This picture best describes my experience in Varanasi: It was strange, amazing, weird, cacophonic, draining, life-changing and bizarre all at the same time.


Varanasi is nuts. All of life is here, including death. 

Varanasi is like nowhere else I have been on the planet. It is just a crazy city, and not necessarily in a good way: the noise, the crowds, the dirt, the beggars, the cows with spikey horns – it’s a cacophony of a city that is slowly crumbling away into the huge, slow river that dominates this landscape.


The city appears to be unloved and falling to pieces, which is the case with much of India. What shocked me at the time of my visit was that the city was so uncared for. The sacred ghats (the palaces, steps and wharves that line the river front), that are the center of the Hindu religion, they are crumbling into the river, uncared for, unpreserved and unprotected. However, I have since read, that I was looking at the ghats and their history from a very privileged, Western perspective and that I wanted to gentrify the ghats, whereas Hindus believe that everything has a life cycle, including the buildings. It’s an interesting idea, and it showed me not to be too judgemental, but it still makes me sad to think of these beautiful, unique, culturally significant architectural wonders disappearing into the slow moving waters of the river.


I always suspected that Varanasi was going to be hardcore and full on, but I thought that as a sacred place it might be more restrained and conservative in some ways. However, it’s the opposite and Varanasi is possibly the most extreme place that I visited in the world.


Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world, and India’s most sacred city. Most people will be aware that many Hindu have their funerals in Varanasi, this is because if you pass into the sacred River Ganges, you will achieve moksha, or release from the cycle of birth and death, which is what Hindus seek to attain. So there are many temples in Varanasi and many people who come to the city towards the end of their lives.

 However, this is India, and so the city also has crowds, traffic, shopping, crazy police, drug dealers, begging kids, menacing monkeys and huge, holy cows (and cow poop) everywhere.


We arrived to this view from our balcony. An amazing start. Looks a bit like Venice of India, right? Well, you need to forget about the smell, the dirt, the uncaring of everybody about the future of this place, and, yes, you have maybe 1% of Venice.


At 6pm, we took a boat around the Ganges, drove by the burning Ghats. These fires are cremations. And, on the top right are the lights of a rooftop restaurant where one can enjoy dinner with a special view.


A special ceremony takes place every day from 6-7pm, the river is filled with boats of tourists and worshippers. The streets are clogged, it’s a Burning Man craziness that Burning Man itself will never achieve. Actually, Burning Man feels like a Teenager Party compared to this insanity. We walked the alleys of Varanasi for a while, ate a quick dinner and retired early for our 3.30am wake-up call.


Our boat ride awaited us at 4am, including heater in the middle of the wooden structure. Should have brought some hot dogs for a breakfast snack.

We rode the boat for an hour through the darkness, people sleeping on the steps of the Ghats, dogs, sheeps and cows trying to find food and the stench of the Ganges always around us.


The morning ceremony started at 5am but I barely noticed it because the ritual washing in the Ganges river took up all my attention.


The one thing that I loved about Varanasi was mother Ganges. You can see why people worship this river. She’s really wide and she just flows, on and on and on, calmly and smoothly. Because there is no obvious infrastructure on the other side of the river, she does feel like the end of the world. She feels like a powerful natural force that dominates this land. 

In truth, I wouldn’t go anywhere near this holy water as it is filthy. Not only do people put their dead bodies directly into the river, but it is also full of raw sewage and heavy metals from the industrial plants upstream. This doesn’t stop people bathing in the river and washing their dishes and clothes in it, even though they will probably emerge more dirty than when they went in. They also wash their cows in the river. 

And, pilgrims rush to the river throughout the day to submerge themselves, drink the water, keep gallons as a souvenir, let their children play in it for hours.

It’s hard to put the strangeness of this morning in words. India is definitely stranger than anything the mind could invent.DSC05259

I’m glad we took the time to spend one day in Varanasi. But I’m also glad when the plane left for Mumbai again. I will never forget the moments I had in this unique place.


Watching an elderly couple washing clothes in the river and drying them in the sun.



“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” Henry Miller