The holiest city in India, oldest continually habited city on earth, and probably the dirtiest place you will ever go, Varanasi, a city straddling the mighty Ganges is a blitz on the senses and far more intense than even the most committed guidebook will have you believe.
Depending on the time of the year you visit, will largely depend upon how you feel about Varanasi. Visit in winter and the Ganges is low meaning you can stroll along the ghats, watch cremations, cricket games, swimming, fishing and a myriad of other activities occupying the lives of locals and pilgrims. Visit during summer/monsoon and the Ganges will be of epic proportions flooding the ghats and making a visit worthwhile, but less rich.
People come to Varanasi to bathe in the Ganges which washes away a lifetime of sins, I have it on good authority that in fact it is heavily polluted and sceptic in many places. People also come to Varanasi to die and then be cremated on Ghats on the banks of the Ganges. Watching someone you never knew have their existence removed from earth by means of fire, it’s odd. Almost obtrusive. Taking photographs is disrespectful and a quick way to escalate an otherwise peaceful situation.
Varanasi is a city you will either loathe, or love. Dividing of opinion, the length of your stay will also likely sway your judgement. The best of Varanasi is located within the old city which is a labyrinth of alleyways populated by pilgrims, lots of pilgrims, cows and faeces. If you are a germaphobe give this place a miss, brutal temperatures ensure you are covered in sweat and both animals and humans empty their bowels in the tiny, stone lined alleyways. Though traffic is banned from the old city you can still expect to see people whizzing around on their scooters and causing chaos. Cyclists also attempt to meander the maze, few have bells or any way to warn you of their imminence. You can most certainly overstay in the city. Tolerance very quickly becomes frustration, 3 days for me is enough.
The old city is a collection of ghats, temples and an amazing place in which to watch self sufficiency. Tools, machines and methods of craftsmanship all but forgotten are still in use. Homestay’s with local families abound and are amongst some of the cheapest in India, 1000INR will bag you a double AC room. Bed only in a dorm is around 250INR.
The best of Varanasi is seen on foot. We walked through the streets to Assi Ghat, which is the furthest south of the old city ghats, grabbed lunch at the fabulous Aum cafe, then meandered our way along the ghats back to Vishwanath temple. We took a boat ride, these can be got for 50INR per person in a shared boat, or around 300INR for the whole boat for 30 minutes. There are innumerable shrines, temples and places worthy of a visit. Vishwanath is the highlight, tourists can avoid the queue (some pilgrims queue for up to 48hrs), and head straight to gate 2. No bags, or electronics are allowed. Register your passport at the police desk just inside and enter the temple. Foreigners are not allowed inside the actual gold domed temple. Less for the beauty, but more for the significance of this temple built in 1776 and dedicated to Vishveswara-Shiva, lord of the universe. It is apparently plated with 800kg of gold. Hence the large number of security forces in the area.
Keeping kids clean in Varanasi is an endless, somewhat impossible task. We opted for trousers, copious use of hand wash and carried a bar of soap for temple visits so we could wash our feet. In hindsight I wish we had put our boots on, but the mercury was nudging at 40C and we were already sweltered.
Leaving Varanasi is painless as the city is well connected by rail. At the station look for a large brown, inconspicuous looking door on the left hand side as you walk into the main hall. Buy tickets, or relax in the large lounge waiting for your train. Somewhat unbelievably there are also showers available for use.