Varanasi along the Ganges
The early morning conch and a ardent devotee performing prayers to the holy Ganges…. Hardly a few people along the banks taking in the morning beauty… A few cows standing randomly around… Goats and crows shamelessly stare at the devotees and the morning risers… A dull golden glow of the sun glistens on the Ganges. Just incredible silence and a sense of peace. In stark contrast, it jumps to bustling life along the unending ghats and gullies (tiny lanes). Cymbals and loud devotees scream out names of their loved God. Attracting lakhs of devotees each year, Kashi aka Varanasi, is quite overwhelming!!! That’s Varanasi!! Just too overwhelming!!!
Best time to go: Winters
What to see:
1. Sunrise at ghats – During the day, Varanasi is way too busy filled with touristy-religious people and well, Varanasi is known for its bustling winding gullies… But early mornings – as early as 4.30am, is a completely different experience. Tiny shops selling tea and snacks, opens up lazily. There are very few people along the ghats. And it is a darn great time to walk from one end (Varini ghat) to the other end (Assi ghat)… For all those doing this yoga, head up to the nearest that before sunrise!
2. Arati at the ghat – The best way to see the arati in the evening at 6ish is the boat ride to Dasashwamedh ghat. You watch the pandits dance and do an extravagant arati to the Ganges. You have to hire an entire boat which costs around Rs. 600 which you can also split with some folks if you want to save some money (someone at your hostel is bound to jump for it)…
3. Walking around the gullies – The narrow lanes of Varanasi are remarkable. They are always busy with people and hawkers selling food and trinkets and religious items. It is downright colourful. Just sitting outside a shop watching the people is a fantastic way to pass time! Don’t worry about getting lost – just ask a shopkeeper directions to the ghat – it’s then just about going up or down…
4. Cremations round the clock – You do get a little spiritual and think about life when you see people lining up for cremations. These are the good ol’ way of using wood, and they keep on coming through the day. It is a popular belief that if one dies and is cremated in Kashi, you get liberation. For me, watching death made me value life. The best ghat for such thinking – Manikarnika ghat.
5. The temples – You can’t go to Kashi and not go to The Kashi Vishwanath temple. The main temple of Varanasi, this old temple also has a Devi temple and a Hanuman temple inside worth going to. This temple is the presiding deity of Varanasi.
6. Akhada – Watch a traditional wrestling match among local body builders – these places are called Akhadas. The best places to see these is near Shivala ghat – you should ask around the timing, it is usually in the mornings.
7. Aghori babas – Here is the reality – if you want to see or chat with Aghori Babas, you cant find them easily. The babas on the ghats are not Aghoris. Aghori babas are considered very powerful and do not talk to people easily. They are very discreet. Their main ashram, Baba Keenaram ashram, in Varanasi is a good place to go to meet Aghoris and understand their philosophy.
8. Ramnagar – The other bank of the Ganges is Ramnagar. There is an old fort which you can explore on foot – but it is a touristy thing to do, and honestly, it is not a must do.
What to eat:
2. Lassi – Benares, or Varanasi, is quite popular for its lassi as well. Bhaang lassi is not just another flavour – it is a herbal hallucinogenic. Be careful where you try it… The most popular one is Blue lassi, but personally, I feel it is overrated. Alternatively, you can try at Rajaram lassi which is over 100 years old, or Baba lassi, or the ones at the Gadoliya junction, which are also recommended.
3. Malaiyo – If in Varanasi in the winters, do not miss Malaiyo. This mouthwatering dish made of milk is frothy and is had hot. It s prepared y exposing the milk to morning dew, which apparently gives it a peculiar taste. This is a delicacy you wont find anywhere except Varanasi in the winters!
4. Benarasi paan – You go to Benares, you cant leave without a Benarasi paan. Paans are tasty in every place there – so there is no excuse to not have paan. Try it at Gaama paan – it is famous, but is good!
5. Palak chaat, tamaatar chaat – Try the different chaat at Dina chaat bhandaar and Rambhandaar. Hit Rambhandaar in the morning for breakfast – his kachodi and puri is just too yum. But do not miss the palak, alu, tamaatar and othe chats. Varanasi is not about a big wholesome meal – it is about snacking through the day.
6. Tea – Early morning teas are a important aspect of the local life; especially in the winters. Kashi cafe near Assi ghat runs out fast, but you should try the tea there. Right outside it, there are stalls selling chaat, paratha, chinese, and another tea place.
Where to stay:
There are loads of guest houses and hostels to stay at in Varanasi. Location is what is the key. It is ideal to stay near the ghats or in the gullies as that is where the real old-world Varanasi is. The Moustache hostel (approx. Rs 200 per dorm bed) had dorm beds and twin dorm beds as well. And it was right next to Assi ghat. Not too expensive too.