7 Things You Should Know Before You Visit Varanasi
It's a melting pot of cultures, religions, beautiful people and challenging moments.
India is a melting pot of cultures, religions, beautiful people and challenging moments. It’s where the response to “How was your trip?” is often “It was an experience,” said carefully and thoughtfully.
Unless you’re heading to the beaches of Goa or the backwaters of Kerala with a budget that affords luxury, the likelihood of being tested emotionally and physically at some point while in India is high.
Varanasi is one such place that shakes things up. It sits on the Ganges, making it a religious and spiritual hub for millions. With that in mind, here’s a few things to know before you land in this fascinating city.
#1 Your Senses Will Be Under Attack
So many smells, so many sights, so many bulls on the loose! There are a lot of positive scents to be enjoyed in Varanasi – think spices and yummy street food – but also a lot of not-so-positive ones, like rubbish and waste. Embrace it and do as the locals do: ignore the bad smells and pat the bulls on the bum when you need to squeeze past.
#2 Spirituality Is A Given
Varanasi is a very holy place for Hindus. The River Ganges is believed to be a personification of the goddess Gaṅgā and bathing in it is thought to facilitate liberation from the cycle of life and death.
As such, the river is considered a vehicle of ascent to heaven, so it is not uncommon to witness the recently departed being carried through the streets and placed on the Burning Ghats for cremation at the riverside before their ashes are sent off down the river. It’s a very spiritual process for the locals and, as an onlooker, it can challenge your perceptions of life and death
If nothing else, prepare to flatten against the nearest wall as the funeral procession rushes past.
#3 Manners Are A Must
It’s respectful to follow the cultural cues of the places you visit, so in rural and remote areas of India, it’s considered best to dress modestly where possible. Wearing long pants and long-sleeved tops is recommended, as is carrying a scarf to throw over your head whenever needed.
#4 Monsoon Season Is The Real Deal
There are three seasons in India: monsoon, cool and hot. Hot means HOT, monsoon means muggy, and cool means comfortable.
Monsoon season (July to September) is an interesting time to visit because the Ganges rises as the rain rushes down from the mountains. Be aware that some of streets will be covered or damaged by water, so your guidebook maps may no longer be correct!
Also, you may have to forget boating. When the river is rushing, it may not be possible.
#5 Be Early, But Not In A Hurry
As train is one of the most popular modes of travel in India, it’s best to get down to the train station and book your tickets in person. Forking out for an air-conditioned sleeper carriages is highly recommended as it’s one of the easiest and best ways to view the country, but, sometimes – especially in hot weather – they are in high demand, so get in early.
Booking in advance, however, doesn’t mean your train will be on time. Hours-long delays are common, so if your train is two hours late, you’ve hit the jackpot. Don’t let that stop you, though. Once, you’re on, it’s quite the experience
For shorter trips, you may want to travel in third class, but prepare to stand in close quarters with other travellers.
#6 Indulge Safely
Some people manage to escape Delhi belly on a trip to Varanasi, but they’re the lucky ones. To give yourself a shot at being one of them, make sure you get the required vaccinations and antimalarial medications from your doctor before you leave and keep your hands as clean as possible by washing them or using hand sanitizer.
It also pays to be conscious of where your food is prepared. Food washed in water, like salads or peeled fruit and vegetables, are best to avoid. The street food is fantastic, but only eat from stalls that the locals are eating at, make sure the prep areas are as clean as they can be, and try to avoid anything that isn’t served piping hot. Never drink from a water bottle, or any bottle, that doesn’t have an in-tact seal
#7 There Are Daily Opportunities To Take Part
At dusk, the Ganga Aarti ceremony – where small offerings of candles and flowers are sent off down the river – is performed in various locations along the river bank. There’s music, dance and fire. It feels holy and spiritual and is well worth attending.
Prepare to be transfixed by the beauty and sacred nature of this ancient ceremony.
How To Get There
(Lead image: M M / Flickr)