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The Wonderfully Fascinating City Of Varanasi

Varanasi, India

Life along the holy Ganges River.

It’s one of the holiest, it’s one of the oldest and it is by far one of the most fascinating destinations not only in India, but in the world. And I’m lucky enough to be here in the city of Varanasi right now for the second time in my life.

I’m actually writing this post from my room at the Ajay Hotel, a room that offers a perfect view of the holy Ganges River from the window next to my bed. And every time I glance out that window I am overcome with a feeling of awe as everything below, from the dark river to those bathing in its water or praying along its banks, to the holy men meditating on the steps, to the simple wooden rowboats passing by, makes it seem as if life in this 3000 year old city has stood relatively still for a long, long time.

However, that feeling doesn’t even come close to the feeling I have whenever I am actually outside wandering. Varanasi, this holiest of cities for those of the Hindu and Jain faiths, is just the kind of place where even a twenty minute walk will lead you to a lifetime’s worth of travel experiences as you uncover an unfathomably diverse range of sights and encounters around every corner.

To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here are twenty photos that I took today while wandering through the narrow, hundreds-year-old lanes and alleys and along the dozens of ancient ghats that line the Ganges River. Hopefully these photos will show you exactly why those who visit Varanasi often describe it as a city unlike any other on the planet, a mind-blowing city that one wants to visit over and over again…

Colorful Door (Varanasi)

Cow and Trash (Varanasi)

Palace on the Ganges (Varanasi)

Goat on the Ghats (Varanasi)

Man in Old City (Varanasi)

Life on the Ganges (Varanasi)

Colorful House (Varanasi)

Oxen on the Ganges (Varanasi)

Woman in the Old City (Varanasi)

Kedar Ghat (Varanasi)

Boat on the Ganges (Varanasi)

Buffalo near the Ganges (Varanasi)

Woman in Boat (Varanasi)

Narrow Lane (Varanasi)

Temple on the Ganges (Varanasi)

Dead Calf in the Ganges (Varanasi)

Holy Men at Kedar Ghat (Varanasi)

Monkey on Temple (Varanasi)

Lane in the Old City (Varanasi)

Man on the Street (Varanasi)

That’s a taste of Varanasi. And as a result of what I’ve seen and done and of who I’ve met so far during my visit here, it looks like I’ll end up staying for several days longer than expected. Who knows when I’ll be able to pull myself away!


Have you been to Varanasi? Is it the kind of destination you’d want to visit?

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49 Responses to The Wonderfully Fascinating City Of Varanasi

  1. madhuri says:

    I am a resident of varanasi and I must say that you have captured the right pics which are self explanatory about the taste and temper of the city

  2. rahul says:

    Its so nice to hear so diverse opinions on the city that is Varanasi, I have studied there and know it somewhat. Its a very old city atleast 10000 yrs old, even the most ancient scriptures mention it as the old divine city! It was one of the earliest hub of civilisation, a hub of science culture and life science, I would not call it religion because Hinduism that we know today was never a closed concept as religion, it was an endeavour to understand life, that gave birth to several schools of thought and dialogues and argumentation were the warring tools, slowly reason gave in to faith and faith to religion. Although a lot has been lost to time and development(or decrement) but still one of the places where humanity is preserved, in its ancient form, crude yet serene, stark and disturbing still peaceful and inspiring. It forces you to see beyond the obvious.(as in a post above a gentleman blessed his luck for being born in US) Varanasi removes the foils and fixtures that clog our mind, it opens up the soul for one to see deep inside. But its not for everyone, its for the pupil to be compatible, the guru in varanasi is opensource.

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  5. Seeing this post brings back all of the feelings from Varanasi and makes me realize again how lucky I was to have spent a few days there.
    It’s so crazy, yet everything works and it feels normal somehow..similar to most of India, but at 11.
    I feel Varanasi is somewhere you leave, remember you visited, and it still doesn’t seem like a place that is real. Thank you for recommending that I go there when I was in India.

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Royce – I’m just glad you enjoyed your visit here and it sure doesn’t feel as if it is real once you leave. It’s hard to imagine that everything one sees there really took place in just one city during one short visit.

  6. lien says:

    Thanks for sharing these amazing sceneries. I sure hope to visit this city someday.

  7. Elaine says:

    Hi Earl,

    Wow……love your pics.

