It was an impromptu decision to book my tickets. I packed my bags just four hours prior to my train's departure. My family wasn't pleased, let's put it that way. My solo, impulsive trip to Varanasi wasn't without glitches but instead of focussing on current news, I decided to visit a city that dates back to eternity, with a clean slate, ready for whatever adventure came my way. "I got this," I said to myself, just habitually checking my backpack for the bottle of pepper spray, the day I arrived. And by the end of it, I realised a solo trip to Varanasi was pretty great and I enjoyed every moment of it. Follow a list of must-do things if you're in Varanasi on a solo trip and you will love each and every moment of it.
Exploring the famed 'Benaras ki galliyaan'
I mostly explored Varanasi afoot, because that’s the only way you can wander off into the tapering narrow alleys. Much of the culture that overflows in this city is seeped and saturated in these 'Banaras ki galiyaan'. These streets are almost claustrophobic, lined with open sewage and heaps of garbage plopped around every random corner. The clusters of overhead wires block most of the sunlight that tries to peep through. You have to tolerate the swarming flies and feral dogs and once in a while squeeze past a huge bull in the narrow alley.
But then… you are suddenly struck by the wafting smell of piping hot kachoris and jalebis being fried in hot oil. People stop for a glass of fresh lassi just next to the trash. You see German bakeries and Korean eateries with humble, ambient interiors where much of the foreigners settle for food and their daily quota of air-con. These peculiar cafes were my oasis when I needed a break from hopping places in the scorching sun. I met Russian nationals-turned-brahmacharis, psychedelic painters, Spanish families hit (more like run over) with a culture shock and the conversations that conspired were undeniably memorable. All the razzmatazz of hippie street shopping and street food is here. But what’s fascinating is that the locals still habituate these streets and the nuances of their daily lives blend into the ‘touristy’ experience. I walked passed white people in sarees and ash-slathered Aghoris which made my head turn every single time, but the regular local on the side sat unaffected by his doorway with a Hindi newspaper to kill time and ready to spit his paan juices out at the foot of a random stranger, without a care in the world. The life in the gallis almost like the city’s obstinate declaration that yes, it is one of the oldest cities in the world and its legacy transcends time. You don’t possess the power to change its ways but it can definitely sway you.
Take a boat ride at sunrise (or sunset)
The most captivating experience of my trip was hands down, the boat ride at sunrise. I hadn’t expected much from it but that moment when I saw the first rays touching the banks and the city sprawling to life with them, I couldn’t blink. A vibrancy had washed over the ghats, the devouts descended in the waters for a holy dip, people were praying and meditating, children dived fearlessly in the water to bathe, washing chores were brought to the river. From my boat, I could hear the faint chants of the morning prayers emerging from all the 88 ghats of the riverfront.
The city had risen with the sun. The boatman narrates the story of a handful of the most significant ghats in a crossover of many fake accents. Each ghat was constructed by a different medieval king, and though they are young compared to the ancient ruins on Rajghat, the ghats have inspired their own mythology. The most famous among them all is the Dashashwamedh Ghat, where the father of Ram once sacrificed 10 horses in an appeal to the sun. As for the city of Varanasi, it was founded by Shiva himself. He stood here with Parvati when time started ticking for the first time ever. And in that moment of mysticism, I bet you will believe it.
Sketch the ghats
I spent my mornings sketching away at the ghats. It is an unmissable landscape for any artist. The colourfulness of it all is blinding. Be it the cramped facades of the building and the temple crests, old stairs paving your way to the mighty Ganga, the people taking a holy dip...The ghats of Varanasi are the cardinals of its faith and culture.
The ghats abound with sadhus and other people of faith. They preach their sermons loudly in their saffron or white robes. The men of the city wear big, bright tilaks and there are sporadic roars of “Shiv Shambho” or “Har har Mahadev” from all sides. Pilgrims pour in from all parts of the country, many of whom take a bath in Ganga without maintaining any form of discretion. So be ready to see people stripping off in front you as if they are in a communal bath. No doubt this town practices piety, but definitely not with sobriety.
I tried to capture the architecture, the emotion, the people--and how all the elements are symbiotics to the portrait of the ghats.
