The Hindu city of Varanasi is India’s, and one of the world’s, most religious and oldest living cities. Also known as Banaras or Banares, it was actually the last stop on this two month journey around India. I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better end to the trip so I couldn’t wait to write about it!
~ The River Ganges at sunrise
This ancient and beautifully chaotic city is situated on the banks of the river Ganges and is regarded as one of the holiest cities of the seven sacred in Hinduism. Thousands of Pilgrims come to the city to bathe in the river for purification and remission of sins. You can find hundreds of early morning bathers and Brahmin priests offering Puja, a ritual prayer, scattered all along the ghats.
~ Morning rituals along the Ganges
It’s also a place where many come to cremate their loved ones, as Hindus believe the Ganges brings salvation to the dead and moksha (being released from the cycle of life and death).
After spending time in the more chilled out south, I was apprehensive about this city and entering the hectic pace of the north again, especially after hearing a few people’s experiences. I was expecting the ghats to be near impossible to wander without being hassled constantly, to be wading through filthy, smelly streets and to be witnessing cremations and floating bodies around every corner.
Yes, some of the winding streets of the old town have got to be up there as one of the most hectic, smelly and dirty places I have encountered in India, coming close with Agra and Delhi, but I found a beauty in the place that overrides any of that. Adam and I both agreed that this was one of our best experiences in India. Coming from Calcutta, being one of my least favourite, might have had something to do with it but I also think deciding to stay in Assi Ghat played a big part.
~ Main street down to Assi Ghat
So what’s a ghat? A stretch of steps leading down to a body of water, like a holy river or lake, providing access for bathing, swimming and other daily rituals.
I have one of my friends and old colleagues, Lily, to thank for recommending me Assi Ghat, as I must admit, I found the choice of places to stay in Varanasi and the hundreds of ghats a little overwhelming and confusing at first.
Assi ghat is the southernmost of all the ghats and furthest away from the main ghat, Dashashwamedh.
That’s not to say it is away from the action. Oh no, this is India and there’s still plenty going on here. It also doesn’t just refer to the steps (in case you’re wondering whether that’s where Adam and I camped up!) but also to the general area.
~ A calm afternoon at Assi Ghat
Where to sleep?
We snapped up a double room for 360rs per night at Maruti Guesthouse just a two minute walk down to the ghat. The facilities were basic but had everything we needed and the owners, a super friendly family, couldn’t do enough for us.
Why Assi over the main Ghat or the Old Town?
Where the river Assi meats the Ganges, this area is one of the more cleaner, peaceful and least crowded of them all, not to mention almost tout free! You can wander around pretty much hassle free, bar the usual calls from cycle rickshaws and boat men trying to sell their trips. There are a selection of good restaurants, cafes and shops to sample and a Puja ceremony held every evening.
It’s only a pleasant 20 minute walk along the ghats towards the main one, Dashashwamedh Ghat, and a bit further to the main burning ghat, Manikarnika ghat.
Alternatively it’s about a 15 minute cycle rickshaw ride through the hectic streets but I would definitely recommend walking at least once. It was a real ‘pinch me’ moment wandering alongside the Ganges and passing through each ghat all giving off a different buzz of energy.
~ One of many ghats dedicated to laundry
Puja ceremonies every evening
Every evening at 6pm there is an hour or so long Puja ceremony performed by priests right on the ghat. It is definitely worth heading down to catch this interesting and moving ritual accompanied by fire and incense. Both locals and tourists come down to take part or watch the ceremony creating a lively but still quite intimate atmosphere.
It’s a great place to start a sunrise boat trip from
~ Setting off at sunrise
Taking a boat ride down the river Ganges is a must and taking one at sunrise could be the best thing you do here. As Assi Ghat is the last, this is a great place to start from. You can go down to the boat men and negotiate a deal the night before or check whether your guesthouse arranges them. We organised a private boat through Maruti Guesthouse for 200rs each per hour and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done! Adam and I were pretty speechless the whole ride down to the burning ghat and back.
~ Heading back to Assi Ghat
Eats and shopping
~ The view from Vaatika Pizzeria with locals and tourists waiting for the Puja ceremony
For those looking to get their pizza fix, this is the place. This pizzeria not only serves delicious wood fire oven pizzas, but it also over looks the Ganges offering a beautiful view in the day and serves as a good spot to watch the Puja ceremonies from in the evening. They also do mouth watering apple pie and ice-cream! Salad lovers can eat with ease knowing that their veg is sterilised and water is boiled and filtered.
Om Cafe and Shop
~ Kitcharee and an iced mocha at Om Cafe
You can’t miss this place with their large banner directing you from the main road down to the ghat. The walk does involve dodging countless amounts of cows down a side street and holding your nose due to the stench. But we didn’t let us put us off and this gorgeous little cafe offering healthy, vegan and vegetarian options soon became one of my favourites. I came away with quite a few goodies from the art and clothes shop too.
~ Walking down cow alley to Om Cafe
Open Hand Cafe and Shop
Another cafe/shop combo. I preferred the shop over the cafe and thanks to the selection of souvenirs I bought I’ve been struggling to close my backpack since! The cafe has a nice balcony to watch the goings on down on the somewhat quiet street down below.