Written and Travelled by Samantha Fremont-Smith
Visiting Varanasi is not for the faint of heart. However, it is a once in a lifetime experience that makes it well worth the diversion off a typical Golden Triangle itinerary.
Varanasi is India's holiest city, located in the North, in Uttar Pradesh. Set on the Ganges, the river that is said to flow from Shiva’s hair, it is the religious capital of India and Hinduism. Pilgrims flock to this oldest living city to purify the soul with the river’s sacred waters. As many as thirty bodies are cremated and spread into this legendary river every day. They say the same fire has been burning by the river for 3,000 years.
The kaleidoscope of colors, smells and sounds may interrupt your appreciation of the divine. Women in purple, ruby and yellow saris flog laundry at the polluted waters edge. Children brush their teeth, and young boys frolic nude. Orange clad Brahmin priests chant while dirt encrusted hawkers haggle. Dogs bark and cows graze garbage before taking a swim in the river. Drums throb and acrid smoke burns the eyes and throat. A yoga class is conducted on the ghats at the rivers’ edge. The tension and conflict between death and life left will leave you in a state of awe.
Go at sunrise or sunset when the light is soft. Rent a boat and be entranced by the rituals around the cremation process.
Avoid the hottest times of the year, between November and April is best. One full day and night will suffice, but be sure to see a sunrise or sunset on the Ganges. Hire a guide to help arrange your boat and make your way through the chaos of the town. Shop for tiffin tins (the layered lunch boxes) in the market on your way back from the river. Bring a lightweight cotton scarf for unpleasant smells. Stay at the Nadesar Palace
, a small boutique hotel that will soothe your frazzled senses.