A visit to the Ganges will change you. The chaotic streets, narrow galis filled with hawkers and touts, dobi wallahs on their way to the river, ringing bells and burning incense. The vibrancy of brightly painted temples against the grey sky, colourful washing drying on the ghats and orange marigolds floating down the river. The hustle and bustle of daily life. The ‘norm’ in Varanasi is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.
Varanasi is the ultimate destination for Hindu pilgrims. Many believe dying in the area brings salvation and make the pilgrimage to the region when they know that death is near. Bathing off the ghats in the sacred water is said to wash away sins, and is a daily ritual for locals and pilgrims alike.
The most confronting aspect of the city – in addition to the rubbish, pollution and endless stream of touts and rickshaw-wallahs – are the very public cremations. The burning ghats cremate over 200 bodies per day, the ashes swept directly into the water. For those who do not require to be atoned for their sins – pregnant women, lepers, priests and children – their bodies are simply wrapped in cloth and floated down the river. It can be a challenging sight for travellers, but is a very normal part of life in India.
What are ghats?
Ghats are steps leading down to the sacred water of the river, and are typically found in riverside cities such as Varanasi and Ujjain. In Varanasi, the ghats stretch along the Ganges River for almost seven kilometres. They are used for bathing, washing clothes, buying and selling goods, and cremations.
Dasaswamedh is one of the oldest ghats along the river. Each night, pilgrims and tourists converge at the ghat for the evening Aarti, a fire ceremony performed by local priests. Lamps are lit, incense is burned, and hundreds of candles are floated down the river.
Assi ghat is one of Varanasi’s most famous. It’s a popular spot for bathing and draws huge crowds during Hindu festivals.
Manikarnika is the main burning ghat. After being carried through the streets on a stretcher, the corpse is submerged in the river and then cremated.
When to go
The best time to visit Varanasi is during the (slightly) cooler months, between October and March. The weather sits between a comfortable 20°C and 30°C; during the soaring heat of summer, temperatures can hit 45°C. Monsoon season is in July and August, when the temperature drops slightly but humidity levels rise.
The best way to see Varanasi come to life is on a sunrise boat ride along the river. Peregrine’s early morning cruise takes you past ghats and temples before returning you to your hotel for breakfast.
While you may get lost and you’ll definitely get hot, the best way to get around Varanasi is on foot. Cars and taxis are available to hire, however they struggle to navigate the narrow streets and alleyways (also known as galis). There are a LOT of touts in the area, so keep your wits about you. Be mindful of hawkers offering to take you anywhere for a ‘better’ view.