My visit to Varanasi came at the beginning of a backpacking adventure across India. While I enjoyed my stay, I would love to go back again; especially now that I've spent more than 6 months getting to know the country and its culture. In the meantime, I’ve had a great time looking through my old journals and photos to come up with these recommendations of must-do’s in Varanasi.
Yes, the Ganges River is incredibly polluted with garbage, human remains, and other types of waste. That said, it also has incredible restorative properties that are believed to balance out that pollution. I'm not suggesting that you take a dip or sip, but watching Hindu devotees do just that is a full-day activity in itself.
Wake up Early for a Sunrise Boat Ride
Once you’ve explored the shores of the Ganges River by foot, wake up at the crack of dawn and take a sunrise boat tour to experience the scene from the other side. In addition to having beautiful light for photographs, another reason to get up early is to see the ghats filled with people having their morning bath.
A puja can be any sort of religious ceremony, ranging from simply walking around a temple three times to performing an elaborate dance of fire, incense, and prayer on the shores of the Ganga. In Varanasi, these shows go on nightly and are well worth a watch.
Reflect on Life at the Burning Ghats
Cremation is a tradition for Hindus and there's nowhere more powerful to bathe your loved ones in fire than the shores of the Ganges River. At any given time, there are multiple bodies either ablaze or being whisked away into the river by the waves. Photography is not permitted, which gives you a chance to really take it all in.
Explore Traditional Indian architecture and temples
While you could spend your entire visit to Varanasi just exploring the Ganges, there also are countless beautiful temples, buildings, and examples of traditional Indian architecture that cannot be missed. If you're short on time, it might even be worth hiring a tuk tuk to take you to the best places. Just beware of an offer that's too good to be true.
Above All Else…
Don’t forget to just get out and explore. Varanasi is an incredibly powerful city and there’s nothing quite like spending a day getting lost in its narrow streets and meeting a wide variety of holy people. Have fun!
Greg’s award-winning photography has appeared in exhibitions, publications, Web sites, private collections, and at Photokina: the world’s largest photo trade fair.