Backpacking Varanasi one of the world’s oldest living cities and the cultural capital of India.
Not knowing what to expect apart from the famed ghats, I set out to find what this place was made of. With flamboyance that can be seen nowhere else, and the ever present flocks of pilgrims frequenting the many temples, Banaras,the other name for Varanasi, has a lot of activity going on that compliments it well as the country’s main cultural hub.
As people have come from lands unknown and cultures far away, to look for peace in the chaos or to treat themselves to the maddening exuberance that is inherent here, the natives and their city have gradually reshaped themselves so as to welcome people from anywhere in the world.
Whoever says ‘when in Banaras,keep your wallet close to you’ hasn’t been there today clearly, for now the city demands passersby to protect their ears from the alarmingly loud traffic noise. Yes, that does mean you should worry more about your ears than the papers in your pocket (or maybe cards). Autorickshaw and cycle rickshaw drivers do their trade at all moments of the day, as they can often be heard calling out, ‘Lanka Lanka Lanka!’ or ‘Sigra Sigra’ in multiple tones on jam packed roads.
Cows move slower than snails,motorists impatiently search for space to escape the commotion,young policemen try helplessly to guide vehicles of all sorts, and hawkers do all they can,to persuade tourists to buy flashy flimsy accessories.
There are small street food stalls line themselves up on the roads leading to the banks (Ghats) of Ganga,as they constantly offer the local fare, and surprisingly very often have South Indian dishes too. All of this goes on in one place, at all times. It’s fun indeed.
Simultaneously, not far away from the chaos,are the remarkable and intriguing gallis (alleys) of Banaras that form the heart of the city. Radiantly painted walls, age old residences, lots of temples and animated cafés that serve cuisines that are as numerous as the number of gods worshipped in the temples close by, form contrasting bits and pieces of the mazes of gallis that run through this city.
This is precisely where you can get lost without any trouble.
Well connected by air with the Lal Bahadur Shastri international Airport situated in Babatpur, 26km far from the city. It serves everyone visiting, with flights to and from major metro cities. Amidst the hustle bustle lies the main Varanasi Junction (BSB) railway station, locally known as Cantt. It has a good frequency of trains that connect Varanasi to the big cities,and regions within Uttar Pradesh too.
Manduadih (MUV) and Mughal Sarai (MGS) are two other stations that are located 4km and 16km away respectively from the main city. A 15 hour bus ride can bring Kathmandu within an overnight journey distance too for those who prefer the roads.
The time to be here is from November to February when the sun is warmer and the air more chiller. Since the temperature comes down to around 5°C, such winters bring about a feel that energises you to walk into the countless gallis that one surely can’t map. Around this time also is one of the most awaited and wonderful festivals that this historic and fascinating city is proud of hosting — Dev Deepawali. A special kind of Diwali post the normal Diwali celebrations that take place in all over India, where the ghats are transformed magically.
Crowd doubles, earthern lamps are lit, boats get repainted as well as the ghats refurbished, as the locals get ready with fervour to roll out the carpet for literally everyone and anyone. Decoration work of flowers and drapery begins on huge stages that stay afloat in the river where musical and dance performances cheer up the climate; as if the inherent crazy vibe of Banaras wasn’t fascinating enough.
Staying with locals and travellers
Tucked inside an alley near the Cantt Station is a hostel that has gradually become one of the best places to unwind,meet people from across the world and spend nights in a lovely lit garden listening to stories from everywhere. The International Travellers’ Hostel is family run and welcomes you with warm smiles and colourful designs on the living room walls; and a few monkeys who love hanging out there say hello too.
A rooftop view, the garden as well as the Bistro make for a great stay in an economical budget,not to forget a very lively and interesting atmosphere found here because of a big diversity of travellers who come — in a span of just a week I had the pleasure of meeting visitors from nine different countries,some young and travelling solo, and a few adults too.
The folks who look after this place surely know how to make life backpacking Varanasi exciting, worthwhile and easy. Another exciting option is Zostel with various facilities and an energetic atmosphere.
Local Food Backpacking Varanasi
Coming to the most important part, the one luxury you cannot afford to miss is Varanasi’s chaat, and the only place you need to go is the Kashi Chaat Bhandaar. With not even its name written above this mind-blowing eatery. It’s very likely that you’ll miss it during the day, since there’s no crowd outside because it is closed.
Just a mere ‘Kashi Chaat Bhandaar’ printed on an A4 size paper rests on a small wall outside, as locals and tourists alike come here to experience this one of a kind food. After having roamed the ghats with some new friends, we luckily got a place to sit and savour a variety of delicacies. The many food stalls along the roads prepare fresh authentic Chole Bhature,Kachori and Puri Sabzi.
When strolling on the banks for hours together if you fancy a new angle to look at them,Ganpati Guest House on Meer Ghat is where you should be. The rooftop serves perfectly with a different perspective of the ghats while you choose from a range of cuisines. Their Puri Sabzi is simply delicious.
Bengali Tola,one of the most vibrant shopping and hanging out places backpacking Varanasi, is home to a variety of cafés and restaurants. Nice restaurant situated there itself is really nice — their Indian Breakfast is heavenly. Don’t mind the owner coming up and asking you questions about your origins and interests curiously like a kid. Many books in many languages, including a few dictionaries are stacked in a shelf for his visitors to snack their brains on. With the rush of foreigners coming, French and German bakeries have become commonplace, some even started by them.
