Varanasi turned out to be such a lovely town that I had to write at least 3 posts about it. I recently shared an introduction to Varanasi about where to stay and how to best experience the town. I also told you what to expect from the Ghats, which are famous for cremation ceremonies.
But then I realised that none of them addresses the basic etiquette you must follow while you’re here. Being the spiritual capital of India, Varanasi can be confusing. Right from “can we click pictures of burning pyres” to “how to deal with touts” – people have their doubts. In an effort to answer those random but important questions, here are the 11 most important tips you need to know:
1) Come to Varanasi, but don’t come here first. Varanasi is wild, particularly for those who are new to Indian culture. Watching dead bodies lit on fire, and naked sadhus whitewashed in ash, can scary you to a degree that you would not want to leave your hotel room. So before coming here, ease into the real India for some time (if this is your first trip in the country!) and prepare yourself for such the show.
2) Do not stay at Manikarnika Ghat on your first night. Manikarnika Ghat is where the real action takes place. With at least 20 burning pyres, placed right next to each other, the sight can be overwhelming. Reverberations of chanting add to the melodrama furthermore. I remember staying at Assi Ghat for a night, which was a simplified version of the city – and I advise you do the same thing because Manikarnika was perhaps the next level.
3) Varanasi is not a city to party, or enjoy the nightlife. Save another city for that. Instead come here to explore the city, to sit on the ghats and soak up the complexities of Indian culture.
4) Experiment with the food. Being the synthesis of several age-old religious traditions, Varanasi offers a divine and enriching street food experience. Just hit one of the old streets in the main bazaar, find a crowded food joint and try different delicacies – you’re going to love them all. Deepak Tambul Bhandar, Deena Chaat Bhandar and Baati Chokha are a few recommended places to start with.
I would also particularly recommend eating Paani-Poori at one of the roadside traditional shops, that offer an authentic and traditional experience.
5) You can take photos of the cremations. According to Hindu religion, counting your last few days in Varanasi, or at least getting cremated here is a great thing. So rest assured, that families relating to those who are getting cremated are not in a shocking mode. Rather, some of them can be found in a celebrating mode. So unless you keep your wits about how not to offend the families of the deceased, it is totally okay to click pictures.
6) The popular Viswanath Temple is not open to foreigners. Though makes sure you check with the local authorities once, as the rules change in India every day.
7) Make sure you ask saadhus for their permission before taking their pictures. Why? Because if you won’t, chances are you’re going to end up paying a hefty price for each click (not all saadhus found in Varanasi have renounced the world, some take it as a business). However, if you ask for their permission beforehand, with a bright and smiling face, you might bail out for free.
8) You don’t have to make a trip to the Ghats because the old town is rather built on them. There are more than 80 ghats in Varanasi in total, and a part of your daily walk will eventually lead you to the ghats, even if you stay away from them. However, to best experience the town, it is recommended to find an accommodation near the ghats.
9) If you think you’re smart, consider Touts in Varanasi smarter. They are persistent, shrewd and quick on the update. Where most of them will offer you a boat ride or a quick trip around the city, some of them will go to a level where they will approach you asking for the “wood” money, to have their deceased relatives cremated. Just do not believe them!
10) Extending back from the riverbank ghats is a labyrinth of alleys, called They are disorienting, confusing and the chances are you’ll probably get lost. But however lost you become, just keep walking and you will eventually end up at a ghat. Also, make sure you memorise the name of your guesthouse and the ghat where it is located so you can ask people which way to go when it’s time to get home.
11) Expect almost no one telling you the right price for a service, unless they’ve it printed on a brochure. So whenever you purchase a thing, eat some food make sure you negotiate. This particularly applies to boat rides in the Ganges. Don’t feel bad about negotiating. It may be a holy place and might feel wrong, but business is business.
Where To Stay In Varanasi
Because Varanasi is a tourism highlight in Uttar Pradesh, there is no dearth of budget and standard hotels/hostels. However, a couple of accommodations I’d personally stayed in and will recommend for their cleanliness, value for money and a good customer service will be Stop Hostels (for solo travellers looking for a shared dorm), and Palace On Ganges Heritage Hotel (for those looking for a medium-budget hotel).
Have you been to Varanasi? Would you like to share any tips?