Varanasi

Varanasi, once known as Benares or Banaras and Kashi, is a historical city in northern India.

Understand

Hindu priest saluting the sun in the Ganges

The city is sacred to Hindus and Jains and also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with settlements dating back to the 11th century BC. Many Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi brings salvation/nirvana and so they make the trip to the city when they realize that they are close to death. For some, the culture shock of the burning corpses in plain view and the feces overflowing from the Ganges can be a bit overwhelming. However, the scene of pilgrims doing their devotions in the River Ganga at sunrise set against the backdrop of the centuries old temples is probably one of the most impressive sights in the world.

The city can be scorchingly hot in the summer months so, if possible, time your visit to fall between October and March, and bring something warm to wear for chilly days and nights, instead.

Get in

Varanasi is well connected by plane, train, and bus. The trains and buses are dirty and overcrowded.

By plane

Lal Bahadur Shastri Airport (IATA: VNS) is located 25km northwest of the city center. A taxi to/from the airport takes an hour and costs ₹750, while a tuk-tuk/auto-rickshaw can take twice as long and costs ₹500. Allow extra time due to traffic. Air India, JetKonnect, SpiceJet, and IndiGo all operate regular flights to Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Khajuraho, and Visakhapatnam. There are flights to Kathmandu on Buddha Air, flights to Colombo on Mihin Lanka Airlines, and flights to Bangkok on Thai Airways.

By train

There are multiple daily services to cities including Delhi (13 hours), Agra (13 hours), Lucknow (7 hours), Mumbai, and Kolkata.

Varanasi is served by three major railway stations:

Here is a list of useful trains to reach Varanasi:

Train Number Train Name You may board at You may alight at
12424 Rajdhani Express New Delhi Mughal Sarai Junction
12436 Rajdhani Express New Delhi, Lucknow Varanasi Junction
12560 Shivganga Express New Delhi Varanasi Junction
12165 Lokmanya Tilak (T) - Varanasi Express Lokmanya Tilak Terminus (Mumbai) Varanasi Junction
12336 Lokmanya Tilak (T) - Bhagalpur Express Lokmanya Tilak Terminus (Mumbai) Mughal Sarai Junction
12333 Vibhuti Express Howrah (Kolkata) Mughal Sarai Junction, Varanasi Junction
12307 Howrah-Jodhpur Express Howrah (Kolkata) Mughal Sarai Junction
12669 Ganga Kaveri Express Chennai Central Varanasi Junction
12295 Sangamitra Express Bangalore City, Chennai Central Mughal Sarai Junction
17091 Secunderabad-Patna Express Secunderabad (Hyderabad) Mughal Sarai Junction, Varanasi Junction
14854 Marudhar Express Jaipur, Agra Fort Varanasi Junction
14864 Marudhar Express Jaipur, Agra Fort Varanasi Junction

Also see Rail travel in India

By bus

The bus station in Varanasi is located just east of the Varanasi Junction train station. A tuk-tuk from the bus station to the Ganges area costs ₹100.

New Vishwanath Temple
Morning prayer
Potatos and Puri, the Indian fried bread

Arriving from Nepal

Buses are available from major cities in Nepal to the border city of Sunauli. From the Sunauli bus station, take a rickshaw (200 NPR) to the border crossing, get your passport stamped on the Nepali side then walk through the border. After 100m of walking through no-man's land, you will find the Indian immigration office hidden away on the left hand side of the road. After going through Indian immigration, walk 300m and find the bus stop on the right hand side. From there, take the government bus to Gorakhpur, not the private lines which are far less comfortable and stop everywhere. The bus trip between the border and Gorakhpur takes 4 hours and costs ₹60. To reach Varanasi from Gorakhpur, you can either take a train from the Gorakhpur Junction train station (5-7 trains per day, 5.5-7 hour journey, ₹200-800 cost) or a bus (hourly, 8+ hour journey, ₹130 cost).

Arriving from other cities in India

There are buses run by state government from Lucknow (8 hours, ₹160), Gorakhpur (8+ hours, ₹130), Khajuraho (12 hours, ₹250), Kanpur (9 hours - ₹195), Faizabad (7 hours, ₹105), Bodhgaya (7 hours, ₹250) and Allahabad (3 hours - ₹107 for AC, ₹60 w/o AC).

Get around

Traffic in Varanasi.

Note that many streets are too narrow to be reached by cycle-rickshaw, auto-rickshaw, and car and therefore, you may have to walk a bit to reach your destination.

