Varanasi: The Holy City On The Ganges That Will Move You

Varanasi can be a tough nut to crack for the less seasoned traveller who visits India for the first time. That’s who I was two years ago when I went there.

Last week I told you of my shock when I went to Jaipur, the first scale in my trip to India. But not even Jaipur could prepare me to take on Varanasi. Even though I went there on a guided tour, which usually means a more sheltered experience, Varanasi left a deep mark on me.

Before I tell you anything else, I’d like to invite you to see the photo-essay, so that you are not conditioned by my views. Not more conditioned than you will already be by my choices in framing the photos, and post-processing and selecting them, anyway.

(All photos are © 2015 Fernando Cortés-Cabanillas. Please contact me if you wish to use them).

 Streets in Varanasi were the usual hectic maelstrom in India: all sorts of vehicles, sacred cows and other animals, and plenty of people.

Street scene with wandering cows in Varanasi Street in Varanasi Making flower garlands in Varanasi Food stall on the streets of Varanasi Street market in Varanasi Street food stall in Varanasi, India

In India, tuk-tuks are one of the main modes of urban transportation for people who can afford them (many people can’t though). Even kids are driven to and from school in tuk-tuks.

People hailing tuk-tuk, India People on a tul-tuk in Varanasi, India

Most people in Varanasi were quite happy to have their photo taken (some even asked me to), and kids were no exception.

Kids on a tuk-tuk

The giant maze of narrow alleys near the River Ganges struck me as mysterious, slightly oppressive and confusing, even though I was there with a guide.

Alleys, people in Varanasi

The River Ganges is the focal point of Varanasi. Its waters are worshipped as a goddess (Ganga) by Hindus, and are believed to purify those who bathe in them. For Hindus, the Ganges is connected to the three worlds (earth, heaven and the netherworld). Therefore, sprinkling the ashes of dead people in its waters is a way to ensure that the spirits of the deceased break forever the eternal cycle of birth and rebirth.

I highly recommend taking a boat tour along the river front, both at dusk and at dawn. The thing I didn’t have the time to do, but would have loved to, is spend a few hours walking along the ghats. Next time, hopefully.

Birds on a boat on River Ganges People doing their ablutions in the Ganges, Varanasi Boat on the Ganges, Varanasi

The embankments with long flights of stairs along the Ganges are called ghats; there are several dozen ghats in Varanasi.

Stairs of a ghat in Varanasi Varanasi Ghat seen from boat on the Ganges

In addition to other religious ceremonies, cremations are performed at some of the ghats. As a mark of respect, I only took a distant shot of one of them.

Cremations on a ghat by the Ganges

The Dashashwamedh Ghat is the main ghat in Varanasi. It is surrounded by temples dedicated to different deities.

Dasaswhamedh Ghat in Varanasi Morning prayer and ablutions in the Ganges

During the year, there are plenty of festivals and religious ceremonies on the banks of the Ganges, attended by millions of pilgrims, worshippers and tourists. I’m not sure what these people were celebrating, but they seemed to be partying hard!

Boats on the Ganges in Varanasi Party on a boat on Ganges

Life along the Ganges banks in Varanasi is full of colourful, slightly hard to grasp scenes like these.

Scene on the river banks of the Ganges People scene by the Ganges

I’m not sure if the photos above convey how I felt about Varanasi. Ideally, they should, but for that I’d have to be a good photographer (!). I should point out that I only spent one day in Varanasi, as part of a guided tour. So I didn’t really get the chance to explore on my own as I like to do, and as this complex city no doubt deserves.

Overall, I felt there was something rather bleak about Varanasi. In the most sacred city for Hinduists, the overwhelming, but compelling, mix of crowds, wandering animals, dust, dirt and noise that I found in Jaipur takes a turn towards the spiritual, only with a slightly gloomy twist.

Maybe it’s the cremations being conducted out in the open, or the fact that you can see now and then bodies floating in the river. We did see just one, drifting along only a few meters from our boat, and although it was wrapped in linen, I found it quite distressing. Once you add that to poor sanitation facilities and other factors, it’s not surprising to find out that the Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world.

Going to Varanasi: yes or no?

All that being said, you may be wondering: “Should I go to Varanasi?” My answer would be a definite yes. This is a city that will move you and shock you and make you think; for that I would like to go back some day and try to get to know it better.

If you’re still in doubt whether you should go or not, this excellent documentary may help you decide.

As always, I’d love to hear what you think, so don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

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