Brace yourself! You’re senses are about to be assaulted and ignited like never before. That’s the advice I received before venturing into the brilliant beast that is Varanasi. Indeed, it was pretty bang on.
My week in “India’s spiritual capital” hit me like a psychedelic acid trip. It was a mind-blowing experience for better and for worse. The aroma was a melange of sun-baked urine, fresh human ashes, cow poop, and freshly fried pastries. My eyes were blinded by the chaotic sea of vibrant colour and constant cloud of dust. The sound of strangled tuk-tuk horns and melodic flute music filled the air from dawn til dusk. My personal space was robbed of me, as curious kids, friendly locals and assertive touts fought for my hand and got up in my grill.
Yep. I can safely say Varanasi isn’t for the faint-hearted. But, if you can persevere, this magical place will shock, move and change you to the point where it might very well become your favourite place in India. Whether you end up hating or loving your time here, it will long live in your memory. Here are some of my fondest recollections from Varanasi…
As if this place wasn’t colourful enough, with all of the vibrant saris, fruit stands and riverboats floating about, the street art and graffiti graphics inject another level of vibrancy and playfulness into Varanasi. Where there is spirituality, there is inevitably artistic expression. So, it’s little wander that the “beating heart” of the Hindu universe is liberally embellished with public art.
Varanasi is unapologetically indiscreet. The locals’ daily lives and most intimate moments are carried out in the public eye, from bathing sessions and “bathroom” stops to spiritual ceremonies, weddings and cremations. The theatre of it all is both confronting and thrilling.
Varanasi is a place where rural life and the urban world collide. The animals, particularly the cows and buffalo, rule the roads – and they know it. These courageous creatures seem completely at ease amongst the ferocious tidal wave of inner-city traffic. They have not a care in the world beyond their next bathing session or bite of food. Indeed, the animals seem to have their own exclusive section in the Ganges – there’s no better way to freshen up and escape the heat. Less comedic is the experience of watching the animals dive into mountains of rubbish for their next meal. A plate of plastic with a side of rotting chicken offcuts anyone?
“I love the night life,” and so do the people of Varanasi. As the sun says goodbye to another day, the spiritual capital of India comes out to play. The narrow streets are positively heaving with people by dusk and the action kicks on well into the night. Dashaswamedh Ghat and its neighbouring river space seem to form the main meeting point, as locals and tourists watch the nightly Aarti Ceremony and then descend on the markets. It’s a magical spectacle and true mayhem.
Thanks to the highly persistent and commonplace touts, it’s easy to get the wrong idea about the locals. But, let me assure you, they are delightful. Once they realise you’re 100% not keen to purchase anything, many switch from being relentless business people to being inquisitive and informative friends. They’re passionate about their city and they want it to get under your skin, too. I was guided to the Nepalese Temple, a popular tourist attraction, by a complete random and was pleasantly surprised when he didn’t ask for money – then again, maybe I just got lucky. As keen as the locals are to make a buck, a jovial wave, enlightening chat and strong hand shake are always at the ready.
The architecture in Varanasi is truly enchanting. Every wall tells a story and has character. From the incredibly ornate temples and labyrinth of old-world laneways to the weathered cement homes and dingy hole-in-the-wall shops, this visually eclectic city leaves you in a state of childlike wander. Prepare to get lost – enjoy the detour!
Varanasi oozes spirituality like nowhere else on earth. From the dusty outskirts and windy back roads all the way to the sacred temples and ghats by the Ganges, it’s a colossal petrie dish of spiritual life. Hindu pilgrims visit the sacred waters to wash away a lifetime of sins. The popular temples have queues a mile long, with devotees eager to place their divine offerings. Many also visit Vanarasi to cremate their loved ones in the Burning Ghats. It’s seen as a particularly auspicious place to die as expiring here offers moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death). It’s little wonder Varanasi is considered to be one of India’s holiest cities.
Varanasi wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t nestled beside the Ganges. Perhaps the world’s holiest and well-known river, it conjures images of ever day life, death, festivals, playtime, community, filth and fertility – all of it shrouded in spirituality. The point where Varanasi meets the River Ganges is the ultimate nexus of these themes. It’s alive and well-used. It’s the heart and soul of Varanasi – especially at sunrise and sunset.
Varanasi takes no prisoners. It can be a brutal experience, even for veteran travellers, but it’s also guaranteed to be mind-blowing. I encountered so many absurd and challenging moments during my time here, from seeing a man with a monkey on a stick to acquiring severe food poisoning from a blatantly unhygienic street food stall (I really should’ve said no to the samosa – but it smelt so good!). Yet, I came out the other side having fallen in love with the place. It might be rough but it sure has personality.