Destinations Photo Diaries

Varanasi: learning to love the city that drove me mad


This is a place that can’t fail to have an impact on you. It’s a brash, loud, dirty, salt-of-the-earth city and on my first visit about four years ago, I hated the place. Somehow, despite my initial revulsion, I always had an inkling I’d end up back here.


A bumpy re-entry

Arriving to Varanasi is, I imagine, something akin to the feeling experienced by an astronaut re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere: bumpy, loud, hot and traumatic.

Sandwiched between another family in our shared tuk-tuk and with our backpacks on our laps, we make it to the city centre. Peeling ourselves off the seats and tumbling into the crowded streets. It’s not long before a local tout, there are many, latches onto us and insists he take us to a hotel. We can’t shrug him off and he continues to follow us into each of the hostels we visit. We end up arguing with him in the street. Why did I come back here again?


Fascinating and frustrating

The most fascinating things about Varanasi are also often the most frustrating things. It’s one of the world’s longest inhabited cities and so the streets in the oldest part of town are narrow and cobbled and throughly unsuitable for the sheer volume of pilgrims and tourists that grace these sacred lanes. But you’d be hard pushed  to find a more atmospheric and characterful place.

People often talk of Varanasi in highly spiritual terms, as a calm and tranquil place. This opinion often spills out of the mouths of elephant-pant clad westerners, who think they should join in with the bathing rituals performed in the Ganges (I’d give this a wide berth unless you’ve got a thing for giardia). They sit along the banks of the Ganges strumming their guitar (of course) and smoking up a storm with a Saddhu. I’m here to tell you that, unless you’re a Hindu pilgrim, that’s crap. Calm it is not, but fascinating yes!


An undeniable allure

Varanasi’s allure is undeniable. Particularly if you wander along the ghats at sunrise, or take a boat out at sunset. It’s hard to describe the impact I felt wash over me the first time I was here and again on this visit. You don’t come here for a relaxing lie-in, the temple bells and rowdy pilgrims will put paid to that. There are cows (and therefore cowshit) everywhere so a walk around the city requires nimble feet. The touts along the ghats are more annoying than mosquitos, so you expend energy swatting them away. But in spite of all this, I will go back again. Because there simply is nowhere quite like Varanasi.

Here are 30 photos which convey the strange magic of Varanasi.


Three men fishing on a boat on the Ganges river in Varanasi

Sunrise over the ghats of Varanasi


Pillowcases drying on the ghats of Varanasi

Laundry drying on the banks of the river Ganges.


A cow in Varanasi

A cow surveys the banks of the river.



Boats lined up on the Ganges River in Varanasi.



A kettle and tea making equipment in Varanasi

A tea stall on the lanes of Varanasi.





A man cuts meat holding a knife between his toes

A vendor chops meat clasping the knife between his toes.





A dog and puppies on the ghat in Varanasi



People doing laundry in Varanasi and a colourful piece of material



A man washes his calf in Varanasi



Stacks of wood in Varanasi

Wood piles stacked, ready to be used for cremations on the ghats.



A man talks and a man sleeps in the cow house in Varanasi

The owner of a cow house in Varanasi explains how they give the milk away to anyone who visits.



A cow in front of a doorway in Varanasi

One of Varanasi’s many cows relaxing in a backstreet. A vast number of bulls are abandoned in Varanasi by their owners, who believe it’s good luck to leave them in the city.



Lassis in clay cups in a lassi shop

Lassis from the famous Blue Lassi shop.





A woman stands in front of a street mural in Varanasi

Street art in the lanes of Varanasi.



Goats in sack cloths in Varanasi



Blue material dries on the ghats in Varanasi



Caged birds in Varanasi



A woman bathes in the river Ganges.

Pilgrims come from across the country to worship in the holy city of Varanasi and to bathe in the waters of the Ganges.



A rooster stands on a stone platform in Varanasi



A food vendor at his stall in Varanasi.

Street food vendors are a common sight across the city, especially in the evenings. This vendor sells chaat.



A green and pink boat in the river Ganges.



People light candles on the banks of the river Ganges.

Local people light candles as part of the Shiva Festival which takes place every February or March.



Piles of wood on the banks of the river Ganges where bodies are burned.

The ghats of Varanasi, where Hindus bring their dead to be cremated. Devotees believe the city to be the most auspicious place to die and be laid to rest.



Varanasi is a brash, loud, dirty, salt of the earth city with a touch of magic. Find out why in these 30 photos.


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