The Varanasi Travel Guide
A city of ultimate contrasts
Firstly, i am still not sure if I am crazy in love, disgusted or just completely confused after my visit of Varanasi. As a result it is really difficult to describe this place with words. As Varanasi is a challenging destination for inexperienced travelers, this Varanasi Travel Guide should help to enjoy the magic vibe of this city.
There are many scams to watch out for and the city is, even though the government has noticeably cleaned up, still very polluted and dirty. Just take a deep dip and soak up the spiritual atmosphere (as well as the smog). Indians call Varanasi the pure soul of India – seeing Hindus taking baths in the Ganges river in the early morning hours gave me goosebumps all over.
A city between death and redemption – Learn all about in the Varanasi Travel Guide
The prayers and spiritual ceremonies for the Gods Ganga and Shiva taking place every afternoon and evening are very unique and special. In short, I have never seen something that beautiful yet inspiring before. On the other hand there are cremations 24/7 on 365 days a year. Happiness, spirituality and death – Varanasi embodies all these 3 controversial topics. Most tourists find it to be an intense city that confronting and off-putting, yet intriguing. This place will overwhelm your senses, trust me! This Varanasi Travel Guide shares my personal experiences, highlights and secret spots with you. And in addition to that, its my second article about Asia – if you missed the one about Gili Air, here we go!
1. Welcome to birdland: Go on an early morning sunrise boat tour
Before the sun rises, hop on one of the numerous boats and enjoy the view all over the 84 ghats. Well, the real highlight are the seagulls that are visible almost everywhere at the Ganges river. A real attraction to the many tourists. Don’t forget to bring your camera and warm clothes in the morning – it’s gonna be chilly in the early morning hours.
Tipp: Don’t forget to bargain only because its early in the morning. In other words – make an appointment the day before and fix a price. Less stress, more fun!
2. Early morning yoga at the ghats
You’ve always dreamed of morning yoga in India, watching the sunrise and absorbing the magic vibe of Varanasi? Well, here you go. Most importantly, you will love Varanasi. Every day at 5:30 am in the morning there are community yoga classes at the Assi Ghat (Ghat Nr. 80), situated directly at the holy Ganges river. Aarti ceremonies take place every day in the morning and combine chanting, singing, praying, doing yoga and drinking chai. The free Yoga class follows after the prayers and offer stretching, asanas and breathing techniques. It’s not only for free, it was also one of the best experiences I’ve had during travels in India – practicing Outdoor Yoga with a bunch of locals, surrounded by seagulls and a misty atmosphere was just breathtaking. But yes, you have to be an early morning person if you want to enjoy this amazing place and its full power.
3. Observe the intimacy: Cremations in Varanasi
In short, Varanasi does also have another face: The city’s second name is “the city of death”. However, for Hindus, Varanasi is a sacred place. It’s not only a very popular pilgrim place for Hindus, it’s also a very important place when it comes to the intimate topic death. Hindus from all over India are brought to Varanasi (of course, just in case they can afford it) to be burnt on one of the three cremation ghats. To sum up, Hindus believe it will liberate them from the cycle of death and rebirth. Known as the city of Lord Shiva, the god of creation and destruction, it’s believed that anyone who dies in Varanasi will be liberated from the cycle of reincarnation.
The Manikarnika Ghat
Therefore, friends and family are surrounding the dead bodies that are being burnt in a 3 hours ceremony. Their ashes are being carried to the holy Ganges river after the body is burnt completely. The most confronting ghat, Manikarnika (also called the burning ghat) is the place where the majority of dead bodies is cremated in Varanasi. The Manikarnika ghat confronts every visitor face to face with death – you see piles of firewood, the fires continually burn day and night, dead bodies are carried by their loved ones trough the streets, wrapped in their best clothing. We watched the fires from a distance just to keep the privacy and intimacy of this holy process. When taking photos, do be discrete and considerate of people performing rituals. Especially avoid photographing the cremation ghats!