    I’ll be visiting Varanasi in February for the first time – seeing your blog with photos is great as I’ve been researching and blogging this week about what I’m expecting to see and do there………

    http://www.ageordieuptheganges.com/ghats-galore/
    http://www.ageordieuptheganges.com/404/

    It’s great to hear from someone who is actually there at the moment – I’m really looking forward to reading your blogs when you’re in Varanasi.

    Cheers
    Elaine (A Geordie Up The Ganges)
    http://www.ageordieuptheganges.com

  8. Sergey says:

    Oh how I miss it. While I was there for the first time I have allowed the sound ‘Om’ to enter me. It happened all so suddenly. I was sitting by the Ganges one day, thinking of something (life, death, seeming proximity of the two etc.) while suddenly I felt the sound coming out of me, coming out of my chest, rising and pushing its way out of my mouth. And then I realized that it wasn’t so much coming from inside of me, as it was all around me, in everything that I saw and touched. And it was some kind of the internal wall which has just broken down and the sound filled me up. On that day I promised to be better and kinder, since the scenes of a Burning Ghat to my left reminded me that the time to be better and kinder is running out.

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Sergey – Thank you for sharing that comment, seems like quite an experience you had in this city. And I’m certain that many travelers are similarly affected during their stay here.

  9. Jam @icoSnap says:

    I totally enjoyed looking at your photos they are beautifully taken. The city seems to be very bright and colorful – and the dead animal on the water just caught my attention for a bit WHOA!

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Jam – That dead animal is just a tiny taste of the sheer amount of death that any traveler must face when visiting this city. And yes, it’s an amazingly colorful city, especially in the early mornings and just before sunset when the ghats are the most active.

  10. Belle says:

    Absolutely beautiful photos! I still treasure my memories of this holy city, it truly breathtaking, spiritual and cultural all in one! Without a doubt one of the Indian highlights!

  11. Neelima V says:

    I’ve been there and it is such a land of paradoxes, death, cremation, birth, wedding, good, bad all in a day’s walk! I still can’t decide if I like it or not. :)

    I have written about it on my blog and I call it The Varanasi Paradox

  12. Neelima V says:

    I’ve been there and it is such a land of paradoxes, death, cremation, birth, wedding, good, bad all in a day’s walk! I still can’t decide if I like it or not. :)

    I have written about it on my blog – http://www.travelwithneelima.com/2012/03/varanasi-paradox.html

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Neelima – The good news is that we don’t have to decide if we like it or not as long as we appreciate the experience that it offers!

  13. Amanda says:

    Is that goat wearing a sweater?? Haha, love it.

    India is a place that has been intriguing me more and more lately. I don’t think I’m quite up for visiting just yet, but hopefully soon.

  14. Peggy Payne says:

    My novel Sister India is set in Varanasi (it was a NY Times Notable novel of the year when it came out.)

    Looking at these pictures really takes me back to the winter I spent there taking notes. It was like a bonus life within my regular life. Extraordinary! And it doesn’t appear to have changed at all.

    Somehow seeing these, even with the garbage and cow dung, puts me more in the Christmas/New Year/holy day spirit.

    (Lee and Lisa Rosen told me about this link. Really good blog!)

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Peggy – Thanks for visiting the site and that must have been an amazing experience to spend so much time in this city. I’d love to spend more than a week there at some point, truly getting to know the place at an entirely different level!

  15. These shots are awesome! I’m obsessed with the idea of visiting this city.

  16. Golfzoo says:

    Varanasi reflects a society with full colors and culture. Definitely will visit it again someday.

  17. Steve C says:

    Varanasi stands next to no other city in the world! I try to keep on going, not visiting the same place twice as there so many places in this world to see. But, I will definitely return to Varanasi some day. It’s a travelers mecca. If you call yourself a traveler and haven’t been to Varanasi, I can’t think of another place in the whole world that even comes close to: “your next place”!

    After spending a month and a half in Nepal, Varanasi was my first stop in India and it kinda snuck up on me. And as luck would have it, the first day was their holiest day and I didn’t even know it before hand. Talk about a surprise. We rented a rowboat with a guy to do the rowing right at dawn and slowly made our way up river viewing the thousands of worshipers on the ghats. We even saw a dead body float by, within a few feet of our boat.

    That evening after dark, I went out walking and viewed a burning pyre on one of the ghats right on the Ganges. There were no electric lights, just the light of burning torches and candles. The smell of the pyre smoke and incense, the sounds of the live bands playing music for the funeral and all the people; It’s an experience I’ll never forget and probably the top flash-back thought of all my travels!

    Earl, I hope we won’t hear a story from you about how you forgot to close all the windows to your room and the monkeys came in and got into your stuff!

