I’ve always wanted to visit Varanasi (Benaras/Kashi), one of the holiest places in India and one place every photographer dreams to visit someday. This January we finally made it there, my partner in crime Maryam, my mom, sister and renowned photographer Sachin Khona . Our aim was to explore, embrace and take photographs. We arrived late night by road from Lucknow and stayed at the Rashmi guest house right on Dashawamedh ghat. Travel tip – try to reach Varanasi by train or air and not by road, our 5-6 hour road journey extended to over 12 hours. The highways around Varanasi are in bad shape. Food was pretty unhygienic anywhere you eat, try and avoid all non-veg and stick to simple vegetarian food. We enjoyed the food at Dosa cafe (cheap) and the Gateway hotel (expensive). We had a wonderful guide from the hotel – Mr Rohit, who really knew the area well and spoke pretty decent English.
Varanasi is known as the ‘city of temples’, well, because there are several thousands of temples, some well decorated and large, others so small, you wouldn’t even notice while walking past. Then there is the Kashi Vishwanath temple which is one of the oldest Hindu temples and the most famous Hindu temple in the world. Pilgrims visit this temple in millions every year. Its like the Mecca for Hindus, who should visit this temple at least once in their lifetime. Heavily guarded by cops all around this temple is bang in the middle of chaos, narrow alleys, cow dung and hoards of people.
The other reason why Varanasi is so famous is because of the open cremation ghats. It is believed if a Hindu is cremated on these ghats and ashes thrown in the Holi river Ganga, the soul would attain Moksha (Salvation) instantly, like a free pass into heaven, instead of being reincarnated as a human being over and over again (Transmigration). The other way to attain Moksha is to be born and reborn several times, till one has no more desires. Once you are completely free of desires, the soul will no longer transmigrate from one birth to another, instead becomes free, attaining salvation/Moksha.
These ghats are the reason why several tourists frequent Varanasi everyday. There are two open crematories, not for the weak of heart. At one time there may be as many as 30 bodies burning in the open, right next to the river. Most body parts burn and turn into ashes, except the chest of men and hips of women. These along with the ashes are then dumped into the Holi river Ganga.
I’m sure you’ve heard stories of floating bodies in the river, I would like to report, we saw no such thing. The locals say it does happen but only during the monsoons where bodies don’t burn completely or if the banks are flooded.
Things you shouldn’t miss: evening aarti – find a seat right in front of the performance on the ghat. You can also look at the aarti from a boat but sitting right in front of the performance is a different experience altogether.
Hire a local guide and tour the alleys of Varanasi, tell him to show you different ashram’s where widows spend the rest of their lives, bonus points if he can get you inside and see how they live.
Walk to both ends of the river bank from Asi ghat to Manikarnika ghat.
Do a morning as well as evening boat ride. Try and start your morning boat ride before sunrise to enjoy it the most.
Walk on the bank opposite to the ghats, experience sunset behind the city Varanasi from here.
Overall visit Varanasi with an open mind and heart, take it all in without judging and you will have a wonderful experience of a culture so different, spiritual and strange all at the same time.
We spent a wonderful 3 days here and thoroughly enjoyed most of it. Will be back definitely…
If you like the images above, make sure you check out my video – Varanasi in 3 minutes