As one of the oldest cities on Earth, Varanasi is also the holiest of destinations for over one billion Hindus, who come here to die. The life and soul of Varanasi is the river Ganges; the holiest river in Indian culture.
Tuk Tuks will only take you as far as they can as Varanasi so old that its only roads are on the outskirts of its borders. Finding your hostel may first seem impossible among the maze of small narrow streets, usually blocked off by herds of holy cows. With the help of the friendly locals though, (each personally greeting you with chants of “welcome brother” and “welcome sister”) you can navigate the city even at night. Don’t be discouraged upon discovering that the city does not have streetlights, or a working sanitation system for that matter.
Booking accommodation along the river is a must. Many of the rooms have balconies with views that are second to none, although you are warned that monkeys will take anything you leave outside!
After you have adjusted to what many refer to as “the dirtiest city in all of India”, you must explore the Ghats. The Ghats of Varanasi are a series of steps from street level to the Ganges. Nearly as old as the city themselves, there are around 80 different Ghats in Varanasi, and when the tide is low you can walk the length of the city on these steps.
However, as many of them are used for bathing, and some are used for cremation, this won’t be as easy as it sounds. Perhaps the biggest spectacle of all is the Manikarnika Ghat, or burning Ghat. According to their caste, Hindus are cremated on the different tiers of the Ghat. They believe that being cremated here is the only way they will escape the constant cycle of reincarnation and reach Nirvana. Be warned that this is not a place for photographers but one for reflection and peace.
There is a temple on every horizon in Varanasi, the city has an estimated 23,000 in total. This is partly due to ancient legend which states that the city was created by the God, Shiva. In part it is also due to the fact that Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon at Sarnath, a stunning deer park located near Varanasi. One of the most important temples in the city is the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple or “monkey temple”, where hundreds of monkeys live and are worshiped out of respect for Hanuman, the Hindu deity sometimes known as the “monkey God”.
Depending on the time of year you visit, good hostel accommodation can be found for as little as £2 each a night, and a great selection of real vegetarian Indian food for pennies. Unlike some other cities on the continent, the citizens of this city are often willing to drop anything to help and accommodate you, without any money involved at all.
Varanasi really is a city that time forgot. Many people give up their lives to find God here and amidst the unfamiliar smells, farm animals and poverty, there is a true sense of authenticity that is unique to Varanasi alone.