Journey to Varanasi
We bought a 3 a/c ticket and took the train from Agra to Varanasi. Our train departed at 4pm and arrived in Varanasi at 5am. We both had bottom bunk sleepers which we thought might be a good idea when we booked the tickets, but unfortunately neither of us got any sleep. The bottom bunk seems to experience the most train movement so we were both swaying and bouncing around all night.
We also decided to be adventurous and try the food on the train. This was a mistake as it was relatively pricey (rs.50 each) and did not taste good at all. It was mildly warm curry and rice with 2 chapattis – no wonder none of the Indian’s on the train ordered it. On the up side, it did not make us ill.
When we arrived in Varanasi we used the pre-paid auto rickshaw booth outside the station and we paid 75 rupees to get to our hotel – Hotel Alka, near Meer Ghat.
Location: Meer Ghat (waterfront)
How much does it cost? rs. 500 private room (shared bathroom)
We chose to stay at Hotel Alka because of its location right near the main ghat, Dashashwamedh, and also its great rating on trip advisor.
We stayed in a private double room with shared bathroom for rs.500 per night.
Our room was on the upper floor which was slightly inconvenient for the bathroom, located on the ground floor, but the view of the Ganges from our bedroom window more than compensated.
We also found the room quiet and cool so were able to catch up on sleep. The only downside was the ¾ sized bed that we had to share – it was a little bit too cosy!
Throughout our stay in Varanasi we eat in small local street cafes – all of which were delicious. We much prefer these cafes to the larger more expensive restaurants as the food is more tasty and the service is 100 times better.
There isn’t a great deal of amazing sights in Varanasi – however it’s an atmospheric place with lots of culture to soak up.
Ganga Aarti (Ceremony)
Location: Dashashwamedh Ghat
How much does it cost? Free
Each night at 7pm a group of priests perform a ceremony beside the water at Dashashwamedh Ghat. We arrived at about 6:30pm and watched the final preparations being put in place from the steps leading down to the ghat.
The ceremony is very atmospheric and lasts for around 2 hours. If you’re sat on the steps then prepared to be approached by young girls armed with little pots of glitter who offer to make you a pretty design on your hand for ‘free’ as free soon becomes rs.100.
Boat trip down the Ganges
Location: Any Ghat along the Ganges
How much does it cost? approx. rs.100 per person per hour for a row boat (barter hard)
As our train arrived in Varanasi at 5am we decided to take an early boat trip down the Ganges. We headed down to Meer Ghat just near our hotel and negotiated a boat for an hour for rs.100 per person.
The boat trip was very relaxing and the sights from the boat were amazing – we rowed past the main ghat where people were washing and praying and it all seemed to be a hubbub of activity.
Manikarnika Ghat (‘burning ghat’)
Location: Manikarnika Ghat – once you reach the piles of wood head down towards the river where you will witness the burning
How much does it cost? Free
We both wanted to visit Manikarnika Ghat to observe the cremations that happen there throughout the day. After reading the Lonely Planet we were aware of the touts that may be hanging around the ghat in order to take you to a nearby hotel to observe from the roof (for a fee), or insist that you pay to see the ghat. Luckily there was no sign of touts when we approached the ghat.
Immediately upon entering the cremation area there was a bamboo stretcher with a dead body lay on it wrapped in cloth, waiting to be cremated. The men that work at the burning ghat are from a community of untouchables and their task is to dip the body into the Ganges to bless it with holy water, and then place the body on the wood in order to burn. The workers at the ghat work in extremely hot conditions around the fires all day every day. It takes only 3 hours for a body to be burnt – any remaining bones are then collected and placed in the Ganges.
An interesting fact I learnt whilst there was that women of the deceased are not allowed to watch the cremation for fear that they may be overcome with grief and may also throw themselves on the funeral pyre.