Varanasi, or as it was once known, Benaras, is considered a place of pilgrimage for many Hindus, and it is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. The main reason for any travel to Varanasi, by Hindu or tourist, is the Ganges River. The Ganga, as it is pronounced in Hindi and Sanskrit, is believed by Hindus to be personified as a goddess.
What to expect in Varanasi
Once in Varanasi, any backpacker will quickly learn that this ancient city embodies the best and worst aspects of India today. Watching hundreds of pilgrims come slowly down the ghats (long series of steps) to bathe in the Ganges, is a spectacular sight. Being on the river at 5am for sunrise adds to the experience – the sun compounds the drama. It is as if the sun comes up in slow motion on purpose, to gradually reveal timeless sights and sounds.
The river passage I took started at Dasaswamedh Ghat and proceeded up to Manikarnika Ghat, where we observed cremations in progress. After death, the body is dipped in the Ganges and prepared for cremation by the eldest son. After the process is complete, the ashes are scattered in the river.
Not all Hindus are cremated though. Some people, such as young children and pregnant women, are wrapped in cloth weighted with stones and placed into the Ganges. It is not uncommon for these bodies to later wash up on shore.
Exploring City streets
Many great writers have been inspired by Varanasi, but Mark Twain described the city in a concise manner. He stated, “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together!”
Any first impressions are overshadowed by the poverty. Begging is very common. Near the Ganges, one or many locals will be persistently soliciting you at all times. The city streets are a complex mosaic of people, rickshaws, animals, and cars, all moving in different directions. Intersections are dominated by the honking of horns and each person or vehicle inching toward their desired outlet. For a westerner, it seems like absolute chaos, but after observing for a while, some kind of indescribable order becomes apparent, and it’s beautiful in its own way. Walk out into the traffic, and you will notice that the mess of vehicles, animals, and motorcycles will smoothly flow around you like a river splitting around a boulder.
Getting to Varanasi
Varanasi is pretty well connected by a number of trains and bus lines The main cities connected to Varanasi by train are Delhi, Agra, and Mumbai. Varanasi is served by two different train stations, so make sure you check which one you need!
A great way to get around this part of India, and a technique that is favoured by many tourists, is to hire a personal driver. This is by far the best way of transportation; it’s safe, reliable, and inexpensive to hire a driver for a week or more. Your driver will stay in dormitories at your hostel or hotel and be willing to take you anywhere you want, day or night.
However you choose to travel, whether using a driver, travelling by train, or both (as I did during my time in India), you’ll have a fantastic and enriching time in Varanasi.