Often cited as one of the oldest cities in the world, the winding alleys and menagerie of inhabitants skulking through Varanasi sum up the very essence of the subcontinent
My most memorable sight in Varanasi was of a holy man, or baba, with silt from the Ganges and ash smeared across his forehead, dressed only in a loose piece of cloth and chatting on his mobile phone. It said so much about modern India and is an example of the surprising, often mystifying scenes that greet you everywhere you look. In this holy city, you can soak up everything you imagined India would be.
What to do
Arriving on the overnight train from Agra (trains in North India are fantastic for getting around), I spent the first couple of days in the village-like suburb of Sarnath. The rickshaw-wallahs and touts of Varanasi are well acquainted with tourists. Keen to nab every rupee you own, they have to be watched like a hawk – although this is best taken as a game rather than something to endure. The half-hour rickshaw ride to Sarnath involved my two drivers getting lost, losing pieces of the dashboard and seeking commission from everywhere, including the one place I had actually asked to go to.
Even if you don’t know much about Buddhism, the history of the place is incredibly interesting. The archaeological museum (entry 2 rupees) is well-kept and acts as a great introduction: its exhibits include intriguing Buddhist, Jain and Hindu stone carvings dating from the 3rd century BC. After this, you can explore the surrounding Jain and Buddhist temples, or the serene deer park where Buddha preached his first sermon.
Along the Ganges, the main activity is a boat trip, as everyone is keen to remind you. If you have enough time, it’s worthwhile taking a ride at both dawn and dusk, although don’t be talked into paying more than 200 rupees for an hour, and stick to paddle power – the fumes churned out from the motorboats are highly polluting. In the morning, many people come to perform puja – the ritual bathing and placing of offerings in the river. In the evening, the highlight is placing a candle and flower 'boat' onto the river to bring good karma to your family. It is an atmospheric ride; little boys often fly their paper kites from the tops of buildings and the setting sun distracts you from the gravy-coloured waters. At around seven each evening is the ganga aarti ceremony at Dasawamedh Ghat. With live music, singing, fire, incense and performances, it was quite a spectacle and I enjoyed clapping along with the locals.
During the day, you can walk along the river, stopping at each of the ghats where steps lead down to the water. If you go during or shortly after the monsoon, however, bear in mind that the water level may be too high.
The Old City is also fantastic for shopping. It’s famous for the quality of Benares silk, although be sure that you can tell fake silk from the real article before you make your purchase!
When to go
It’s worth timing your visit to coincide with October’s Navratri festival when coloured lights festoon the busy streets, adding to the chaotic electrical arrangements. Expect to see plenty of funeral processions: Indians come from far and wide to lay loved ones to rest on the banks of the holy Ganges. The bodies are carried through the streets on stretchers, bandaged tightly enough in orange cloth that the profile of their faces can be seen. There are two landings on the river (ghats) where cremations take place. The body is dipped into the river and then burnt with wood before the ashes are scattered back into the water. This can be watched at Manikarnika and Harishchandra Ghats but under no circumstances photographed.
I’d recommend spending at least a few days in town. It takes a day or two simply to fully acquaint yourself with the labyrinth of tiny streets and hand-painted signs all over the walls – like the Brighton Lanes but smellier; with animals, motorbike drivers and hundreds of people vying for space.
Places to stay
It’s worth pre-booking a recommended guesthouse in the main city of Varanasi, otherwise you may become confused by the tiny streets and insistent touts. In my week in the city, I initially stayed at the more budget option of Shanti Guesthouse (CK 8/129 Garwasitola) where a room with air-conditioning can be had for around 500 rupees. The rooms are basic but clean – although many are up several flights of narrow stairs. My room had a view right over the Ganges and was only a staircase from the delightful rooftop restaurant with unbeatable views across the city and a friendly vibe.
For the second half of my stay, I wanted a change of scene and checked into Ganpati Guesthouse, right on the banks of the river near Meer Ghat (D 3/24 Meer Ghat). A great midrange option for around 1000 rupees a night, my room here was colorfully furnished and complete with a beautiful bedspread and incense. The hotel also offers more expensive rooms with balconies overlooking the Ganges. Free wi-fi – a luxury in India – and canopied café with tables surrounding a fountain complete the laid-back mood.
In Sarnath, accommodation options are fewer. I stayed at Agrawal Paying Guest House for 500 rupees (around £8), and was pleased to find that my simple double room looked out onto a peaceful garden (14/94 Agrawal Kunj).
Eating and drinking
In Varanasi city, the perennially popular traveller hangout, the Brown Bread Bakery is a great choice for breakfast (D 5/17 Tripura Bhairavi Dashaswamedh, Tel: 0542 2403566). Everything is served up with a basket of freshly baked breads. However, the cheapest places to eat are often the best. I dug into freshly-cooked samosas, pakoras, chai (spiced tea) and other treats for mere pennies at Madhur Milan Café located on Dashaswmedh Road leading off the main ghat. It’s easily spotted by the flame-fired tandoor ovens cooking food on its steps. Ganga Fuji Restaurant has a sitar player on from 7.30pm – a lovely accompaniment to some reliable Indian food (Kalika Gali Road).
Despite its small size, there are plenty of eating options in Sarnath, but don’t expect to team your curry with a Kingfisher – the area’s holiness means that alcohol is strictly off the menu. Green Hut is a cheap, simple eatery opposite the museum that serves up an unbeatable thali (mixture of curries, dips, rice and bread) for lunch. Vaishali Restaurant serves up good snacks such as dosas and banana shakes (S-14/48, Nr Sarnath Chauraha). I ate dinner at the tiny, authentic Friends Corner Tibetan Restaurant one evening, where the momos (dumplings) and noodles made a refreshing change from Indian cuisine.