By foot

By foot is the only way to see the waterfront and the ghats - but be ready to be hot, sweaty, and lost - locals are usually happy to point you in the right direction. The names of ghats and signs pointing to restaurants and hotels are often painted on the walls in Roman letters. For better orientation, walk into any book store and pick up a small guide/map book that will have the list of all the ghats and their historical background.

Walking Tours are operated by many companies, with the cheapest being the daily tours operated by Stops Hostel (₹100 plus transportation, 3 hours). Walking tours are a great way to see some of the harder-to-find sights such as the Flower Market and Ayurvedic Herb Market.

By cycle-rickshaw and auto-rickshaw

The chaotic streets of Varanasi are sometimes too much to handle by foot. Therefore, it will often be convenient to travel by cycle rickshaw or auto-rickshaw. A short journey of a few kilometers should cost under ₹50, while a longer journey within the city, such as between the ghats and the train station, will cost ₹100. Further journeys, such as to Sarnath (10km), cost ₹200 each way by auto-rickshaw.

There is a pre-paid auto-rickshaw stand at the Varanasi Junction (Cantt) train station.

By car or taxi

While taxis and cars-for-hire do exist, traffic makes them impractical.

By bicycle

Bicycle rental is available from many vendors. Inquire at your hotel.

See

Varanasi is not a city with distinct tourist destinations; the experience is in watching the spectacle of life and death on the river and meandering through the alleys of the old city.

Ghats and the River Ganges

Floating away

While the use of ghats for cremation is well known, they are also used to give last rites to those who do not need cleansing by fire to purify their soul, including young children and pregnant women. Instead, their bodies are wrapped in cloth, weighted with stones and deposited into the Ganges. However, it is fairly common for the ropes to give way, resulting in putrefying corpses washing up on the east shore across from the city. Steer clear if squeamish.

Dasaswamedh Ghat (main ghat)

The River Ganga is a sacred river for the Hindus and you will see traditional rituals and bathing occurring at all times of the day. On the Eastern banks, the River Ganga is flanked by a 300m wide sand belt, beyond which lies a green belt, a protected area reserved for turtle breeding. The western crescent-shaped bank of the River Ganga is flanked by a continuous stretch of 84 ghats, or series of steps leading down to the river, stretching for 6.8km. These ghats were built by Hindu kings who wanted to die along the Ganges, and they built lofty palaces along the river, most of which are now hotels, to spend their final days. You can walk along the river and see all of the ghats, but the best option for viewing the ghats is to charter a boat and see them from the river.

Hindus consider it auspicious to die in Varanasi, so some ghats are known as burning ghats, where over 200+ corpses per day are cremated in full view before their ashes are eased into the Ganga.

Some of the most popular ghats, from north to south:

Religious Buildings

New Vishvanath Temple at BHU
Dhamek stupa at sarnath

Other sights

Do

Men praying between boats in the Ganges
Varanasi alleyways
Varanasi street scene by the Ganges

Festivals

Volunteer opportunities

Learn

Yoga classes

Yoga classes are very popular among visitors to Varanasi.

Ayurveda treatment classes

Ayurveda treatment is common in Varanasi and you can take classes to learn the techniques:

Language classes

Other classes

Buy

Varanasi is famous for its fine silk - it's on offer everywhere, but shop around and haggle!

Eat

Banarasi Khana, or local delicacies, are known for their flavors. Many dishes here are flavored with asafoetida, ginger, bay leaves, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, and/or dried fenugreek leaves.

Benares Dum Aloo is different from the dum aloo cooked elsewhere in India because the potatoes are stuffed with and cooked in a gravy that includes jaggery, fennel, and chili paste.

Varanasi is also known for its street food and chaat vendors. Aloo chaat is very common.

Varanasi Paan is famous all over India and the world. Paan is an assortment of flavors wrapped in a betel leaf. There are two versions: One that includes tobacco, and one that includes only sweet flavors. The exact ingredients depend on how much you offer, which can be as little as ₹10 or as much as ₹300. To eat the sweet version, shove the entire leaf in your mouth at once and chew until you swallow!

Rabri Malai Balai is a popular dessert in Varanasi that includes milk, sugar, almonds, and pistachio nuts. You can find it served in hole-in-the-wall or sweet shops.

There are plenty of food outlets with a very dynamic range in quality. The restaurants closer to the ghats cater more to foreign tourists, with variable success.

