I have just returned from an intensely-beautiful trip to Varanasi and I’d like to quickly let my fellow travelers know a few helpful things about the place should they wish to travel there themselves:
The 10 commandments to follow in Varanasi:
1. Fly to Varanasi instead of using the train. The trains are almost always delayed.
2. Pick a hotel on the ghats (old city) if you want to imbibe the true spirit of Varanasi. Even better, get a room with a river view...imagine waking each morning to the sound of prayers/chanting and the sight of pilgrims bathing serenely at sunrise. Many tourists opt to stay out in the cantonment area because the hotels there are more modern and will serve alcohol and meat, but I think that’s a mistake.
3. When you walk along the ghats or do a little “Ghat-Hopping” (yes, that’s a thing) carry lots of change. You are going to meet Sadhus ( Holy Men) along the way that you will want to photograph or seek a blessing from, it’s nice to have a few small notes to give them to express your thanks. It’s also nice to have small -denomination bank notes to make a small offering at any temple you visit. Sometimes as you walk you will run into urchins asking you for food, don’t buy them what they ask for (they will simply sell it back to the shopkeeper for cash), instead, buy them ice cream which requires to be eaten on the spot.
4. Take a boat ride!! There’s nothing more pleasurable than a boat ride on the Ganges at dawn. Nothing matches the serenity you will feel with the wind in your face and the pale rays of the rising sun on the horizon; if you’re lucky, maybe your boatman will sing you a song or double up as your guide. For the photographer or painter, the view of the ghats from the boat is truly something you will want to capture. If you hire a boat all to yourself you can expect to pay Rs. 500, but it’s so worth it as you can ask the boatman to make atleast a couple of stops along the way to let you off for some exploring. You’ll need to set it up with him beforehand though.
5. Treat yourself to a morning or evening Aarti or both. The evening Aarti is a feast for the senses and lasts over an hour. It starts around 6:30pm, but for front seats you need to get there by 5:30pm. I didn’t have that much patience or time to spare so I opted for the morning Aarti, while not so splendid is not as crowded and easier for the photographer amongst you to take some nice photos.
6. Don’t confine yourself to the ghats. If you want to mingle with the Banarasians, go out onto Assi Street (you can access it from Assi Ghat) and try some kachoris with jalebis and a special chai at Kashi Tea Shop. There are also restaurants that cater to westerners with menus featuring pasta, pizza etc. so if that’s your craving, you’ll find it all at the Assi Ghat and Market. Bengali Tola accessed from Dasashwamedh Ghat is a labyrinth of the narrowest of narrow lanes. It gets its name from the Bengali community which decades back considered Varanasi as their second home. Even today there are shops here selling typical Bengali marriage items and sweets. Another nice place to pick up souvenirs is the area behind Kedar Ghat. The advantage of these gallis (little lanes) is that they shaded and keep you out of the sun, also, they are too narrow for cars, but there’s a lot of scooter and cow traffic so beware!
7. Varanasi has a rich musical tradition, but many tourists are not aware of that. I would urge you to take in atleast one concert at a Gharana whilst you’re there. Gharanas are musical families where nearly every family member plays an instrument and they give impromptu concerts in the evenings. In order to find these gharanas you may have to book yourself with a local tour company that organizes walks in Varanasi.
8. A visit to Sarnath, about 10 kms from Varanasi where Buddha gave his first lecture would be a very interesting stop. You do need atleast half a day there, please do not hurry it.
9. You can’t go all the way to Varanasi and not treat yourself to some Benares silk. Yes, the markets will tempt you but do not succumb, instead arrange to buy your silk directly from the bunkars (weavers) at Peeli Kothi. Today’s bunkars are barely getting by, much of the Benares silk is now being woven on power looms, the traditional loom bunkars survive mostly on orders from Buddhist monasteries. Support them if you can!
10. I am a mobile photographer essentially but for Varanasi, I recommend a DSLR, this is in order to get hi res images of the ghats from the boat.
Honestly, I have tried to include as many things to do in Varanasi as I could, but even as I type this I can think of so many more. Just hoping that this list whets your appetite to go and that if you do go, you’ll find this helpful.
Team ToursnDetours would be very willing to put together a 4 day/3 night package for you (single room) at a luxury hotel on the ghats with breakfast, airport transfers and one guided walk. Do write us inbox with approximate dates if interested.