Read any guidebook you want and speak to most locals and they will tell you the most sacred Hindu city of Varanasi is a tourist’s nightmare. Full of incredible culture, but marred by the stress of full time touts and hagglers with the only intention of taking as much money as possible from you.
However, I think these claims are a little fabricated or at least exaggerated.
Varanasi sits delicately, hugging the banks of the river Ganges, the bringer of life and the most sacred river for Hindu people. The wide bend in the river has allowed for a large number of ghats and a whole city to form, from where people come to bathe away sins, and release the remains of cremated friends and relatives into the mother river.
Unlike other areas of India this is by no means a party city, it is somewhere to come and respect the culture and take in the beauty of a nation and religion that remains very much fixed in well trodden traditions.
Our stay in Varanasi revolved entirely around the river and can be done for nearly nothing, except accommodation and food. The river is where the action is and is the majority of the reason why the city exists.
We stayed towards the south ghats and rather than spending time and effort to haggle with rickshaw drivers to get you up to the main part of the town, walk along the ghats and understand why so many people keep flocking to the town. A few moments walking along the river taking in how people wash clothes, bathe and bring animals down to water will make you forget the pregiven warnings of stress. Navigating through buffalo and touts trying to sell you boat tours may be a little stressful, but it is no more than anywhere else in India. The boat tours are not a must, but will help you gain an overall picture of the city and its worth haggling as everyone will have a cheaper offer.
As you do make your way up further along the ghats you will pass the first of the Burning ghats where bodies are cremated. The less famous of the two this is probably your best chance to see how the cremation process happens. As long as you are respectful you can remain and watch how wood is weighed for each body, with different wood used depending on your budget, and the bodies are brought down, washed and then placed upon funeral pires. The closest relative walks around the body before setting the pire alight. The whole burnning process takes around 3 hours before the body is pushed back into the river completing the life and death circle.
Further along towards the old city is the other cremation post, strictly reserved for Hindus only. While it may be more famous the number of touts and swindlers makes it a slightly less pleasant experience. Make your way up towards the main city and head for some incredible south Indian food at…. the doses are top notch and you can get refill sambar and chutney for free.
After your belly has been filled head across the road into the old medieval market and get lost through the tiny alleys. As you wonder stopping for souvenirs, chai or lassi you have to keep your ears and eyes peeled for the outcasts who carry the bodies through the streets towards the ghat.
While the idea of a city where you can watch bodies being cremated seems morbid, Varanasi is far from it. The city is peaceful and the cremation process, so steeped in tradition seems peaceful, proper and the most respectful way to see a loved one off. The city revolves around the river and watching the ebb and flow of life as kites fly above, boats dart across the river and Indian and western tourists come to visit the river for its holy properties, it is easy for minutes turn to hours as the sun sets over the most picturesque and hazy landscape. While you walk back make sure to look out for the evening ceremony sessions which the boats gather by near the main ghats.
Leave preconceived ideas behind and make sure you make it over to Varanasi. Despite the journey from the other areas if you remember why so many people are there it is easy to get lost in the magic of this holiest of cities.