Varanasi is one of the most diverse, crazy, colourful and intense places I have ever visited in India or indeed my entire life. From the moment I landed to the moment I left, it was nothing but beautiful chaos. It was also one of my first and favourite stops on my first trip in India and somewhere that, now I’ve experienced India A LOT more, I would feel happy coming back to.
A lot of travellers are put off Varanasi due to the burning ghats, witnessing the cremations and the throwing of dead bodies in the river. But, this totally shouldn’t sway you off a visit here and I’ll tell you why…
You don’t have to witness the cremations if you don’t want to!
There are 84 ghats (a ghat is literally a name for steps leading to a holy body of water) joined along the river ganges in Varanasi and only a select few are official burning ghats. The rest are temples, places for washing and hotels.
Now I’m not gonna lie to you, walking along the ghats in Varanasi is an out of this world experience to put it lightly. You will not believe the things you will see, the smells that enter your nose and people you’ll meet or follow you. Add in the humidity and it’s a bitter pill to swallow. So, I thought I’d right this post to prepare you for what you will see, safety tips and etiquette to not offend anyone.
So, here’s an insight as to what it’s like visiting the cremations ghats in Varanasi. Just to let you know if you’re worried to read on – there are no pictures of bodies in this post. Out of respect for the families I didn’t take any pictures. It’s completely prohibited. I mean, why would you want to? It’s somebodies funeral.
Come with an open mind
Death seems to be a taboo subject in the West and something that we keep hidden a lot and don’t talk about. Or, it seems that way to me. But, for people in India it’s something that is accepted to talk about freely and watch.
When my great grandmother died when I was four, I wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral. But here, I saw children around that age and even younger with their parents that came to watch the burning.
The best advice I can give you before you enter the ghats is to keep an open mind. Accept that this isn’t your country and it’s part of Hindu culture here.
People that practice the Hindu faith come to Varanasi to die or after they die to gain salvation for their sins and to enter Nirvana. So, if you keep it in mind that it’s a spiritual place and this is what they want this may bring some comfort.
There are A LOT of hawkers
One of the first things I noticed when I started walking along the ghats was how many hawkers there were. Every other person asked me if I wanted a boat ride, wanted hash, wanted to watch the cremations or where I was going and if they could show me around. It can get extremely exhausting but just politely refuse or do what I do sometimes and ignore all together.
Coming from the West, some people may feel bad about it but you have to get over that. As soon as they’ve engaged in conversation with you they will expect something and won’t give up.
The only time I really kick off is if someone touches me or pulls my clothes/hair, that I don’t like. But usually, just telling them ‘don’t touch’ makes them stop. Or, you can make a little scene and they will go running!
A lot of the tourism here you’ll find is connected, hotels have connections with boat sellers, taxis also have connections with tourist shops and it’s all there to get your money. Always arrange tours and go shopping yourself to save being scammed.
Watch out for scams
Something like 30% of people in Varanasi have employment, so there are tonnes of scams for tourists in operation. It’s the kingpin of hustle and you’ll feel it as soon as you arrive. Here are some scams to watch out for, some having happened to me;
- Cremation scam: People will ask you for wood for their families funeral
- A better view: They will ask you if you want a better view of the cremations and then ask for a horrendous amount of money
- Half way house: They will take you to a half way house and claim it’s people who are waiting to die, my tour guide and friends have verified this simply isn’t true. But a way to pull on your heart strings
- Rickshaw scams: You have to negotiate a lot in Varanasi for a 3 wheeler, and if you’re new you may be taken on a wild goose chase to find your hotel. Always say you have a booking already (even if you don’t) That way they won’t take you to a place they will get commission
- Taxi driver/hotels: taxi driver will take you to a ‘boat man’ to negotiate a fee, they will say a ridiculous rate like 1800 rupees for one hour. Hotels will also have something similar in operation. Just head down to the ghats and negotiate your own. Taxi drivers/tour guides will also take you to shops they will gain a commission from.
- Milk for babies: street kids and mothers with empty bottles will ask you for milk. I was surprised when one street kid didn’t want my money but wanted me to buy a bag of milk. At first, I thought okay sure, but then realised it was a scam. The bag cost way too much and the mothers were giving it back to the shop and taking profit (no money or milk for the kid)!
Negotiate for a boat ride
The best way to see the River ganges and the ghats in Varanasi is to take a boat ride at sunrise or in the morning time. It’s more peaceful than walking along the ghats and is like an oasis compared to the deafening traffic in the city.
Don’t book a boat ride through your hotel or through a taxi driver; both will gain a commission. The best thing to do is head to the main ghat and arrange a tour yourself or the night before.
Negotiating a boat ride in Varanasi is a challenge, but one you must take! You need to be pretty hard ball with your haggling skills here but persevere, the price will eventually drop down if you keep repeating the price you’re willing to pay.
You shouldn’t pay any more than 500 rupees per hour for a row boat. I managed to get mine down to 300 an hour but this took around 30 minutes and haggling with around 5 drivers until I got the right price.
You’ll get all sorts of excuses about the current being high and it being festival time but the price shouldn’t be anymore.
Motor boats are also a good option if you want to travel down the river fast. But, you may pay a lot more. I personally found it noisy, bumpy and smelly. Make sure you ask the driver to stop for photos when you want to (not at the burning ghats of course).
If you don’t want to see bodies, make sure you say
Most boat rides down the river ganges will stop at one of the burning ghats for a little while so you can see. If this isn’t what you would like to do on your tour, then you need to tell the boat driver to move on past the cremation ghat.
Bodies are carried down to the river on a wooden stretcher (pyre) through the streets and are wrapped from head to toe in red cloth. You won’t see the body. They will submerge it into the river and out several times. Rice is placed in the mouth of the deceased and ghee is rubbed on the body. Then the pyre is set on fire until the body is completely burned. The ashes are then scattered in the river.
The most you will personally see here at the burning ghat is the massive pile of logs for burning, the families and the flames.
Do NOT take photos, even from the boat
As you’re pretty much attending someone’s funeral, it’s best to show the proper respect by not smiling and laughing (not that you would), dressing conservatively and in no way, by any means take photos. If you have your camera or phone out, do not be surprised if you hear people shouting at you from afar. It will probably be the family members getting annoyed.
Of course, it’s acceptable to take photos along the other parts of the river but when you approach the burning ghats it’s a big no, no.
Take a long shower and wash your clothes
You will find that if you have come close to the cremation ghats or sat and watched from the river that the ashes of the burning bodies may get on your body and clothes. Make sure you take a long shower and wash your hair to make sure you don’t have any left on you when you reach your hotel.
Learn and accept (or try to)
I think many people hear what Varanasi is all about and completely discard it. But, learning and accepting other cultures is what travelling is all about! I would say that if you are travelling to India, that Varanasi is a must visit.
Yes, there are burning ghats but there are also spiritual temples, beautiful ganga aarti’s to watch, amazing people to meet and loads of other stuff to get up to if you didn’t want to experience the cremation side of it.
It’s a rollercoaster of emotions and will stick with you for a lifetime. Make sure you don’t miss out!
Want to read more?
I’ve been to Varanasi four times now and travelled there solo, so you can read my honest and informative articles about Varanasi below;
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