Varanasi is one of the most spiritual places in India, a place where the living and the dead coexist in peace. But it’s also one of the most crazy, claustrophobic cities in the world – especially if you are new to India. The streets are heaving with people; dead bodies are paraded down narrow alleyways and cows amble through heavy traffic and constant horns.
It’s the holiest of the 7 cities and dates back to the 11th Century B.C.E, making it one one of the oldest in the world. Hindus flock to Varanasi to cremate loved ones, bathe in the Ganges and attend the evening ceremonies.
All day, every day dead bodies are burned at the ghats (steep steps that run down into the Ganges). The air is thick with wood smoke and crowds gather to pay their respects. It’s either the husband or oldest son who cremates the body. After bathing it in the Ganges, they stoke the fire and watch as the body goes up in smoke.
Boats gather in the water to watch, an eery quiet settling into the night. No one cries, despite having to watch their loved one burn for over 3 hours. It’s said that if the family weeps, it will disturb the soul and it won’t receive nirvana.
What is nirvana?
Nirvana is a place of perfect peace and happiness, like heaven. It’s also the final release from the state of reincarnation. So after being cremated in Varanasi, Hindu souls will rest peacefully once and for all.
Where to stay in Varanasi
The alleyways behind the ghats are particularly hectic and while many love it, most find it overwhelming. So be careful where you choose to stay. Stops Hostel is a welcome respite from the mayhem. Each and every day there are organised tours to the ghats, local markets or temples. There are cooking courses, food tours and cinema nights, all designed to give you the best possible experience. It’s also a great place to meet other backpackers, with a welcoming rooftop, free breakfast and friendly staff.
Getting to Varanasi from the airport
It takes around an hour to get to the city from the airport. Private taxis cost 800 rupees, so your best bet is to jump in a share taxi or rickshaw. We shared a rickshaw with two other people and only paid 300 rupees. Bargain!