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Steve – Luckily my window had a screen and so the monkeys stayed out, although they were messing around on the roof of my room the whole time! And your description of the burning ghat is spot on…it really does look like a scene from hundreds and hundreds of years ago without a single sign of modern times anywhere to be found. Not sure if I’ve seen anything quite like it anywhere else in the world.

  18. Hey Earl, wonderful photos, the dead dog one brought back memories! I love Varanasi, I remember feeling very small there, in a good way, as though I were part of something bigger. Life had been the same there for thousands of years, and would continue to be for thousands after I am gone. I spent my 30th birthday in Varanasi almost 2 years ago, and it was there that I decided to make my life count for something and follow my dreams. In two weeks I’m driving an auto-rickshaw 3,000 KM across India in the Rickshaw Run with two other bloggers. We’ve raised over $3000 for clean water charity, Frank Water. Enjoy Earl!!!

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Sarah – That’s excellent to hear and I can’t wait to follow your rickshaw run ride! Where are you now?

  19. Sarah says:

    Varanasi sounds magical and your photos are gorgeous- I love the one of the woman in the blue doorway. I can’t wait to visit India someday!

  20. Julie says:

    As a full time cyclist, I just love the picture of the bike! It’s amazing how many travel log pictures feature bikes…it is something we all have in common – the love and pure pleasure of bike riding!

  21. M says:

    Wow! You take some beautiful photos. My fav is the goat in the sweater.
    I have never visited, but if I did, I guess I would want to know the usual stuff: cheap/safe hotels, restaurants that won’t make me get Delhi belly and cool stuff to do.
    It looks like the crowds aren’t as much of an issue there, is that right?

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey M – There really aren’t many crowds here but the Old City is a bit packed, simply because you have to navigate through all of these incredibly narrow lanes to get anywhere and of course, there are thousands of people living in these areas going about their daily business. As for hotels and restaurants, it’s an easy place to figure out as there are dozens upon dozens of guesthouses/hotels right along the water, ranging in price from $100 USD per night to $3 per night. With restaurants, it’s easy to find the restaurants that are full of travelers (and therefore usually safe to eat at!) in the Old City as you’ll by most of them as you wander along the main lane through the Old City. I would just stay away from the very local places that clearly have the food pre-prepared and sitting in big pots in the front of the restaurant. Anywhere that cooks food to order will definitely be safer!

  22. Geoff says:

    To me Varansi is what happens when civilisation finally ends. Where animals live in houses and with the people living in shacks. Rivers blocked with polystyrene, rats everywhere. Human excrement all over the steps. No waste disposal total and utter filth. Truly unbelievable.
    My pictures are here https://picasaweb.google.com/111882957452855371846/20101107Varanasi & https://picasaweb.google.com/111882957452855371846/20101108Varansi

  23. Willsteed says:

    Yes I visited there as a youth of 18, en route overlanding right around India/Nepal back in ’83. Would I go back… no thanks. In hindsight most of India is a dump, an inefficient bureaucratic nightmare of one. Highlights, constantly overwhelmed and dogged by the negatives.

    Kids these days: I’d suggest trying Malaysia/Singapore instead. ‘Same same’ experience for youngsters, way better law and order and less hassle.

    • Shashank says:

      Will,

      Well it is now 2012, and I would say India has changed a lot from that of ’83! You should visit again to see the difference. There are negatives obviously, but they do not outnumber the positives. You would want to visit India, if you want to experience the diverse culture, warm hospitality, spirituality, religious diversity, delicious food, historical places, colorful festivals, great travel value,etc. You should read all that Earl has written earlier on India. It is all that and more! Come and witness :)

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Willsteed – To each their own…everyone has different experiences and while some certainly don’t enjoy India, plenty of others do, including myself.

  24. Shubhajit says:

    I’m afraid Photos do not appropriately reflect the religious Varanasi. There are Naga sadhus, Aghoris, there are ghats where you can see cremation in front of everyone..Varanasi is filthy, but no one can deny the ancient essence of oldest living civilized city in the world. One who goes there, realize it. Looking at photos of filth won’t justify its beauty

    • Jenn Howard says:

      This is my first post on this blog and I have always felt intimidated about posting here before because I have not started my travels yet. I’m almost ready to start my new adventures and I know that I have a lot to learn about diversity while I’m traveling. As of now, the very few diverse culutres that I have been exposed to while living here in Los Angeles have been fused with a strong American influence and not really a true representation of those living overseas. However, when I saw these pictures of Varanasi, I just had to comment. I don’t mean to be offensive in any way, I would just like to understand.

