Budget backpackers guide to Varanasi
This place is on most visitors itineraries at some point. I have visited the city many times myself and I can assure you there is a very good reason why so many people make there way here. So in my post, a Budget backpackers guide to Varanasi I will provide my personal tricks and tips to maximise your time in this fantastic city.
Hold on to your hats; this is one of the most chaotic, intense and disorganised places on the planet. Yet Varanasi is at the very heart of spiritual India. The city houses an estimated 23000 Hindu temples, and Hindus believe that if you are cremated in this sacred city, you can achieve moksha. That is a way to break the cycle of death and reincarnation in a bid to reach Nevada. So this is a very auspicious place to come and finish life’s journey.
Varanasi – The City Of Light.
Cremations can be observed along some of the towns 88 Ghats (sets of stairs,) but not all of them. It can be a traumatising experience for some. At the very least it is a humbling experience, and personally, I have found it a time where I reflect on my own mortality. In the west In the west, we are very much shielded from the concept of death, and it becomes easy to forget with our busy lifestyles that one day it will all come to a close. Here in Varanasi, it is all around you and death is all just a matter of fact.
Virgins and ironically, pregnant woman are not burned but taken out on boats and wrapped in linen. A holy man will prey as they are laid to rest in the sacred river Ganges.
Funerals are conducted day and night, and dead bodies can be seen being carried through the streets on there way to the burning Ghats and their final resting place. Something to bear in mind is that log burning does not generate an even current of heat and sometimes “debris” is left behind and swept in the water. It is not unusual to find bits of people floating around the river.
In addition to Varanasi being the place where many Hindus want to come to rest, the sacred river the Ganges runs along its banks and devotees come from far and wide to bathe in this holiest of rivers. Many Hindus see it as the duty to take a dip here at least once in their lives. Do not join in! If it is not in your culture, I would strongly advise not getting in the water. It is heavily polluted and almost stagnant. The river passes through many major cities before it reaches Varanasi and not to mention the left-overs from the cremations.
Varanasi is one of the oldest continually habituated cities on earth, so as you can well imagine getting a taste for this city’s history takes some time. Hinduism has many branches, and Varanasi has seen the rise of one particularly controversial chapter of faith the Agori. Founded by Baba G who passed away in Varanasi in 1992 and this particular branch of religion causes a lot of stir in India. His views were not in line with the traditional caste system, and so he gained a lot of support from India’s fast-growing middle class.
I will leave a link to an entertaining if not over dramatised CNN documentary of a man who comes to discover The Aghori. Definitely worth a watch so my readers can see how colourful and eccentric the city of light really is. But be warned parts of this documentary is not for the fainthearted.
In addition to being one of the most auspicious places in the world for Hindus, Buddhists also share a deeprooted past here. As it is believed lord buddha gave his first sermon here in 528bc and founding Buddhism very close by. There are also 15 mosques in the old city, and some are very grand indeed. There are nightly ceremonies given by brahmin priests on the banks of the river that can be breathtaking to witness. This town is without question the epitome of spiritual India.
Getting around Varanasi.
Many people explore this place by boat on a dawn or dusk boat ride. They are both a very different experience, so I would recommend taking both. The dawn boat ride is peaceful and serene. The evening boat ride is loud and full of life.
It would be hard to give a cost for this as its hard to put a price on it as it depends on your bargaining skills and who you are dealing with. I will say make it clear before you start and make sure they understand the cost you give is in rupees and no other currency. No trip here would be complete without experiencing at least one boat ride along this iconic river. Most hotels have their own boat drivers, and this may work out less of a headache for you as the price is fixed.
Getting a bit to eat.
I have found all the best places to eat are outside the old city except blue lassi. This is something special as there is nothing else quite like it, and it is not just me that thinks it neither. The curd is made locally and turned into multiple arrays of different flavours. Its a little rundown and grubby but its in league of its own. Uttar Pradesh is famous for its Muglai cuisine, but it is hard to find in the old city. For more information on Indian cuisine, check out my post.
Most places in the old city sell pretty much the same tourist food. I have spent many weeks in Varanasi and have been unable to find something that really stands out. If you do, please leave a comment so I can check it out myself next time I am there. Some of the Dhabas near the train station serve up some pretty decent curries.
Getting a nights rest.
As for sleeping, there are a million places to get a nights rest, but I usually stay in Shivakashi guest house. It is very affordable, and although it is hard to find (made harder by all the touts trying to sell you a bed on commission) it is well worth the effort. The staff are friendly and serve the standard-issue tourist food you can expect for the old city. Rooms are clean, and the staff are helpful so its a winner for where you are if you want some peace. Book in advance in the busy season or on Indian holidays through booking.com.
Getting there and away
The mains train station is Varanasi junction (or Varanasi contanmont) There is a tourist office here with a tourist quota and its not ever busy. However, I have not ever found this place to be friendly, but you are not there to make friends anyway. The bus stand is right across the road. So it is all close to each other and as a significant tourist draw Varanasi is very well connected, so it is straightforward to get to and from the city. The old city is where most people are heading, and that’s a few kilometres away from primary transport links.
A word of warning
This is where it all gets tricky. Varanasi is filled to the rafters of con merchants of one sort or another. From pervy under qualified yoga teachers ( do not just take just any yoga class if you are a young girl) to self-appointed tourist guides. Honestly, Varanasi can be a very stressful place to visit. Still, for that authentic taste of spiritual India, it is worth dealing with all the shady characters you are very likely to come across.
The ones in question right now are the auto drivers and taxi drivers you will need to deal with to get to the old city. There is a prepaid booth at the station, but it is not policed at all. What that means for you is even there you will have to haggle.
Be aware of anyone who offers a super low price as they are sure to stop by there friends shop and it will take absolutely ages to get where you want to be. In all honesty, you will be lucky to get the old city for less than 150 rupees.
My advice is to pay to go to a landmark such as Dashashwamedh Ghat. Public transport is not allowed in the old city anyway, and this place is quite central so you can have a look around and take your time. It is tough to navigate the ancient streets of Varanasi at the best of times, and with a bag, it is made even harder, not helped by the endless stream of touts who follow you relentlessly. Just keep walking, and you will find what you want. Do try and remember not to get too stressed with them, as taxing as it seems the reality is they are just impoverished men seeking to make a living.
In summary of my post, a Budget backpackers guide to Varanasi.
There is a lot to see and do in the city, so budget a few days to take it all in. Despite all of the chaos that is Varanasi, it is without question one of the most spectacular things to experience in India, and you can be sure when you walk away you will never never forget your time here. Well, that wraps up my post on Varanasi and if you have any additional questions don’t be afraid to leave them in the box provided, and I will get back to you. Until next time my fellow intrepid travellers, happy trails.
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