The holy city of Varanasi can be full-on for first-time travellers to India. Read my dos and don’ts in Varanasi to make sure you have a magical trip!
Last updated on 10/04/2023
Today I’m counting down the 10 dos and don’ts in Varanasi that you didn’t know you needed… until now!
So what can I tell you about Varanasi? Well, Varanasi is the holiest of all the holy cities in India. Nestled on the banks of the Ganges it’s a place of huge religious significance. Hindus travel from all over to wash away their sins in the sacred water of the river and, of course, to bury their dead.
You may know this already but Varanasi is the place in India where funeral rites take place on the ghats, the steps leading down to the water. Bodies are carried through the city on stretchers, dipped in the river, and then cremated before their ashes are scattered in the water. It’s believed that by doing this, the dead escape the cycle of life and death and achieve ‘moksha’; their souls become free.
Why is Varanasi so very special?
Varanasi is considered to be one of the most sacred cities in India. It’s been a pilgrimage site for Hindus for generations and it was once believed to be the home of Hindu god, Lord Shiva. Varanasi is also one of the world’s oldest living cities. All of these things make it special.
What is Varanasi famous for?
Varanasi is famous for its bathing ghats that enable pilgrims to wash away their sins in the holy water of the River Ganges. It’s also known as a holy city… which also means it’s a dry city, i.e. no alcohol!
But the connections to religion aren’t the only thing it’s famous for. Varanasi is also well-known for its Indian handicrafts and, in particular, silks – known as Banarasi Sarees.
Handicrafts Varanasi is known for:
- Ivory work
- Glass bangles
- Wood, stone and clay toys
Which is the best ghat in Varanasi?
The most famous ghat in Varanasi is the burning ghat, Manikarnika Ghat.
It’s here that you’ll see the cremations that the city is famous for taking place. It’s believed to be the holiest of all the ghats on the Ganges and it’s characterised by the orange glimmer of ever-burning fires and the scent of burning camphor. Families travel for miles to come here and bury their dead and see the bodies carried through the streets before they’re set alight and their souls are set free.
Varanasi: a spiritual city you shouldn’t miss
All very spiritual then, I’m sure you’ll agree. However, don’t let that make you think that Varanasi is a place of quiet and contemplation.
It has its moments of that, for sure. Those are usually when you’re close to the water and can luxuriate in the open space – a pretty high commodity in the bustle and busyness of India. There are also over 2000 temples in the city, which offer some tranquillity.
But aside from those small pockets of calm, for the most part, Varanasi is incredibly full on.
Here’s one example. You’ll be wandering along the narrow streets of the old town just managing your own business. Then you’ll hear clanging and chanting behind you and have to scuttle out of the way because a dead body is being carried through the streets – and is probably only a few centimetres away from eye level by the time they squeeze past.
Is Varanasi safe for tourists?
I didn’t feel unsafe in Varanasi, but I did feel slightly unnerved at some moments. I’ve read other blogs that say Varanasi isn’t the best place to go to first on a tour of India, as it’s pretty intense.
I think I would agree with that. We had a day or two in Delhi first, but more time might have enabled me to acclimatise a little bit more. In short, Varanasi is pretty full-on for a first-timer.
I said it: Varanasi is crowded, loud, stinky, and a full-on experience. It’s also incredibly beautiful, but I did find that you need to have your wits about you as a tourist. That’s why I wanted to put together this survival guide of dos and don’ts in Varanasi.
This post is focused entirely on the dos and don’ts in the city that I experienced when I was there, but if you’d like more detail on what to actually do in Varanasi then check out my other posts. It really is an incredible city that you shouldn’t miss!
Here are my 10 dos and don’ts in Varanasi!
1) Don’t take photographs of the cremations
I’m saying this knowing that most people wouldn’t dream of doing this anyway. I’ve talked about how families in India travel for miles to the holy city of Varanasi in order to cremate the bodies of their dead. It’s both a sacred and emotional experience and of course, that should be respected.
If you’re walking along the ghats you’ll know you’re approaching Manikarnika Ghat because you’ll see the clouds of smoke spiralling up into the air. You’ll probably also be hit with the smell of incense.
While tourists are permitted to watch the funeral rites it’s not OK to take photographs. If people see you with a phone in your hand they may think that you’re trying to sneak a cheeky photograph in, so just be mindful of that. I
t’s probably best to pop your phone in your bag or pocket when you’re approaching Manikarnika Ghat, a lesson that I learned pretty quickly. More on that in the next point! Just as an FYI, my photo above was taken at a distance from the morning boat ride, which is permissible.
