Preparing for Varanasi: Culture Shock

Honest Travel Tips for Visiting the Holiest City in India

A trip to Varanasi isn’t for everyone. Busy streets, lots of traffic, tiny alleys with cows blocking your path and of course public cremation ceremonies next to the Ganges. This can be very overwhelming for anyone, let alone people travelling from afar whose ‘normal’ is very far from this. This post will share our experiences in Varanasi, and some things we wish we knew before we visited!

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Also read: Tour of Varanasi: Not Just the Ganges!

#1 Visit Varanasi Last

Our top tip for visiting Varanasi is don’t make this your first stop in India! You need to ease yourself into India for a month or so before visiting because, honestly, it will overwhelm you. Anything we say that could be perceived as negative is in no way to scare you or put you off going. This is the most shocking and different place you will ever visit, and it’s better to know everything than to visit Varanasi unprepared. We would 100% go back to this unique, crazy, magical place.

#2 Photography

You can’t take photographs of the cremations. Out of respect you shouldn’t want to anyway! It’s a special and holy time for the families, you probably wouldn’t want strangers taking photos if you were in them. You might see family members taking photographs and even selfies, but you should keep your phone and cameras hidden when watching the ceremonies. Photographs from a far are ok, but you will pull up directly in front of the ceremonies where you should keep electronics out of sight. You can also take close up photographs of the Ghats as long as there are no ceremonies taking place.

#3 Bells & Yelling

If/ when you hear these sounds, step to the side and get out of the way! More likely than not it’s a body coming through. Male family members carry their dead relatives on stretchers above their heads through the tiny alleys to the Ganga. This was so shocking to us a first, but there’s over 80 cremations per day so it was something we strangely got used to!

#4 The Water

The Ganges is considered to be the most holy water. Hindus believe the water will cleanse all sins, so no matter how dirty the water is you will see people swimming/ bathing and even drinking it. Our advice? DO NOT get in! It’s some of the most polluted water in the world, even the Indian government are urging nationals to stop bathing in it!

#5 How to Dress

Everywhere in India you should dress conservatively, but you should practice this even more here! Number 1, you’re borderline at a funeral, so be respectful. Number 2, ashes will fall on you, even if you can’t see it, they’re in the air! The less skin exposed, the better for cleanliness sakes! I don’t have a picture, but I wore a long sleeve top, jeans, a scarf and boots – the banks are washed down regularly so wear closed shoes or you’ll get wet, muddy feet.

#6 The Smells

As you can imagine, there are a lot of not very nice smells in Varanasi. This comes mainly from the vast amount of cow poo on the streets! As we said before… don’t wear sandals/ flip flops!

#7 What You Might See

This is a big one, and one you can’t really mentally prepare yourself for, but better to know about it than to be even more shocked if you didn’t know!

The Bodies

  • The families wrap the bodies in beautiful orange and silver cloth and cover them in flowers. You won’t see faces/ body parts, however occasionally the cloth can fall in places. This never happened during the cremations we saw, however you should prepare yourself for the possibility of seeing body parts or faces.
  • Some bodies are too holy (babies, pregnant women) and some not holy enough (prostitutes). These bodies are not cremated, and instead are thrown into the Ganges with weights on. Again, we never witnessed this, but these bodies will eventually float to the surface.

Animals (especially dogs)

  • There’re wandering strays all over India, so you’ll be used to seeing them around anyways. What you need to prepare yourself for is seeing them by the bed of the Ganga. Body parts can float to the bank and animals will try to pull them out and eat them. People will often shoo them away, but there’s a lot of strays so this isn’t always possible.

Some of these points you may find quite shocking, but as we said before, they are in no way to scare you or put you off going! Varanasi is an incredible place and a once in a lifetime experience. If you get the chance to visit, take it. Check out our guide to Planning a Day in Varanasi for more on what you can expect from this one of a kind city.

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