Festivals in Varanasi India: a tourist guide
There is no place in India that celebrates its festivals with such passion than Varanasi. Festivals in Varanasi are really something special and the city brings celebrating them to a whole different level.
India’s holiest city and the city of Lord Shiva is a city of festivals. There is at least one festival in Varanasi every month, but often more. It seems contradictory that in a place where people come to die you can always find a festive atmosphere.
For tourists the Festivals in Varanasi can be overwhelming, but also the main reason to come and visit Varanasi in the first place. This guide explains which festivals in Varanasi are worthwhile and how to celebrate them.
A history of festivals in Varanasi
Varanasi is India’s most sacred city, because of its long history as the centre of Hindu spirituality. The Vedas and the Mahabaratha already mentioned Varanasi as the city of Lord Shiva.
Varanasi is also on the banks of the river Ganges. The holiest river on earth and like Varanasi already mentioned in the Vedas. Hindus believe that any rituals performed at the Ganges will have extra power. The river brings fortune, washes away sins and those cremated here will receive instant enlightenment. Sadly, it is also one of the most polluted rivers in the world.
Varanasi remains at the heart of Hindu culture. Therefore it is no surprise that festivals in Varanasi have a special meaning. Being in the holiest city at the banks of the most sacred river means that your prayers have extra weight in a country of one billion people.
Festivals in Varanasi
Saraswati Puja in Varanasi
I was lucky to visit Varanasi twice. During my second visit I witnessed the festival of Saraswati puja. The day where they pray to the goddess of education and knowledge.
Students make idols and walk around town towards the Ganges. The idea is that they bring Saraswati back home by throwing the handmade dolls in the river.
This was Varanasi like I never saw it before. During the day the processions were a rather fun affair with women and children singing and dancing, but during the night things heated up with young men walking through town.
They played loud music and threw pink color powder to each other. Some of them were under influence of alcohol and drugs. Not the best time to be out for me travelling alone as a female.
When: Saraswati Puja festival follows the Hindu calendar and is usually somewhere in late January or early February.
Shivaratri in Varanasi
Shivaratri or the night of Lord Shiva is Varanasi’s most important festival. After all, Varanasi is the city of Lord Shiva.
Hindu’s have several theories about the origin of Shivaratri. Some say it was the night Shiva married the goddess Parvati. Others say it was the night Shiva saved the world from destruction.
The story goes that the demons made a poison, but Shiva swallowed it all to save the world. He kept it in his throat that then turned blue. Because Shiva was not supposed to fall asleep, the gods kept him company. During Shivaratri, Hindu devotees likewise stay awake to meditate and pray for Lord Shiva.
For women this is also the time to pray to the Shiva lingam. A black stone penis that represents Shiva’s manhood. Married women pray for protection of their husbands while unmarried women pray to get a husband as strong and handsome as Shiva.
Varanasi is the best place in India to experience Shivaratri. Thousands of Saddhu’s and Shiva devotees will come to Varanasi to visit the Shiva temples and take a dip in the Ganges. It also atracts followers of the Aghori, a sect of ardent Shiva devotees that practice extreme rituals.
During the day there are hundreds of processions through town and during the night the ghats are the scene of prayers, chanting and music in which the saddhu’s will fast and smoke weed.
In Hindu mythology Shiva used weed to strengthen his powers. Therefore bhang is consumed in copious amounts during Shivaratri. Smoked by saddhu’s or mixed in a drink called thandai. A cold mixture of milk, almond and spices.
When: The festival follows the Hindu calendar and is on the 13th or 14th day and night of the month Phalgun that is usually in February or March.
Dhrupad Mela in Varanasi
The Dhrupad Mela is an annual music festival at Tulsi ghat. Dhrupad is one of the oldest types of Hindu classical music. Legendary music artists from all over India come to show their skills. For five days Tulsi ghat becomes an open air concert with some of the best musicians in India.
When: The Dhrupad festival is in late February or early March
Holi in Varanasi
Holi is India’s spring festival that celebrates the end of winter. It is the most colourful event in India and a crazy time to be in Varanasi. The night of Holika Dahan huge bonfires are lit up to send away evil spirits. The next day everyone engages in splashing water and colour powder around.
Holi in Varanasi can be a really intensive experience. Needless to say is that foreigners, especially women are a favourite target to throw colours on. To read the experiences of female travel bloggers celebrating Holi in Varanasi check Castaway with Crystal and Lost with Purpose.
When: Holi is on the day after the full moon in March
Ganga Dussehra is a festival to celebrate the goddess Ganga that lives in the holy Ganges river. Devotees believe that on this day the Ganges will wash away more than ten sins. Thousands of people come to bath and to float oil lamps in the river.
When: Ganga Dussehra follows the Hindu calendar but is usually in late June or early July
Shravan maah in Varanasi
Shravan is the holiest month in the Hindu calendar when Lord Shiva gives special blessings to his devotees. Prayers to Lord Shiva are believed to be more powerful in this month.
Even though it is monsoon time the city is busy with pilgrims that come to visit the Shiva temples and bathe in the river Ganges. Every monday there are special prayers performed in the Shiva temple and at the end of the month the city is buzzing with festivities.
