Tips before you go
Okay, we’re onto the most important part. Here I would like to outline some tips for getting the most out of your trip Varanasi, staying safe and respecting the culture.
Watch out for the 4 B’s
This isn’t actually an official thing, but it was something I thought of while wondering around as there are many things to watch out for in Varanasi. But, I have summarised them into the 4 B’s.
Bells – Bells means body. If you’re walking down the narrow street’s and you hear bells behind you, look around and get to the side of the street as soon as possible. It usually means that people are running through the streets with a body for the pyre.
Bodies – Be prepared for the fact that this is the place where Hindu’s wish to be burned after they die to move onto the afterlife. Therefore, you will see open cremations at the various burning ghats on the river Ganges. I didn’t know how I would react at seeing this as in western society we treat death as a little bit of a taboo and are almost shielded from it. But when I reflected on the cremations in Varanasi, this is that persons ultimate wish to be burned here. So, once I changed my perspective on it, I felt comfortable in the knowledge that this meant a lot to that person. That, although they are leaving this life on earth, their next life is just beginning. You may also see some cows, animals and/or remains floating down the river.
Bulls – Varanasi is the holy city of Lord Shiva and Hindu’s believe that bulls embody the soul of Lord Shiva on earth. So, naturally, there are dozens of them around roaming free. However, the narrow alleys, the bikes, monkeys and the various noises etc. can startle the bulls and make them charge. At one point, my guide literally threw me against the wall to avoid a charge and so it can be quite a scary experience. Just be wary, they have been known to butt people with their horns if threatened. Another thing to mention is to be wary of what you wear on your feet! With bulls comes bull cr*p and there is a lot of it. Make sure you wear closed shoes or sandals with a thick sole. You may find with flip flops you pick up something smelly between your toes!
Barking Dogs – There are many stray and starving dogs in Varanasi that need help. Although they wouldn’t mean to harm you, that doesn’t mean that they don’t bite when they feel threatened, want to protect their babies or they’re hungry! Not all dogs have rabies, but it’s good to be wary of them to avoid it. Don’t taunt them with food. If you do get bitten, seek medical assistance immediately.
There are many scams in Varanasi that you should be aware of before you visit so that you aren’t ripped off. Luckily, I wasn’t exposed to any due to my lovely tour guide Ravi, but he did warn me of some that take place to unbeknown tourists.
Need wood for their families funeral – you may come across people who are desperate for money and say that they can’t afford wood for their funeral pyre. Our natural instinct would be to feel a pang of guilt and start handing over our rupees but I wouldn’t give into it.
Hospice Scam – when you approach the burning ghat from the shore, some people may approach you to explain the burning process and ask for money for the half way house next door. This is a place in which they say people are waiting to die and the money will be used for the wood. Again, I was advised this is a scam.
Taxi/Auto Scam – Some other travellers have advised me that they had issues with taxis from Varanasi. Some say the hotel is closed down or whatever and take them on a goose chase around the place charging more and more money. If you’re arriving from the airport, ensure you get a pre-paid taxi ticket or arrange a transfer from your hotel.
Please be wary of who you give your money to. Don’t pay for a service unless you have received it. Of course, I did give some money to those people who I took pictures of and saw it as an investment. I also donated a little money to the temples and for blessings but only a couple of hundred rupees or so. It’s no biggie and it actually serves the community and the people who use them.