
On a hot day, trying to explore a majority of the 88 ghats spread 8km along the Ganges is a tough achievement to accomplish. Visit the more beautiful ones by foot and then take a river boat trip to get a different view of the ghats. Path Is My Goal
provides a good guide on some of the interesting ghats to visit.
The ghats vary tremendously in terms of style from palace-like structures to minimalist buildings. Time your boat ride for around 6pm and not only do you avoid the burning sun but you’ll see the full power of the burning ghats of Manikarnika and Harishchandra and you will also have a great view of the Aarti ceremony at Dasashwamedh Ghat.
The ceremony is choreographed well with displays of movement, fire and chanting.
Two groups, one on each side combine to give the ceremony it’s appeal. As one group leads the chanting the other plays background rhythm and before you know it, a smooth mix will have happened like the most amazing live DJ performance with fire visuals.
Swimming in Varanasi
Battling down the busy street of Luxa Road was a mission everyday as was the intense heat. To enjoy some peace and quiet and to cool off we visited Clark’s hotel in the Varanasi Cantonment area to use their lovely pool for 500R each. As it is one of Varanasi’s premier hotels you will be better taking your own drinks if you’re on a budget, otherwise pay 10 times the price as a shop for a bottle of water.
Not much else is there by Clark’s except for a shopping centre including a McDonald’s.
Eating in Varanasi
Given the amazing food in India there was no hankering for western fast food, but the McDonald’s menu in India was intriguing.
Of course there is no beef on the menu so patties are chicken or vegetarian. Most burgers will have an Indian twist too such as Masala or Tikka. Not bad, but none of that deliciously bad salty and sugary beef you get with a western McDonald’s.
It was tempting to avoid this place as it has become so touristy and try other notable places such as Green Lassi, but the signs around the Varanasi lanes kept pointing us there and it was hot.
At 80R it is more expensive than other places but the lassi is flavoursome, rich and good. It’s a thick and refreshing concoction served in a little clay cup that is superior to any lassi outside of India. An extensive menu means you can choose from a huge variety of seasonal fruit flavours.
Rumour has it they will do you a “special” bhang lassi but if you’re on a budget and want to control the amount of bhang you try you are better off purchasing from a government approved bhang shop.
Brown Bread Bakery
With many signs in Varanasi’s lanes pointing towards this much mentioned cafe, we popped in during a hot late morning only to be very disappointed by its cheese platter.
Yes cheese in India seems a dubious choice but for cheese lovers, the menu of Himalayan and local cheeses was too tempting. Mouldy over aged cheese was served with random salad and olives, but the ciabatta was good.
Two great places are located on Luxa Road, the busy main road running west-east to the Ganges. Kashi Chaat Bandar is famous for supplying catering to the rich and famous which we enjoyed, but even better was Deena Chaat Bandar.
Chaat is essentially a gravy with aromatic spices pimped up with anything like chickpeas, potatoes, samosas, coriander, yogurt, tamarind etc. Expect to pay 30R per chaat, 2 will be enough for a light meal, 3 if your hungry. Recommended are Samosa Chaat, Aloo Tikka Chaat, and Tomato Chaat. Chaat is a must try if in Varanasi. It will probably be your best tasting value meal in a while.
Offering vegetarian food in a rustic setting, the baati (a bread roll that seemed to come from the biblical ages but tasted fresh as a daisy) and chokha (a fragrant mix of tomatoes, onions, and potatoes) were the stars.
Adjust the food to personal taste with delicious ghee, pickles and chutneys.
Getting to Varanasi
We had booked an overnight 16 hour sleeper train from Jaipur to Varanasi, however we were still on the waitlist with days to go and no sign of moving up the list. No foreign quota tickets were available so we had to hop on a 5 hour train back to Delhi Sarai Rohilla, grab a 300R tuk tuk and then catch a 3500R 1.5 hour plane to Varanasi.
Naturally Varanasi airport is not as close to the city centre as Varanasi Junction so another 300R tuk tuk was needed to get to our accommodation.
Staying in Varanasi
We stayed at the Zostel Varanasi costing 900R for an en-suite double room per night. Just far away from the Ganges to be away from the noise and hustle and bustle but close enough to walk to the holy river at 15 minutes away (if the roads were not jammed).
Staff were nice as was the rooftop chill out area / cafe where travellers could mingle. They can also offer hassle free tours around the city for not much more than if you did it yourself. Rooms however were not the cleanest and our air conditioning was constantly turned off at the fuse box by staff.
Getting Around Varanasi
Walking and tuk tuks are your main form of transport. There are also cyclo rickshaws that are cheaper than tuk tuks which we took for a short journey because it was hot. However the guilt of paying someone to pedal us around in a hot and congested Varanasi got to us and we tipped big and gave the driver our remaining water.
Walking down the main road of Varanasi is just as strenuous as the most busy Delhi streets. Pot holes, rickshaws, cows, motorbikes and other pedestrians all have to be avoided. Walking back after the Aarti ceremony in the evening will take twice as long as normal.