When: Shravan Maah is in the fifth month of the Hindu calendar that usually is in late July and early August
Ram Leela & Dussehra in Varanasi
Ram Leela is the age old tradition of showcasing the life story of Lord Ram on stage. It is a story of battles with demons, especially the Demon ravan and the eventual victory of good over evil. Ram Leela shows are performed for ten succesive nights all over the country, but it is again in Varanasi that the festival gets a unique twist.
The festival in Varanasi does not take ten day only, but a whole month and the nearby town of Ramnagar turns into one big open playground in which different parts of town represent different scenes of the epic story of Ram.
Huge dummies are made of the major characters and the demons. At the final day when Dussehra is celebrated the demons are burned in a magnificent show of firecrackers and fireworks.
When: The Ram Leela festival follows the Hindu calendar and is usually in September/October. If you are in Varanasi at that time, make sure you pay a visit to Ramnagar.
Divali in Varanasi
Divali is one of my favourite times to be in India. Varanasi has not one Diwali, but has in fact two Divali’s. The first Divali is on the new moon night in the month Karthik when the whole of India celebrates the triumph of good over evil with firecrackers, oil lamps, lights and prayers to the goddes Laxmi.
15 days later on the full moon night, Varanasi celebrates its own Dev Diwali. People believe that during this day the gods descend to earth to bathe in the river and thousands of pilgrims come to do the same. The ghats and homes are decorated with thousands of earthen oil lamps and numerous processions with deities will take place.
When: Diwali follows the Hindu Calendar and usually falls in late October or early November.
Safety during festivals in Varanasi
Festivals in Varanasi can be a lot of fun, but there are some safety issues to take into account. Varanasi has some of the best beggars, pickpocketers and scammers in India and they are only more active during festival times. Furthermore, it will be very crowded with a lot of people that are not actually from Varanasi. The toxic combination of alcohol and bhang often creates group of young men that become rowdy and annoying.
This is not to scare you away. Celebrating festivals in Varanasi is very well possible, even for solo female travellers. However, it is a time to be careful and take necessary precautions.
Solo female travellers
For female travellers it is good to know that a lot of festivals in India are dominated by men. My experience with Saraswati puja in Varanasi is that there were some women and children celebrating in the morning, but as the day progresses it was mostly young men that got increasingly drunk and annoying.
As local women dissapeared from the streets, I received more stares and curiosity. While most men were still respectful, some could not help making obscene gestures.
This is not the best time to go out on your own as a solo female traveller. Safety is in numbers so try to find other people and join the festival as a group. Other options are to find a view point, like the balcony of your guesthouse and watch the festivities from there.
Look around you. The atmosphere in the crowds can change quickly. Are you surrounded by families, are there other local women present or is it just men. If there are other local women try to stay near them, but if you only see men and you get the feel they are intoxicated it is better to leave the crowds.
Scams are a common problem in Varanasi whether there is a festival or not. Taxi drivers claim that your hotel no longer exists so they can bring you to a hotel where they get a commision. Wannabe guides that want to show you around for exorbitant prices and fake saddhu’s that will bless you and your whole family before you could say no.
There are only two rules here. Nothing is for free in Varanasi and always negotiate a price beforehand. Be wary with anyone approaching you, especially around the ghats. No matter if they tell you it is free, they will ask you to pay for it, even if it was just to listen to their story.
A common scam at the Manikarna ghat is the wood scam and the photo scam. In the wood scam you will be approached by someone that will either guide you around ‘for free’ or introduces you to one of the wood workers. At the end they will ask you to buy wood for the poor. In the photo scam men will approach you that claim you need to have a license to make pictures at the ghat and that you have to pay a fine.
Also try to avoid wanna be guides. If you want to know more about the background information of Varanasi and walk with a guide you can use the professional services of Varanasi walks or Heritage walk Varanasi. You can also use this self guided Varanasi walking tour.
Pickpocketing is a common problem in Varanasi and being in a crowd of people only makes it more easier. Leave your valuables in your hotel and wear a money belt under your clothes.
The best places to stay in Varanasi
If you plan your visit to Varanasi during one of its festivals it is important to book your accomodation in advance. Making reservations is essential and the most popular hotels fill up months in advance.
Mother Hostel feels more like a homestay than a hostel. It is close to Ganga ghat and the family that runs the place is very friendly and helpful.
Moustache Varanasi has a range of clean dormitories. It is a good and proffesional hostel near Assi ghat.
When to visit Varanasi
The best time to visit is in winter when most festivals in Varanasi take place. Winter runs from October till March and is a popular season to visit Varanasi, because of its pleasant temperatures and good weather.
Summer runs from April till June. This time it can get very hot in Varanasi and temperatures can reach above 40 degrees Celsius. If you plan to visit Varanasi in summer make sure you are prepared to deal with the heat.
The monsoon is from July till September and will bring a drop in temperatures again, but also a lot of rain and humidity. If you plan to visit Varanasi during the monsoon make sure you bring a rain coat and plastic bags to protect your electronics against the humidity.
The best way to reach Varanasi is by train. There are frequent trains from the major cities in India like Delhi (13 hours), Agra (11 hours) & Kolkata (14 hours). There is also an airport in Varanasi with daily flights to Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata & Kathmandu.
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