Commuting is very cheap, provided you use shared autos or shared battery operated rickshaws that accommodate five to six people. For going to Ramnagar or Sarnath, you may want to consider going in a ‘reserved auto’ – so you alone sit like a boss. Or maybe procure a two wheeler from somewhere and get ready for some Banarasi road adventure.
P L A C E S
GHATS & GALLIS
Life never stops on the banks of the Ganga, as people carry out hundreds of occupations – boatsmen look for travellers,priests look for pilgrims, barbers look for whoever needs a shave or a haircut,garland sellers look for those about to perform a ceremony, local fishermen look for fish, men look for a few heads to massage and in the end, the ghat’s residents observe all of this from their houses.
The sun rises in front of the river and bathes the banks in lots of sunlight with prominent textures and colours of each ghat standing out with clarity. Historic and mythic personalities have stayed connected with these ancient structures; men can often be seen repainting the names of ghats as an important date approaches.
Having read a little about the ghats, I felt this was the first place I needed to be. And take in the scenario by passing all my time here until the sun dipped. Making my way through the narrow roads with the fear of being run over by autorickshaws or cows who suddenly start jogging, I was getting as impatient as the motorists on the road, to get a glimpse of the ridiculously huge and multicoloured steps that lead to the river.
Janki, Shivala, Raja, Manmandir, Meer, Dasaswamedh, Kedar, Manikarnika, Chet Singh, Shitala and Assi are a few of the major ghats with lots to see — an early morning boat ride is the perfect way to be welcomed to Varanasi.
The Ganga Aarti, a prayer to the Ganga takes place every evening on the Dasaswamedh Ghat around half past six. Young priests prepare thoroughly to perform a series of prayers and rituals. People wait to see this spectacle unfold, from boats,rooftops and on the banks.
Gallis are a thorough maze and mess to say the least. When on the ghats you feel like seeing these alleys. All you have to do is look up, set your sight on any small backstreet and head there to find yourself in a big interesting and very animated puzzle – intersections of endless gallis. Having a certain chaos thats a little different from that on the ghats,this part of Banaras gives it immense character.
Backpacking Varanasi being the holiest place for Hindus, the list of temples that are famous here doesn’t end. Sacred sites here are the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Kaal Bhairav, Bharat Mata, Sankat Mochan & Mrutinjay Mandirs amongst many others that are dedicated to deities which are as plenty as the shades of colours painted on the walls everywhere.
Situated on the eastern banks of the Ganga that is connected by Malviya Bridge, 14 km from Cantt Station,this Mughal style architecture was built in 1750 by Kashi Naresh Raja Balwant Singh. The fort houses a museum that has American vintage cars, medieval weaponry like swords, rifles which are ten feet long and pistols which are the size of a palm, portraits of Maharajas and royal families of various countries and a gigantic astronomical clock designed in 1852. Royal collections of daggers,armoury,furniture and jewellery are also stored there.
Nearby in a lane so close yet away from the commotion,is a tiny shop that once belonged to Lal Bahadur Shastri that is not known to tourists. Spending a few minutes in this locality surely makes you wonder of how Ramnagar must’ve been many years ago.
On your way back, get down right after you pass over Malviya Bridge,at Raja Ghat – the first of many ghats there are to admire, feel awed, excited and get lost too. Walking along the steps noticing the significance and character of each ghat is a fulfilling experience of understanding what this ancient city is really built of.
A holy site for Buddhists,this historic and archaeological location is spread across a vast area that has a museum where centuries old statues of Lord Buddha, manuscripts and scriptures dating back to the Ashoka period are displayed.
The Sarnath Museum is the oldest site museum of Archaeological Survey of India that was completed in 1910. The Dhamek Stupa,built in 500 CE by King Ashoka to commemorate the Buddha’s teachings, stands tall near ancient Buddhist monastery ruins. The remains of the Ashoka Pillar are also preserved at this location where it was originally built.
Many temples built by Buddhist countries like Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka also attract pilgrims from all over Asia; an eighty feet Buddha’s standing statue, India’s tallest, is at the Sarnath Thai temple.
With an air of mystery and wonder surrounding the structural miracles and the medieval Buddhist artefacts housed in the museum, Sarnath is definitely worth a visit and spending a day there. Nearby is also a shop that has a range of traditionally hand made typical Banarasi textiles.
The Vishwanath temple and Bharat Kala Bhavan situated in the Benaras Hindu University campus are a few intriguing spots that form an integral part of the university. A bookstore and the restaurants outside the temple serve amazing.
So while you make your way through the Banarasi gallis with a paan in your mouth probably. And the constant chaos that has now become usual let me tell you that this place can give you all it has to offer, if you just step out and keep moving!
On your way to I don’t know where,be sure to find a vantage point right in the middle of this madness – the ghats are a good place to start, to reflect on how your time in this city has passed by.
Have you been to India? Tell us about any of your favorite moments traveling in this beautiful country!
If you want to read more stories from India read here, where you will find a full guide about trekking Triund. If you want to read more adventures around India, check this full travel guide to visit Bhutan.