      I have to agree with Shubhajit, I do not see the religious tone here. Instead, the first thing that I notice is a lot of trash and I’m wondering if that could be because I do not knowthe religious history of the area.

      While I definately feel that I’m blinded by the evils of capitalism living here in the heart of Los Angeles and I dream of escaping to another continent every day, conversely these pictures make me feel how lucky I am to have been born in the U.S. and to still be living here.

      Although, I will admit that I do not understand those who are religious since I have explored so many faiths and now identify as an athiest. I do admire SOME of the intentions of religious followers because some of them have very good intentions such as, being kind to others at all times, helping those in need, and repecting the natural environment. In addition, there is something blissful and soothing about observing others while engaging in religious rituals. On the other hand, as I said I am an athiest and I believe in all of these values myself, apart from the coveted rituals. In fact, I plan on using my TESOL certification to volunteer in areas where English lessons may not be affordable and would like to volunteer as a releif aid at some point. I have also always wanted to volunteer in India. So, what I mean to say is that, at times, I don’t understand religious groups and their influence on areas like Varanasi, even though I respect them. I also sometimes wonder if people who conform to religion do so because they have not been exposed to other schools of thought or if they are just to afraid of the believed consequences to question them.

      I will admit though, that these pictures definitely make me want to visit the city, and perhaps as Shubhajit suggested, I will feel the religious charm once I am physically experiencing the area. Aside from all the trash that I saw laying in the alleyways and in the river, I was fascinated by the monkey that I saw clinging to one of the butresses, that was pretty interesting. Of course, we do not have any monkeys in southern california, excet at the zoo and even those exhibits are rather limited.

      I certainly hope that this post does not offend anyone, that is not my intention. I’m really writing this in hopes that someone can describe the charm that India obviously impresses onto people. I do not see it through these pictures, but I would like to understand it. Can someone please explain their experience? Earl, I woul love to hear your feedback on this. Is there a way to describe it?

      • Jenn Howard says:

        Oops, I meant… negative side of capitalism, not evils of capitalism. I did not see an option to edit here.

      • Wandering Earl says:

        Hey Jenn – Don’t worry, I don’t think your comment was offensive at all to anyone. And in all honestly, I wasn’t trying to describe any religious environment that I found fascinating. I was simply trying to describe or show a city that I find fascinating. And this city happens to be the holiest place for Hindus in all of India, so part of the fascination is the religious practices that take place here, the bathing in the river, the ceremonies, the holy men wandering around. To me, I don’t feel an overwhelming sense of spirituality in Varanasi at all…I observe, I contemplate what I am observing, I learn from it all and move on, which is basically the same process that I go through in almost any town in India, or anywhere else in the world for that matter.

        And while the trash certainly does not look appealing, it really is impossible to understand the overall appeal of India until a person actually visits it for themselves. India is unlike any other place I’ve been because it constantly challenges me and forces me to reevaluate everything I know about how live ‘should’ work. And while I wouldn’t want to live for a long time among such trash, as a traveler, I do want to experience these places because it opens my eyes and teaches me something new every single day.

        Most people in the world would be turned off by photos of trash and dead animals floating in the river but at the same time, just think of how many travelers fall in love with India and want to return over and over again (many!). And what causes them to return is again, something that can only be experienced once you get here!

        I hope that made some sense :)

  25. Mark Baron says:

    Those were GREAT photos, I can’t wait to see it all in person.

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Mark – Seeing it in person is something else…it really is impossible to describe well in photos or even words. It just needs to be seen!

  26. Tyrhone says:

    Love Varanasi! Your photos are great. I will never forget standing on the shore watching the cremations, and having a man walk past and catch the urine from a cow doing its business with his hand, and then proceed to drink it! They do things a little differently over there innit.

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Tyrhone – They sure do and I remember seeing something similar on a previous visit to India with a holy man drinking the cow urine. Too many things happening in this country that most people have never seen before…it sure makes for an intriguing adventure!

  27. Alyson says:

    Love it! Thanks for those photos, they’re fantastic, you’ve managed to capture Varanasi brilliantly, not just the usual scenes from the ghats. I can never decide if Varanasi or Khatmandu is my favorite city, I can’t wait to get back to India.

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Alyson – Those are both excellent and interesting cities to explore so you can love them both at the same time :)

  28. Great pics! Looks like awesome travels. Goats in a sweater and monkey always interesting stuff:)

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