In this post, I’ve provided some photography and useful –maybe a little peculiar – information from my two-day visit to the holy city of Varanasi. Gain some insight into the life of the spiritual men dressed in orange, the meanings of the different forehead markings, and the reason why you’ll find goats roaming the streets like wild dogs.
On the environmental side, I’ve presented to you some issues Varanasi is facing and some easy ways you can avoid contributing to these problems. Also, find out the best times to visit, and some tips for when exploring this bustling city.
Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world – archaeological evidence suggests that the settlement of the area began in about 2,000 BCE. The city sits on the left banks of the Ganges, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
Regarded as one of the holiest settlements in India – Hinduism originated here – it is very multicultural. Like most cities in India, it hosts several religions. Hindus, Japanese Buddhists, and Muslims make up the majority of the diverse population, with even a handful of Jews residing there too.
It draws devout Hindu pilgrims from all over the world, who bathe in the Ganges sacred waters. It is a place to visit for life lessons, not for leisure. Don’t visit Varanasi for a kickback and relaxing vacation.
India’s spiritual men in orange
Most of you have likely seen these men dressed in orange, somewhere in a brochure/film or online, and wondered what they represent in their communities. They are many opinions of these people, from a spiritual fraud to the upmost religious ascetic figures (sadhu) in Indian society.
The word sadhu in Hinduism is the name for someone who keenly follows spiritual discipline; someone who has let go of all attachments to society – material, familial, sexual – in pursuit of moksha. Moksha is the total liberation from ignorance and desires.
The modern forehead markings worn by Indian people and those of Indian descent have different names depending on the marking.
Red dots are called bindi or pottu. The paste used is called kumkum, constructed of turmeric powder – a yellow spice – which is common in India. Mixing the turmeric with lime juice creates this bright red paste.
White vertical lines you may also find are called tilak, which is the name of the sacred white ash used. The tilak – sandal paste – symbolizes calmness and purity.
Bathing in these murky waters is said to purify your spirit and wash away your sins.
Environmental & Wildlife Issues in Varanasi
-Air quality in Varanasi is one of the most toxic in the country, according to research. A mixture of dust kicked up by traffic and construction sites, vehicle and industrial emissions have created a permanent smog that chokes the residents and visitors. Open fires lit by poorer residents add even more pollution to the atmosphere.
-River contamination has been an ever-growing problem for the Ganges. More than half of Varanasi’s waste flows into the river, along with what’s left of the thousands of cremations that take place every year on the river banks.
-Snake charming was something you were guaranteed in an Indian marketplace or festival, entertaining the crows of engrossed tourists.
These days, it is not easy to find snake charmers anymore. It had taken me a month of exploring India to finally come across a father and son, who opened their wicker baskets to reveal to me their cobras.
What most people don’t know is that snakes don’t have ears. The so-called ‘charmers’ use a pipe, so what the snake sees is a menacing figure moving side to side, so they move to that.
The illusion of the poisonous snake tamed and charmed by music is often based on truly inhumane practices.
What can I do to help?
- Walk around the city & ditch the tuk-tuks – the heart of the town lies along the Ganges, with just a series of steps separating the main streets and the river. Use your legs.
- Do not litter – well, something I shouldn’t have to tell you, but with the horrid waste management systems in the city, your waste will likely ending up in the Ganges.
- Do not promote snake charming by tipping – To stop the snake from biting, snake charmers sometimes break off the animal’s fangs or sew its mouth shut. As a result, the snake can’t eat and slowly starves to death.
Never have goats been more lucrative in India. Unfortunately, due to harsh weather changes, farming has been in a steady decline, meaning farmers are forced to take to goat rearing.
Today, about five million households in the country rear goats, with some of those families surviving off the trade. Due to this, you’ll find many goats running loose around the streets.
Check out my other post on Varanasi:
If you prefer a post more on the ‘nature’ side of the spectrum, then maybe check out my trip to Kelingking Beach in Nusa Penida.
Best time to visit Varanasi
You can plan a visit at any time of the year but bear in mind that Varanasi experiences get very long summers (April to October). In the summer months, temperatures are on the higher side of 30*C, reaching up to 45*C, making it uncomfortable to get around the city and explore with ease. If you do decide to go around that time, make sure you take your sunscreen.
After many I met who had visited the holy city, they suggested visiting during the winter months, between November & February. Throughout these months, the temperatures lurk between 7*C and 15*C; the streets are tourist-free, the nights are cold, but the mornings are pleasant. Many festive celebrations also take place in the winter months, and showers are rare, making it a perfect time to visit.
Tips for Exploring Varanasi
- Take a boat ride at sunrise or sunset
- Avoid the cow poo
- Stay by the ghats
- Do a walking tour of the cremation grounds
- Get lost in the old town
- Watch the Ganga Aarti celebration which takes place every night