4. Deep dive into hinduism: Enjoy the beautiful ceremony at the Ganges River
Varanasi is one of the most spiritual places in India and a hotspot for pilgrims from all over the world. Another name for Varanasi is the city of Shiva (the God of destruction) and its famous for the spiritual ceremonies at the river banks of the holy Ganges river. The evening prayers, held by hindu priests, are the true highlight of Varanasi. Hundreds of Hindus, spiritual seekers as well as tourists from all over the world arrive in Varanasi to take part at this amazing spectacle. The best spot to see the prayers is on a boat at the Ganges river – you can book a tour through one of the several tour operators.
5. Explore the holy river side: Walk down the 88 ghats
If you ask yourself, what does ghat exactly mean? Ghat literally means steps leading into the banks of the river Ganges. The city Varanasi has 88 ghats, most of them are bathing or ceremony ghats. Three ghats are exclusively used for cremation. Seeing and exploring each and every ghat can be done by boat (as mentioned above in combination with a sunrise boat ride) or by feet. Do not miss the most important ghats: The Assis Ghat (for morning yoga), the Dashashwamedh Ghat which is probably the most spectacular Ghat – several hindu mythologies are associated with it and it is said that Lord Brahma created the Dashashwamedh Ghat to welcome Lord Shiva. A group of priests daily perform ceremonies in the evening at this Ghat to worship the gods. The “Agni Pooja” (Fire ceremony) is dedicated to Lord Shiva, the river Ganges and the whole universe.
6. Absorb the city vibe: Take your time and stroll for hours
Above all, the most fascinating fact about this city is that its rituals are revealed openly along the many riverside ghats on the one hand, on the other hand this city represent the pure paradise for yogis, spiritual seekers and adventurers. This city, to be fair, takes time – if you are not familiar with Varanasi and think you will maybe be overwhelmed or want to gain a deeper insight into the history just plan one or two days more just to absorb the vibe of this city relaxed. The crowds, the animals, the narrow streets can be really mind blowing and it really needs a little bit of time to process the things happening in this city. Our advice: Relax, smile and enjoy the amazing vibes!
7. Have the best lassi in town: Visit Blue Lassi
Tiny yogurt shop, big reputation: Varanasi freshest, creamiest and best lassi in Town. Blue lassi is older than 90 years and still a legend. As this Varanasi Travel Guide also wants to please our foodie travelers, we want to share our secret favorite spot with you. If you are visiting Varanasi, you have to try on of the amazing lassis – even though the place situated in the famous alley of Varanasi near the Manikarnika Ghat is not that easy to find in this bustling market area. I tried one lassi with mango, served with fresh fruits – they offer many options, from chocolate, to pineapple. The place is tiny and cozy and the whole shop is covered with pictures of customers. I just loved to sit there and watch the people passing by.
Where to find the best lassi in town: Near Vishwanath Temple, Varanasi 221002, India
8. Have a chat with a holy man
A sadhu (holy man) is living an ascetic life dedicated to the wholeness, meditation, yoga and spirituality. It was the first time in India that I’ve seen human beings living this lifestyle – that is to say that they are sitting around the ghats, meditate and speak to people who are interested in their life, spiritual ceremonies and beliefs. In other words I was totally fascinated by getting to know more about their beliefs – and Varanasi is the best place get in touch. Just make sure you speak to a real sadhu – there are many guys sitting around dressed like spiritual men – making money out of it. Tipp: A real sadhu is not allowed to take money – so maybe buy some fruits or candy and offer it to them as a friendly gesture.
9. Get spiritual: Yoga, Reiki and more
In conclusion, there are several reasons why Varanasi is called the spiritual capital of India. One of the reasons are the many spiritual ceremonies and activities you can join: Drop in Yoga classes, reiki ceremonies, spiritual meetings with priests or astrologists.
10. Last, but not least: Walk, walk, walk
If you traveled India before, you already know about the biggest flaw: traffic. To end this Varanasi Travel Guide with an important learning, its definitely not a thing to do, however, its the complete opposite: A thing not to do is to go by car. Streets are very narrow, especially in the old part of the city along the ghats. Walking is, to sum it up, the only option in many places. At Assi Ghat its possible to hire bicycles. However, walking around is the safest and easiest option to reduce stress and to see the most of the city.