Benarasi Delicacies

Budget

Mid-range

Middle-Eastern Food

Possibly due to a high influx of tourists from Israel, a number of Middle Eastern restaurants have opened in Varanasi, all of which serve very similar food, cater to a predominantly tourist clientèle, and charge a little over ₹100 for a thali.

Splurge

Drink

Sleep

The most interesting area to stay is around the ghats, which are the main attractions for foreigners and are close to the religious attractions. However, this area is extremely noisy and many accommodation choices here are subpar, so do some research before you book. An alternative to staying in Varanasi is to stay near the main train station (Varanasi Junction). This area has some very nice new places popping-up in the recent years and is only about 10 minutes on a tuk-tuk. Another alternative is the much quieter Sarnath, 10+ km from Varanasi, but it takes 75+ minutes each way to reach Varanasi by tuk-tuk (₹200).

Some budget accommodations advertise free morning and evening boat rides along the river. However, the boat will take you up the river and then let the passengers know that for the return trip, there is a fee of ₹60 per person. Those who do not want to pay can get out of the boat and walk back.

Beware that Varanasi, particularly during summer, is prone to many hours of power outages a day. It is best to double check that your fan or A/C is run from a backup generator, or you may not have it for much of the day.

Budget

Hostels

Guesthouses

Mid-range

Splurge

Stay safe

Violent crime

Violent crime is rare, but still do be careful in the lanes after dark.

Power outages

Carry a light or phone; power outages are extremely common, and the alleys are hard enough to navigate in daylight, let alone in pitch dark, because of their broken paving stones and cows common.

Groping of women

It is common to have the odd local young man try to quickly grope foreign women and run away. Respond aggressively and loudly to try to discourage this behavior as much as possible. Try to dress similar to locals (i.e. no short shorts) as not to attract attention.

Rickshaw / taxi scams

Rickshaw / taxi scams are common in Varanasi, and the driver will inevitably tell you that the hotel that you wish to go to has burned down, is flooded, or closed. Don't believe him. Drivers receive commission from hotels for bringing in new guests, and this is one way to trick newcomers to going to these places. Don't get annoyed, but see the exchange as playful banter and part of the Varanasi experience. However, if the driver continuously refuses to follow your instructions, threaten to get out of the rickshaw. If after all this you still end up to a different place, just refuse to pay until you arrive at your hotel. The same procedure will need to be followed when sight seeing, as drivers will inevitably try to take you to handicraft stores, from which they receive commission. If calling for a pickup from a more resepctable hostel, be wary that other taxi drivers may listen in to your phone conversation then tell another taxi driver who will pick you up pretending to be your hostel, then take you to a commision charging hostel.

Cremation ghat scams

As you approach Manikarnika Ghat, you will be approached by touts posing as cremators or volunteers in a local hospice. These people will explain the cremation process and even lead you to a good viewpoint. They will then take advantage of your emotions by asking you to pay for some wood to burn the body of someone who can't afford it. They will usually insist on receiving ₹500 - if you offer less, it will be initially be declined. This is a complete scam. Either tell him you have no money or that you don't feel comfortable donating.

Respect

Priest praying to a totally hairless monkey in the Hanuman Monkey temple

Cremation ghats

There is, rather understandably, some resentment at tourists tresspasing up to the cremation ghats for raucous sightseeing at the funeral ceremonies of loved ones. Behave respectfully and do not take photographs of cremations, even from the river. You can take photographs if it is from a distance; most do not mind. There are touts who for a fee will "stop minding". Note that if it is the family that objects then you have to respect it but not if local touts object in the interest of extracting money. Offer the money and if they seem ready to accept, withdraw it and photograph! Call the police if necessary.

Temples

Since this city is full of temples you will have to take off your shoes/sandals at every point, so wear a flip flop which is easy to take off.

Connect

BSNL, Reliance,Idea, and Airtel are the most popular cell phone services in the region. If you bring your GSM cellphone from home, you can buy a SIM card and call within India and abroad. You will need your passport and a passport photo to buy a SIM card.

Wi-Fi is available at just about every hotel or restaurant that caters to foreign tourists. Internet Cafes are common, especially in the lanes between Dasaswamedh Ghat and Assi Ghat. Usually, the shopkeepers will record your passport information before giving you access to the Wi-Fi.

Calling abroad is cheap from Iway branches.

Go next

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Sunday, March 27, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.