Varanasi is complex - the chaos on the streets, the calmness of the Ganga, intense faith in religion, the path to salvation, thousands of years of history, the cultural diversity, the pursuit of happiness, the art and music festiveness. To be exposed to so much and more, Varanasi can be overwhelming for a first timer. I decided to focus on the easier and obvious elements of Varanasi on this short trip, leaving its history and culture for another day.
Being an impulsive traveller, I landed in Varanasi without much research or plan. The high-decibel traffic, the labrynthine lanes and excess crowd will hit you as soon as you enter the city limits. I realized befriending Varanasi would take a while. Fortunately, living in a hostel made my induction to Varanasi much much easier. From making friends to making plans, it all became effortless once I landed at Stops Hostel. The hostel had daily tours to explore different aspects of Varanasi, which helps a solo traveller to explore the city without getting completely lost. The Ghats tour, the Market tour, the Food tour and the Boat Ride, the hostel has it all sorted for first timers. It’s a good idea to take a couple of tours initially, to familiarize yourelf with the place and the people, after which you could loiter on your own easily.
What I loved in Varanasi:
Boat ride in the Ganges: This undoubtedly was my favourite part of the trip. I took the boat ride to witness the magical sunrise over the Ganges. I took the boat ride to stare at the gorgeous sunset over the ghats. I took the boat ride to enjoy the calm amidst the chaos. I also took the boat ride when I was tired of walking. Basically I only looked for a reason to get on to that row boat.
Walking along the ghats: The ghats include the long stretch of steps that run parallel to the river banks for several kilometers. The graffitis of Hindu Gods, the chatty babas, the faith of the devotees, the celebration of life and death - the ghats had a lot of stories to tell. The evening arati at Deshaswamedh ghat is an experience worth witnessing, with the chants, chimes and the vibes so well coordinated.
Getting lost in the lanes: I love walking aimlessly and getting lost, and the narrow lanes in Varanasi offer plenty of opportunities to do that. The maze of lanes running parallel to the ghats was laced with old houses, tiny temples, silk shops, food and tea stalls and pan bhandars. Though the cows and cycles perpetually clogged the streets, the numerous posters of yoga and sanskrit tutorials plastered on the walls give you a glimpse of the attraction that Varanasi is for international tourists. Local bakeries and cafes make an occasional appearance, but they say when in Varanasi, eat the local Varansi food.
Gorging on local food: While a non-vegetarian cant stop feasting on the famous kebabs, the vegetarians like me are in for a food delight too. The famous kachori subzi, tikki chaat and tamatar chaats, malaio, kullad chai, flavoured lassi and thandai are the must-haves in Varanasi. Food trails organized by local guides can take you around the gallis and stalls known for food. My favourite was a 70 yr old lassi shop called Blue Lassi, where the blue walls of the shop were plastered with photos and messages of the travellers, making the shop as interesting as the variety of lassis offered there. Brown Bread Bakery and Vatika Pizzeria are the other top recommendations.
Enjoying the festivities: I planned to be in Varanasi at the time of Dev Diwali, which turned out to be the best decision of the trip. The city was buzzing with cultural programs and festivities, making it an ideal time to visit Varanasi for the devotees as well as tourists. We all flocked to the ghats to enjoy legends such as Amjad Ali Khan and Wadali brothers perform live for the occasion. The entire stretch of ghats was lit up with diyas, making it a sight worth witnessing on the full moon night of Dev Deepavli. All big Hindu festivals are celebrated with great fervor and enthusiasm, making it worth planning a trip around those dates.