My first ever solo trip to Varanasi
Kashi-Varanasi-Banaras — the city older than history has enticed me for many years with all the beautiful pictures of Ghats, the peculiar food it offers, and the mighty Ganga flowing across the city, and tourists from every corner of the world visiting it. When I was four years old, I was mesmerised by the visuals shown in a Telugu movie, Indra.
As time passed, I was contemplating visiting Varanasi but couldn’t execute it because of my apprehension after hearing weird stories about the place. This time around, thanks to the remote work culture embraced by many companies, this idea of working from Varanasi kept hitting me for some time. This November, while I was on an off-site trip to Goa, I booked my tickets to Varanasi so that I couldn’t postpone the trip further.
Finally, I made it to Varanasi amidst engulfing Omicron fears all over the country and thought to return immediately if things didn’t go well as planned. My parents were sceptical about this trip, but I can’t step back after booking tickets.
I reached Varanasi on the 4th of December evening, and the airport is 30 km away from the city. I booked a hostel for two weeks that is compatible with my requirement of working during the day near Assi Ghat, one of the prominent ghats of Varanasi.
05th December 2021
I started exploring the city on the 5th of December, Sunday. I started walking along the ghats, beginning from Assi Ghat. I was on a marathon, taking random pictures on the ghats, and headed to the famous Dasashwamedh Ghat. It is a good stretch on the banks of Ganga, where you can find many temples built, and boats ferrying people, fishermen trying to catch fish, dead bodies being cremated at Harishchandra Ghat, and people performing the rituals (Pind Pradhan) at several ghats.
I was excited to witness and walk along with the visuals that brought me to the city and observe the people performing various activities. I walked along the main road from Dasashwamedh Ghat to Kashi Vishwanath Temple, but I postponed the darshan to a working day due to the heavy crowd.
As informed by the locals, to stay in Varanasi for long, you need to take the permission of Kal Bhairav, residing in a temple that is ~1.5 km from Kashi Vishwanath Temple. I saw a long queue outside Kal Bhairav Temple, and postponed it too.
I ate at the roadside Tiffin centre and took an Ola bike to my hostel, planning to visit the Ganga Aarti at the Assi Ghat in the evening.
At about 6:10 pm, the Ganga Aarti started at Assi Ghat. Luckily, I was closer to the stage and with enlarged eyeballs witnessed the entire Aarti. I didn’t let that opportunity go and clicked many pictures I’ve wanted to capture for a long time.
The whole activity happens for about 30 mins, and the seven priests performing Ganga Aarti walk towards the Ganga after the Aarti is done. I sat there for some time and returned to the hostel, posting the pictures on social media.
06th December 2021 | Evening
I started from Assi Ghat and was accompanied by a group of people on a boat to Manikarnika Ghat, where the cremation of dead bodies happens 24x7. Locals say that the souls attain salvation if the bodies are cremated there. I’ve heard about this place before but this is my first time experiencing a mass cremation of bodies. I stood there for some time, paid my last respects to the departed, and headed towards the temples.
I’ve been told to visit the Bindu Madhava Temple, one of the five Madhava temples in India present near Panchganga Ghat. Sat there for some time and visited Tailang Baba Ashram as suggested by a local friend. People were meditating there, and for the first time in my life, I saw an idol of Bheeshma.
I tried using Google Maps in those narrow and confusing streets, but my network ditched me! With the help of locals, I finally reached the main road near Kashi Vishwanath Temple, and to my surprise, there wasn’t a crowd. The time was ~8.45 pm, and I immediately rushed into the Temple. Had darshan of Baba Vishwanath on Monday, that too unplanned. With this, I thought my job was half done in Varanasi, and I returned to the hostel happily.
07th December 2021
Strategic Timeout. My health didn’t cooperate due to changes in food and water, and I had to rest for the day.
08th December 2021 | Evening
One of my roommates was leaving the hostel, and I decided not to have any plans and walked along with him, exploring the ghats again.
