Pilgrims come to Varanasi to bathe in the Ganges river to wash away their sins at the Ghats or to cremate their family members. It is considered an auspicious place to die as doing so enables a person to escape the cycle of death and rebirth. 

It is a place to see life and death vividly and intimately and is not a place for the squeamish or faint hearted. It is, however, the most amazing places Catherine Coleman has ever been to.

Here Catherine shares the top things to do if you have a day to explore Varanasi.


Morning - Arriving in Varanasi

We arrived in Varanasi at 6am, the streets were deceptively quiet.

We found our way to a guesthouse that had been recommended by a friend and after a rest, set out to explore. We found ourselves in a maze of narrow streets, not wide enough for cars or tuktuk but still enough room for mopeds to weave their way through the people.

If the mopeds were not dangerous enough in these narrow alleys, our way was often blocked by cows standing around or dogs laying down in the middle of the paths. 

Monkeys clamber around the rooftops, skirmishes breaking out every now and then, causing people below to stop and watch the fighting, ducking for cover when the fight makes its way to the street.

All this animal life means another constant hazard when walking the alleyways: excrement! Cows, dogs, monkeys and who knows what else shits on the streets and avoiding this mess is pretty much impossible.

It’s hard to look at the shops and surroundings when you need to watch where your feet are the whole time.



Varanasi Ganges

We took a walk along the Ganges on our first day, with touts trying to sell us everything from a boat ride to a shave (not me, only Jeff!) and we decided to take up the offer of a boat ride on the river which is highly recommended.

A little old man rowed us around for an hour so we could get the best view of the Ghats and famous Indian monuments. This helped us to get our bearings and is well worth doing, but seeing a bloated dead something floating past was not pleasant.

The Ganges is extremely polluted and watching people swimming and washing in it made me feel a bit queasy. 



Varanasi Festival

Taking a walk to the burning Ghats is another unique and confronting experience.

Bodies are carried through the streets uncovered on a regular basis, so seeing these funeral processions has already become part of our days here in India, but to see the bodies lined up waiting for cremation and then to see some already burning openly on piles of wood is definitely the most bizarre thing I have witnessed. 


Why You Should Visit

Varanasi Graffiti

As much as India is a feast for the senses, Varanasi tops it all. It is confronting and challenging at times, but everyone is friendly especially if you learn some travel phrases for India, open and very spiritual.

It is the place to see Hinduism in everyday life and yoga, meditation and prayer on every corner. I found Varanasi to be a place of extremes and of contradictions. It is both peaceful and chaotic, relaxing and crazy, a place of life and death.

We saw puppies on every street, cuddling up to their mothers, playing with each other and generally excited about their new lives and the world around them.

Then when you turn the corner you can see beggars with no arms, piles of rubbish and excrement everywhere and finally another dead body and a funeral procession, it really is an uplifting and mind blowing experience all at once.

If you are putting together for an itinerary for India, I couldn’t recommend visiting Varanasi highly enough. Lots of India tours include Varanasi in the itinerary if you are looking for a structured trip


By Catherine Coleman