One of the most exotic travel experiences I’ve ever had was in Varanasi, India. Varanasi, sometimes called Benares, is the holiest city of the Hindu religion.
The highlight of any trip to Varanasi is a dawn boat trip on the Ganges. This was my sole reason for coming here and virtually all I had time for, as my flight back to L.A. from Delhi on my too-short-a-visit to India was scheduled two days after my arrival. Despite this ridiculously tight scheduling and a multi-hour delay in Delhi, it was well worth it. The dawn boat ride and walk about the temples was an experience I’ll never forget.
My hotel was right alongside the Ganges. Luckily, my boat ride was arranged at my arrival the night before, and all I had to do was rise before dawn and walk down the stairs to the ghat. A ghat is a bank of a holy river, and this is where the boats depart from. There are many ghats in Varanasi. These are also the places where the devout say their prayers and bathe.
Varanasi is the preferred spot for those of the Hindu faith to come to die. It is believed that if you die here, your soul will go to heaven permanently, bypassing the rigors of reincarnation. There are certain ghats, called burning ghats, where cremations are held. The half-burnt corpses are then deposited in the Ganges. There are many Hindus who come to die in Varanasi without the means to afford a cremation. Thankfully, I did not see any floating dead bodies, but according to my boatman, it’s a relatively common sight. Be prepared for this possibility if you come here. I did not take any photos of the burning ghats, as it is considered disrespectful.
I walked down to board my boat before dawn and watched as the sun rose over the Ganges. As the sun rises, people steadily emerge. It’s a surreal experience to see the devout gather along the Ganges. Some are bathing; others praying, washing their clothes, meditating and doing yoga. While bathing it’s okay for men to strip down to their briefs, but women must bathe fully clothed. My boatman was very informative and pointed out the key temples along the banks.
After the boat ride and look at the temples, I was invited for a cup of chai and the obligatory visit to a rug merchant. This is standard practice for Westerners on tours throughout India. I generally complement the merchants on their beautiful products and politely decline a purchase due to financial distress after embarking on a trip halfway around the world.
Varanasi is a highly recommended stop on a visit to India. Allow yourself at least an extra day so you’re not rushed as I was. The holy city is a nice contrast to Delhi and the Taj Mahal, particularly if you desire to expose yourself more fully to this ancient, fascinating culture.