2) Do be assertive
As far as dos and don’ts go in Varanasi, this one is probably one of the most needed.
So why do you need to be assertive in Varanasi? Well, you might get yelled at. This happened to my sister and I when we were alone, after the tour group broke up do our own thing for a couple of hours. We were wandering in the alleyways near where the bodies were burned when a local man started shouting at us and accusing us of being disrespectful and taking photographs.
We weren’t, but we had got a bit lost and were looking at Google Maps – on our phones. That was enough to make him believe that we were trying to sneak a couple of photographs, even though we weren’t particularly near to where the funeral rites were taking place.
I’d actually seen a similar thing happen when we were wandering around the site with our tour group leader Sana earlier in the day. Some local men started trying to push into the group and intimidate Sana.
Her advice was just to be assertive and move on, so that’s what we did. Be polite, but firm, and then just walk away – it’s all you can do.
3) Don’t step in a ‘landmine’
Cows are sacred creatures in India, and they certainly made their presence known in Varanasi.
You will see cows and other farm animals wandering the streets of Varanasi. The inevitable result of that is multiple cowpats – otherwise known as ‘landmines’ – being deposited on the streets. Our guide warned us of this as soon as we got to Varanasi and to be honest, I probably should have paid more attention at the time, but I didn’t.
Let’s be honest, when you’re walking around the winding streets of Varanasi you’re not always paying attention to the ground. You’re looking around you at all the incredible sights around you. Well, I’d advise paying attention!
I stepped in one right before our brunch at Brown Bread Bakery and let’s just say that my shoes were NOT salvageable. I had to chuck them in the bin back at the hotel, which I was devastated about. They were chosen specifically for India and they had a chunky sole to keep my feet clear of all the grime underfoot.
Don’t be like me – pay attention to where your feet are going and save yourself from shoe-induced heartache!
4) Do set your alarm clock
Beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep. Get used to that noise in India because so many of the day trips will have you getting up before dawn so you can enjoy the beautiful sunrises!
I talk about this in more detail in my post about everything you should see and do in Varanasi. But it basically boils down to this: don’t snooze your alarm. If you sleep in you’ll miss the incredible Subah-e-Banaras ceremony which takes place on the ghats at sunrise every morning. There’s chanting and dancing and an altogether mesmerising performance!
There’s also the dawn boat ride on the Ganges that you can take afterwards, which is magical and peaceful and relaxing all at the same time. Yes, you’ll probably have to set your alarm for 5am, but once you see how gorgeous the light is at the time it’ll be worth it!
One additional point on this is to make sure you bring some warm clothes. It’s chilly first thing in the morning so you’ll definitely want to have a light jacket with you. Or be like me and have your trusty Primark hoodie! I pretty much wore it the whole trip, so that’s another one to add to the list of dos and don’ts in Varanasi.
5) Don’t take photographs of the snake charmers
Nothing comes for free in the spiritual city, not even a photograph.
If you’re anything like me you’ll clock the snake charmers in India and be like, wow, I need to get a picture immediately! That’s all great in theory but be wary. This was something that was further compounded during our trip to Jaipur later on in the tour.
Basically, if you take a photo of one of the snake charmers they’ll then approach you and ask you to pay for your photographs. If you’re happy to pay then that’s no problem, but it’s not so easy negotiating a price after the event. If you’re on a tight budget, it’s something to avoid. And it’s not the snake charmers you have to be mindful of in Varanasi.
Similarly, watch out for the Sadhus. Sadhus are holy men who have given up all their worldly possessions. You’ll recognise them by the fact that their entire body is covered in ash. However, I’ve read that Sadhus you see in Varanasi are actually fake. One blog actually said that they asked to take a photograph of one of the Sadhus on the ghats in Varanasi and were asked to pay 500 rupees for the privilege.
So, similarly to the snake charmers, I would avoid taking unsolicited photos of them.
6) Do go to Blue Lassi twice
Normally I wouldn’t advise going to the same place twice. It pretty much flies in the face of everything I believe in about going to new places. There’s always something new to be discovered. I mean, you’re in this incredible country where everything is this exhilarating assault to the senses. Do you really want to use that time to do the same thing twice?