Try community yoga
Subah-e-Banaras is a wonderful initiative that has been started by the government. It happens at Assi Ghat at the break of dawn. It starts with a theatrical Ganga arti performed against the rising sun in the background, followed by a short concerto of morning raga and community yoga. I have never been inclined towards yoga personally but it was 5.30 am in the morning that I found myself amidst rows of people outstretched over Assi Ghat, meditating in harmony, I couldn’t help but join in. There were locals and tourists, people of every age, some having mastered the art of breathing idyllically and flexing their bodies over this and some who only seemed to manage savasana. It was one of a kind experience, however.
On the trail of the hippie cafes
I realised that the holy city had quite a few surprises in the bag when I discovered its hippie cafe culture. The areas around the ghats especially are matted with peculiar hippie cafes. The interiors of the cafes are kind of tight due to their confinement in the gallis.
The first cafe I rested in to find refuge from the merciless afternoon of my first day served authentic Korean food and had classic English desserts on the display window. Right opposite to it was a German bakery and an all-organic cafe. A bit ahead I was a relatively spacious cafe, dripping psychedelia. The walls were painted with trippy visuals and comfortable futon mattresses were laid for seating all over the floor. Later ahead I discovered that most of these cafes cater to nirvana seekers and foreigners seeking out an inch of familiarity.
But the most fascinating thing about these cafes were the intimate classical music concerts that are held regularly. These are usually free or nominally charged.The renditions can be solid classical pieces or buoyant tabla performances or bhajans that instantly get the crowd in high spirits. These concerts don’t just inform you of the musical prowess of the city but also beckons you into deep appreciation for it. I am no pundit in Hindustani music. I barely know the ‘r’ of raga . But I did not, at all, feel misplaced at any of these gatherings.
Unwind in the calm of Sarnath
The choked up roads, littered streets, smothering crowds didn’t really convince me that I now stood in the spiritual capital of India, at the first glance. My spiritual awakening seems rather far fetched. Because truth be told, Varanasi can be easily overwhelming. So if and when it gets too much, you can easily break away from the ruckus and explore destinations that are refreshingly calm. Banaras Hindu University, the biggest residential university in Asia, is a delightful stroll and has a beautiful museum and Vishwanath temple.
Although the best of all the serene respite for me has to be Sarnath! Little do people know that this land has also been the cradle of Buddhism and Jainism. Sarnath is the place where Gautama Buddha preached his first sermon after attaining enlightenment. Over the passage of time the place has developed into a mintage of the main deer park with the Dhamekha Stupa, surrounded by small monasteries and Buddhist structures. The landscape is lush green, dotted with stone and redbrick ruins from the Asoka period. You can stretch out under the shade of a tree and devour the beautiful view for as long as you want. And it's not very far away from the city, in case you were wondering.
Talk to the people
“The person who earns here doesn’t have an excessive desire for possessions and for the person who doesn’t earn, there are two meals a day served at the temple. Everyone is content in this town because we see life beyond a quest for acquiring material wealth”, a sadhu on one of the Ghats preached to me on the first day of my trip. It’s these conversations with the locals that give you a cultural insight and socio-political happenings of the place. The best part of solo traveling is that it allows you the space to be by yourself and meet new people, and Varanasi will offer you the opportunity to strike up an interesting conversation along every step of your travel. A little willingness and took me a long way on this trip. I put myself out there to talk to the sadhus on the various ghats, talking to them about spirituality, mythology and in general, their daily lives.
Also, if you are a solo backpacker, I suggest you go for a hostel. They are great for socialising! There is a certain charm in the cosy, amicable environment of hostels. You hang out with people from around the world in the common areas and share your travel experiences over a beer, which beats the sterile confinement of a hotel room any day! And all hail the friendly hostel staff that would go the extra mile to tell you all the quintessential and offbeat things to do in the city.
I know that we are dissuaded from talking to strangers naturally, but on a solo trip it is a skill that comes handy and steers meaningful experiences.
All in all, Varanasi is not the city for the faint-hearted. Its intensity can either make you love it or hate it, there is no in-between. But if you decide to come to this city, come with an open mind and inquisitiveness to scratch beneath the surface. If you just try to look beyond what is obvious, the city has a lot to offer. I didn’t get my spiritual awakening but my trip was definitely more than a sensory experience. The city grew on me and it gave me much. And for that, Benaras will always have my heart.