We started from Assi Ghat and walked until Dasashwamedh Ghat. There is a Shiva Linga at Harishchandra ghat, and it is said that while doing the first pooja for the day, ash from the recently cremated body is applied on the Shiva Linga (I didn’t fact check this, though).
We roamed around the Godowlia Chowk, and my friend suggested we try the Banaras Thandai, a special drink there. Honestly, I didn’t like the taste of it, but it is said that by default, they mix Bhaang in that drink if not informed beforehand.
I also tasted the famous Banarasi Paan, it was good. End of the day with another round of more than 5 km walking :)
09th December 2021 | Evening
No rigid plans and I thought to go with the flow. I had a lengthy discussion on career, and life with Karan, my dorm-mate, who’s exploring Varanasi alone while working during the day.
I went to Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple in the evening, apparently constructed by Sant Tulsi Das.
Time and again, I realised not to trust Google Maps blindly, as I had to walk 2 km extra to reach the temple. I sat inside the temple premises for some time, reading a verse in the Hindi version of Sundarakanda. I had ice cream at Naturals and walked back to the hostel, thus ending the exploration for the day.
10th December 2021 | Morning
I was awake by 5:30 am for unknown reasons and headed to Assi Ghat to witness the Subah-e-Banaras that started at ~5:45 am. I reached there just before the rituals began and had chai to warm up the body. Subah-e-Banaras happens only at Assi Ghat, and it was one of the things on my checklist.
The morning is peaceful and refreshing with a group of singers offering their love in the form of songs while other activities are performed in parallel.
Soon after the Ganga Aarti is performed, people gather and organise Yoga sessions. I didn’t partake in Yoga but rushed to the hostel to continue sleeping. Didn’t explore any new places in the evening.
11th December 2021 | Morning
Thanks to Sameera, she shared a playlist by Nanduri Srinivas on must-visit temples in Varanasi. Srinivas made a video about the Varahi Devi temple, which is open only for 3 hours in the morning every day.
One peculiar thing about the temple is we can’t see the idol by standing in front of it. There are two windows on the ceiling, and we can see the head and feet of the idol.
Due to the temple being filled with Telugu devotees, I, for once, forgot I’m not in Telugu land and started talking to the locals in Telugu too :D
After this, I walked to Visalakshi Temple, where, again, most devotees were talking in Telugu. Strange things! This temple is one of the 18 Shakti Peethas and has significance in Hindu mythology.
I walked along the streets to have a darshan to Kaal Bhairav Temple and found the crowd higher owing to the weekend. I stood in the line and had his darshan too. I observed locals trying to loot the travellers in the name of god near temples.
It wasn’t even 10 am, and I was almost done with the checklist for the day, except BHU, which I planned for the evening.
In one of the YouTube videos, a vlogger went to a place where people were weaving Banarasi silk sarees, and I thought to go there, as I had time. I went to the area, met weavers using a power loom for weaving silk sarees, took a few pictures, purchased a couple of Banarasi Silk sarees and returned to my hostel.
Everything went according to the schedule, and my next destination was to visit BHU. I missed getting into the college in 2016, and this time, I added BHU to my list of must-visit places.
I went in the evening, first to the Vishwanath Temple inside BHU, and walked past IIT Varanasi hostels. Loved the atmosphere there. Preparing myself to board the bus early for Allahabad the next day, I slept with suspicion on my health.
11th December 2021 | Prayagraj
With uncooperating health, I was prepared not to eat anything but be on citrus drinks until my tasks at Prayagraj finished. It takes around 150 min to reach Prayagraj from Varanasi, and I got down at the bridge, at the city’s entrance. I went on a boat to Triveni Sangam.
With the naked eye, we can distinguish Ganga and Yamuna (Saraswati is invisible and is said to be flowing underneath) easily. Ganga is colourless, pristine, and flowing at a pace, while the Yamuna, green, gets polluted from Agra and Delhi. Ganga drags Yamuna, and they slowly meet, which we can observe from a distance. I enjoyed the visual of two mighty rivers meeting and happily took a bath there.
