Freelance writer with a BA double majoring in Literature and Australian History who loves finding random places of social or historical treasure whilst travelling around visiting festivals, markets and quaint cafes with my husband and baby
Published February 26th 2016
Life begins and ends at Varanasi's Ghats on the Ganges River
The ghats in Varanasi are around 300 years old. In India, time stands still, a view today might be the same as it was 50 years ago, and for many people without electricity or running water, life is little different from a hundred years ago. But the general view is that most the ghats were built after 1700's.
They line the bank of the Ganges River, in the old part of Varanasi.
The ghats have many uses in everyday life of a Hindu. They are commonly used as a bathing place and area to collect water for daily use. Blessings are made here and taken. The Ganges River is the most holy river to Hindus. Touching the water is said to give the good graces of the Gods and long life. Dedicated Hindus make pilgrimages here to receive the blessings of the river.
Likewise, ending life at the Ganges initiates a good transition into the next life. There are ghats dedicated to the cremation of Hindus. A deceased person is carried down on a home made wooden stretcher and a pire built over him on the river, where he is cremated and becomes one with the river.
Each ghat has a specific purpose which are never cross-polluted with each other. Above the ghats are cafes, houses and shops of old Varanasi.
Tourists are not as many as you think in this area. The Ganges River is the life blood of the region and possibly the world's holiest river, but being in the old town of Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in India, it is a little off the beaten track for those who just want to visit the Taj Mahal, Delhi and Mumbai and move on to the next country. There are so many Hindus relying on the river for life, that the ghats are covered in children playing, people bathing and washing, and pilgrims receiving blessings. Tourists are outnumbered and the area feels very real, simmering with a life that most of us will never know.
Although tourists are outnumbered by anywhere from 20 to 1 to 100 to 1 depending on the day, the area feels safe. However, don't venture into old Varanasi town after dark without a guide, it's winding alleyways can get the uninitiated lost and into trouble. One point to remember, the general population of this area is unimaginably poor. If you venture here in your fanciest clothes and expensive accessories, you will be approached by children or beggars asking for money. These people live on less than $5 a day, so if you don't want to be accosted then blend in a little.
A tourist sitting down and immediately surrounded by locals
As I sat on one of the ghats in my faithful old travel headscarf and dusty cargo pants people watching and loving the moment, I saw a pretty tourist, spotlessly clean in new clothes who had just stepped off an airplane sit down and be immediately approached by a dozen children for money. They are harmless of course, and desperately in need, but ignored my travel worn husband and I, for a clean looking foreigner with money. As I said, all manner of people watching and adventurous life exists here on the ghats.
With the river giving its water to everyday life for drinking, washing and living on its ghats, receiving pilgrims and transitioning deceased to the next life, it's not only polluted but full of colour and all manner of people. The ghats are a must for anyone interested in history, culture and people watching. The cafes dotted along here are pretty good too. Get there by taking a train to Varanasi, and a tuk tuk to the old town. Just ask the driver to take you to the ghats, everybody knows where they are. It should cost less than $4 in a tuk tuk to get there. They do have hotels in the old town, but many of the more fancy clean hotels are in the new area.
As an aside, we like to bring pencils and little colouring in books and other knickknacks to give the children, and if a tuk tuk driver takes us where we want to go without veering off to side roads, then we always give double the agreed payment. In this way, we help the locals directly while upholding their dignity.