Varanasi. Whew! I survived. In and out in less than 24 hours, which was the perfect amount of time for me. Oh sure, you could easily spend a few days there, or weeks if you were making a pilgrimage or checking in to an ashram. But less than 24 hours was still enough to completely overload my sensory system and leave me yearning for the relative calm of life in Delhi with two screaming toddlers.
If India is a feast for the senses, Varanasi is a late-night bender: everything is amplified, more crowded, more frenetic, more colorful, more pungent. I have never seen so much shit in the streets – cow shit mostly, and dog shit, and surely some human shit, too. But there’s beauty to be found in the garbage and decay and crush of people waiting to bathe in the Ganges. There’s a strange calm as you float on the river at sundown, votives drifting through the boats gathered at the shore as pandits chant and clang cymbals.
I’m so happy I got to see it. I’m grateful to our guide, who answered so many questions and went out of his way to show us a piece of his faith. But man was I ready to get home and take a shower.
Where to stay:
We booked last minute, but enjoyed where we ended up: at a guesthouse right on the water in Old Varanasi called the Shiva Ganges View. Not luxurious by any means, but big rooms and bathrooms, all with river views. Nice rooftop terrace – although I was warned to take a stick with me up there to fend off monkeys. The guesthouse manager hooked us up with a wonderful guide, Vivek, and arranged a ride to and from the airport. Be warned: it was a looooong ride, spent mostly sitting in rickshaw/cow traffic.
Where to eat:
We didn’t venture out any further than the Lotus Lounge because it was next to our hotel and the narrow alleys of Old Varanasi were too confusing to navigate alone. Food was good, the terrace seating overlooking the river was better.
What to see:
Definitely get a guide, and definitely do a sunset boat ride to see the burning ghats and the Ganga aarti ceremony. We also did a 6am sunrise boat ride, then walked along the ghats to see some of the morning prayer rituals. Totally worth it. Afterwards, Vivek took us to a few temples, and was great about explaining everything that was going on inside – and there was a lot going on!
Don’t take photos at the burning ghats. It’s tempting, because it really is a spectacular scene – but it’s also someone’s funeral. Would you want Indian tourists streaming through the graveyard, taking photos at your burial? Photos inside the temples are also forbidden.