I had another task of visiting Venu Madhav temple in Daraganj, which closes by noon, and I was there at the Sangam until 11:50 am. I rushed to the temple, only to see the doors closed, and before feeling dejected, I asked the neighbouring traders about when the temple would be open.
Guess what? They temporarily closed the doors to offer Naivedyam and opened it for Aarti! Took his darshan, captured pictures, and alas, two of five Madhava temples in India are covered :)
I happily savoured Chole Bature at a local eatery and headed to take a bus for my return journey with the tasks accomplished. I reached the hostel in the evening and rested after expressing my joyous trip to Prayagraj to my family.
13th December 2021 | Shiv Diwali
With Modi Ji visiting Varanasi to open the Kashi corridor, the Govt enforced restrictions on people at certain places for security reasons. I thought not to step out for two days as locals suggested.
One of my hostel mates informed me there would be spectacular visuals at the ghats in the evening as it was Shiv Diwali, and he took me along to the ghats. All the ghats were lit with sparkling lights, diyas by volunteers, and the whole place was dazzling.
We took a boat ride along all the ghats, reaching a ghat where they played music in a laser show. It was an eye-feast. I captured the entire journey on my phone and would edit them into a video for a good memory.
I enjoyed the entire evening, and thanks to my friends for taking candid pictures of me, with colourful crackers in the background. I will cherish the evening for the rest of my life. It was another moment that came unplanned and turned out captivating for me :)
17th December 2021 | Sarnath
With just one day remaining, I took a day off to visit Sarnath, where Gautama Buddha taught his first lesson to his five disciples after getting enlightened in Bodh Gaya. As I came here unplanned, I wasn’t aware that the museum is closed every Friday. I visited the Dhamek stupa that felt like walking in Mahabalipuram, with the trees from the Lal Bagh garden. Dhamek Stupa is taken care of by ASI, and they are doing an excellent job in preserving the heritage.
I visited the Jain temple, Buddha Temple, Thai temple and captured a couple of pictures, one of which I framed and placed on my table.
The visit to Sarnath is worth your time, but don’t plan to visit on Fridays. One of my hostel mates praised the museum, and he felt it was the best of all museums he had seen in India.
How to reach Sarnath?
You can either go to Pandeypur or Maidagin from Godowlia Chowk or Cantt bus stand. From there, you can find share-autos to Ashapur and Sarnath (Ashapur is a village just before Sarnath).
In the evening, I went to Bharat Mata Temple, that has a 3D marble map of united Indian subcontinent. After that, I visited Tulsi Manas Mandir, Durgakund Temple, and Lolarkaditya Temple.
18th December 2021 | Return & Reflections
It’s time to leave the place after a considerably longer stay at this historic place. I recalled all the moments while travelling to the airport and reflected upon self-awareness.
With all the transformation work to make Varanasi a Smart city taking a couple of years, I recommend you visit the place after most of the work is done (~2023/24). We can all happily visit Varanasi without causing any detrimental effect on the ancient heritage it has got. I don’t think there is another place in India that speaks volumes about its rich history while accommodating the locals without troubling the visitors.
I noticed people complaining about the Ganga being polluted and blaming authorities for not taking action. Without taking sides, let me mention what I’ve observed while walking along the ghats.
Motorboats spill oil on the water, people chew zarda, etc., and spit that into the river, people urinate on the ghats which flows into the river, people dispose of the garbage like polythene covers. Certain rituals are performed at the ghats from which the waste flows into the river.
We predominantly share the sin compared to the authorities. Let’s make it a point to act sensibly.
There are a couple of things that came as introspection: I can wash my clothes, I don’t like momos, I can enjoy tea for instant refreshment, I am a good companion for long walks, and I can take good care of my health (I was consuming only fluids for a couple of days due to minor stomach problems).
Here are the things I felt I needed to learn: listening completely, communicating structurally, worrying less, focusing more, and all things cooking. I didn’t overspend there, but I discovered no money could help us in new places if we don’t know how to cook. I realised I could talk in Hindi better than I expected (that too the Hindi spoken in UP).
