Backpacking Varanasi: The oldest city in the world

Backpacking Varanasi: the oldest city in the world

Along the most fertile river of India, Ganga, in the North, lie a series of ancient civilisations. These were the first settlements that India developed around. Benaras, or Varanasi, as it is now called, is said to be the oldest existing city in the world. To journey through Benaras is to journey through the many folds of history wrapped in this time bubble.

Ancient streets of Varanasi
Ancient streets of Varanasi
A priest meditating by Ganga
A priest meditating by Ganga

Backpacking through Varanasi

Assi and its neighboring ghats is the backpacker section of Varanasi. Here, you will find a host of guesthouses, eateries, and tons of people selling touristic takeaways. One thing you should keep in mind is that Varanasi lies in one of the poorest states in India. A huge part of the population is below the poverty line. Keep this in mind when you are (and you will be) hassled on the streets by pushy vendors trying to sell their wares, rikshaw (tuk tuk) and taxi drivers competing among themselves to be able to offer you a ride. Poverty lies in the undercurrents of the vibe here. And if you watch closely, you will see it staring back at you blatantly. Beware of mugging. The people here are nice, but poor.

 

A monkey performer at Varanasi
A monkey performer at Varanasi

Accommodation

It is easy to find a guest house here. Check around Assi Ghat.

Things to Do

Here are a few things I’d recommend you do in Benaras:

5 am chai at Assi ghat followed by a sunrise walk

I’ve had the best chai in India in Varanasi. The ancient, opulent river flowing before you as the dawn breaks lends to the taste.
The best chai in the world
The best chai in the world

A boat ride on River Ganga

Exploring Varanasi by boat is an exceptional experience. It will add a dimension of silence to your journey, as you paddle through the sacred river, watching ghat after ghat. Pay round INR 500 to 1000 per boat (can seat 4) for a 40 minute ride.

 

Watch the aarti at Assi Ghat

The sunset and sunrise prayer sessions at Assi and its neighboring ghats are a sight to behold. Garbed in shades of gold, blue and red, priests and dancers perform a beautiful synchronized ritualistic dance with fire.

A boat ride on River Ganga
A boat ride on River Ganga

The ghat of the dead

Death, in Hindu beliefs is not regarded as something to be feared. It is welcomed, and prepared for. The ghat of the dead is the most sacred cremation site for Hindus. People from round the country bring their dead to be cremated at this ghat. Do not try to photograph the cremations. It is disrespectful.

They say, everyone who comes to Ganga leaves behind something, and takes with them something more than they came with. In Varanasi, I lost my pride, and was humbled. Hope you find that something to leave and take back too.

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