When it comes to Blue Lassi the answer is: yes, absolutely. I’m absolutely prepared to make an exception for it because I enjoyed it so much. I talk about Blue Lassi more in this post about the best restaurants in Varanasi, but you need to know these three things.
One, it’s a tiny family-run hole-in-the-wall café that boasts the slightly unnerving décor of hundreds of passport-sized photos of tourists stuck all over the wall. Two, it serves up lassi, which is a creamy yogurt drink. And three, the lassi comes in about as many flavours and toppings as you could imagine.
Coconut, banana, chocolate, pomegranate, a strange delicious orange topping that I can’t remember the name off. It is amazing, don’t miss it!
We went twice and I honestly could have gone a third time!
7) Don’t expect peace and quiet
I mentioned this above but let me just set out my stall so you’re fully informed.
Varanasi is a holy city, so you might think that it’ll be all tranquil and still, right? Hmm, that’s really not the case at all. It’s not a massive city like Delhi or Jaipur but wow does Varanasi get busy!
I was shocked by how busy the roads were here. In fact, crossing the roads in Varanasi was probably one of the most nerve-wracking things we had to do during the whole trip. Finding our way across the above crossing where the traffic was wild (!) was not exactly my idea of fun! Paying attention when crossing the road is definitely one of the list of dos and don’ts in Varanasi.
Another random thing that happened was a massive fight breaking out among a bunch of school kids as we navigated through the crowds further down the road. You know when you see a fight and you’re trying to get away from it but the crowd surges towards you and sucks you in? It was a bit like that – except there was the crowd on one side and the road on the other.
Everything was fine but certainly need to keep your wits about you in Varanasi.
8) Do go tee-total (for a day or so)
If you want to party Varanasi is probably not the place to go.
I forgot to mention this one earlier! Varanasi is a holy city. That means it’s ‘dry’ and you can’t easily buy alcohol. It’s not something that bothered me at the time but I will say that when we got to Agra and went out for dinner the cold beer went down very easily!
However, that’s not to say that you can’t get alcohol in Varanasi full stop. In fact, there are wine and beer shops dotted around the city – they’re just away from the river. According to Lonely Planet, you can order alcohol in some of the rooftop restaurants but it’s all a bit cloak and dagger and will usually arrived in disguise in a teapot. I actually love the sound of that!
9) Don’t swim in the Ganges
The water might be sacred but that doesn’t stop it from being incredibly polluted.
While pilgrims revere the Ganges and believe you can wash away all your sins simply by bathing in it… it doesn’t get away from the fact that the river is in fact heavily polluted. In fact, the Ganges is said to be one of the most polluted rivers in the world. The government has committed over $3 billion of funds to a clean-up of the river, but the facts remain.
So why is the Ganges River so polluted? Well, industrial waste from local factories as well as sewage from the city flows directly into the river. Then there’s the fact that the dead are soaked in the water and the ashes sprinkled in it following the funeral rites.
There’s also the fact that numerous dead bodies have been found floating in the river. This is due to the poorest families not being able to afford a proper cremation – the wood for the cremations can be expensive – and so instead they simply float the bodies in the water. Pretty grim.
It’s been reported that one result of the coronavirus pandemic is that the pollution levels of the river have improved – due to the fact that the factories have all been shut down for several months.
However, there’s no indication that this is actually sustainable. Who’s to say it won’t just level up again as so as the world opens up again? Therefore, I would steer clear.
It’s perfectly fine to respect the holiness of the river, but as far as dos and don’ts in Varanasi go, not swimming in the Ganges is up there!
10) Do eat at a rooftop café
I think we’ve covered the fact that Varanasi is a pretty busy place to be. The population is over 1.6 million and, between the pilgrims, locals, and tourists, the streets are crammed. Sometimes it feels like you can’t go more than a few steps without having to jump out of the way of a motorbike weaving its way through an alleyway. It can get quite frenetic!
Therefore, I would recommend finding a lovely rooftop restaurant for a bit of a breather away from the crowds. We headed to Brown Bread Bakery which was a little piece of bohemian heaven. Ignore the crammed tables and chairs on the street level and head straight up the stairs for the rooftop café. There are a lot of stairs but it’s worth it.
Think floor cushions, gorgeous views of the river, and a laid-back vibe that you can simply soak up while you hang out there. It also helped that the food was delicious. I had pancakes drizzled with honey and fresh orange juice which were so yummy!