The entire trip made me realise a few things about me, opened up a wider world where I can roam around while working, and taught me not to fret over things.
Coming to the interactions, I was fortunate enough to meet people across India. Naming a few: Monika, Arpan, and Shanky from Live Free Hostel: Thank you for hosting me :)
Sanjay, Karan, Mohit, Shreesha, Priyanshu, Shubham, Aniket, and Jyot: Thank you for telling your stories, teaching invaluable lessons, and treating me respectfully. Hope we meet again, and I promise you’ll see a better individual with the same curiosity.
This trip isn’t possible without Radhika Nomellers, Gayathri Sridhar, and Sameera Dinni. They inspired and pushed me to go and explore. Being a conservative, convincing myself that I could pull it off was tough, and these three people induced confidence in me. Thank you ❤
Why travel now?
For a person who has been in a hostel for half of the life, I love meeting new people, hanging out with friends to explore new places, or just walking to discuss anything with friends. Covid has disrupted many lives, and I’m no exception though thankfully, I’m healthy. A trip to explore at least one place in North India has been a long time due, and I didn’t want to miss it this time.
Why a solo trip?
I’ve been to several places in the southern part of India but with friends/family. Until now, I have always felt I was too dependent and incapable of making my own decisions when it’s about travelling alone. Adding to that, when you travel with a group, you tend to be democratic and could compromise on certain things because you can’t do certain things alone when in groups. Because I’ve been working from home for the past 1.5 years, sitting alone in front of the computer, I thought I could try and manage myself while travelling too!
There are two primary reasons for choosing Varanasi as my first solo trip destination: A Telugu movie called Indra released in 2002 and not joining IIT Varanasi (BHU) in 2016.
Indra: This movie starring Chiranjeevi, was my first ever theatrical experience. My father is a big fan of Chiranjeevi, and he took me four times to this movie.
In 2016, after I appeared for JEE, I got into IIT Varanasi in consecutive counseling rounds. My parents didn’t want me to go that far when we had a comparable branch at Hyderabad, and from that time, I made it a point to be there at least once in my life as I lost an opportunity to stay there for four years.
Why two weeks?
Because I want to explore Varanasi to the fullest (I know you can’t fully explore Varanasi even if you stay there for eternity) and work simultaneously during the day, I didn’t want to cover the places in haste and felt the vibe of the city. I didn’t have any plans to cover as many places as I did, and it was beneficial to me, as locals suggested a few places, and we planned as a team that met in the hostel.
Where did I stay?
I booked a bed in a mixed dorm at a backpackers hostel called Live Free, a branch of the Live Free Hostel, Rishikesh. As I planned to stay there for two weeks, I could negotiate the price, and I liked the place’s ambience. My friend, Vikas, suggested checking the hostels nearby Assi Ghat, and Live Free is walking distance from Assi Ghat.
How to commute inside Varanasi?
You can find share-autos to commute inside Varanasi and take the boat rides if you plan to visit the places near the ghats. If you’re travelling alone and love to walk, plan your places of visit, and take help from locals while navigating through the narrow streets. Google Maps can’t help you at times (I was doomed by the network, and thanks to locals, I could reach places quickly). For a quick commute, Ola Bikes are there at any time. You can zip through the traffic.
Did the trip change me as a person?
The answer is YES. I started worrying less about many things happening in my life and embraced looking at more prominent things in life. Never in my life, I had imagined I could pull off a solo trip to an unfamiliar place with people talking in other languages. It improved my self-confidence a lot, and I’m happy I went on this trip alone. I came up with this line during the trip:
Be your kid rather than act as a parent in solitude.
On the blog front, I will compile another blog post with pictures I took in Varanasi, in sync with the Bham Bham Bhole song lyrics from Indra.
Coming to the tours, I’m not planning anything soon but I wish to visit Yamaha Nagari or Gala Gala Gala Gangotri in the following years.