It was a chilly November pre-dawn in Varanasi when we made our way back to the Ganges River to witness the morning rituals in this holiest city of India.

We found the evening rituals very spiritual, poignant and fascinating and looked forward to witnessing the morning observance. It turned out even more fascinating.

Our morning boat ride on the Ganges River started out as very tranquil. It became festive as the colorful flow of pilgrims started to descend into the water of the holy river,  then it turned out  to be mind boggling  as we tried to comprehend the ironies of this most sacred waterway of India.


-Dawn in Ganges River, Varanasi IndiaWe found the Ganges River and its ghats (“steps”) very peaceful and serene in the dawn, a huge contrast from the scenes of the night before.

A boat at sunrise in Ganges River, Varanasi IndiaWatching the blazing orange sun slowly rising in the misty horizon was  such a magical treat for braving to cruise the river in very early morn.

-Dawn in Ganges River, Varanasi IndiaAn early boat ride on the Ganges has became a ritual for travelers. It is the best way to witness the spectacle of the old age rituals in the river and on the ghats along the Ganges.


The Ghats, the stone steps that lead down to the Ganges River, are the center of activities in Varanasi.

Ghats along Ganges River, Varanasi, IndiaMost ghats are painted with vivid colors. It was nice to see them quiet and empty early in the morning; we got to appreciate their beautiful geometry and vibrancy. In a little while, the colorful steps would be overwhelmed by throngs of equally colorful pilgrims.

Early morning in the ghats of the Ganges River, Varanasi IndiaPilgrims start to descend on the ghats for morning rituals and activities.

People descending the ghat into Ganges River, Varanasi IndiaThere are more than 80 ghats that stretch for about 4 miles (7 kms) in Varanasi. Each of them has its own importance and, ideally, pilgrims should worship from each of them.


People on the ghats along Ganges River, Varanasi IndiaThrongs of local Hindu devotees and pilgrims from afar flock to the ghats of Ganges each day to bath in its sacred river. They believe that the purifying water of the river would absolve them of their sins.

Men bathing in Ganges River, Varanasi IndiaMen preparing to take the holy plunge.

A man bathing in Ganges River, Varanasi, IndaiA man taking a spiritual bath in the Ganges.

Men bathing in Ganges River, Varanasi IndiaBathers on the Ganges. “Let me check if  it’s clean enough.”


Women praying in Ganges River, Varanasi IndiaMost importantly, devotees come to the Ganges to perform “puja” (ritual prayer). Hindus consider the Ganges River, the Mother Ganga as they call it,  as a goddess.  They pray to her and make offerings for her.

Women praying in Ganges River, Varanasi IndiaSome are said to offer their prayers to the rising sun.

-A man meditating on a ghat along Ganges River, Varanasi IndiaA man meditating on the ghat.

Men praying in Ganges River, Varanasi IndiaMen praying and gossiping (?) in the river.


People washing clothes in Ganges River, Varanasi, IndiaThe Ganges River is one big washing machine!  Apparently, doing laundry  in the holy rive is also an age old  tradition. It was fascinating to watch people doing the washing by rhythmically hitting the clothes on the slabs.


Men washing cloths in Ganges River, Varanasi, IndiaRead the sign “Ganga is the lifeline of Indian Culture.” As sacred and as important the Ganga is to Hindus, it is sadly one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Factory chemical wastes, human wastes and all kinds of waste – including human remains -are dumped into this poor sacred river.

A boy fishing and women praying in Ganges River, Varanasi IndiaWhile the women are praying in the most holy river in the world, the boy is fishing in one of the most toxic rivers in the world. Some people even drink the water as part of the ritual.

If the water is so toxic, why don’t the pilgrims get sick?  Many even swore to have been healed by it. Must it be that they have developed  exremely strong immunity?  Or…is it  that they’re protected by the power of their strong faith – like a sort of miracle? 


Pilgrims on the Ghats of Ganges River, Varanasi, IndiaFaithfuls come from near and far donning the most cheerful of colors to bathe and worship in the water of Holy Ganga. But a lot of them come to Varanasi to prepare for the bleak… die.

Hindus believe that Varanasi is the most sacred place to die. (Thus, Varanasi is a home to numerous hospice and nursing homes.)  They believe that if they die and be cremated in this city and have their ashes thrown in the Ganges River,  their souls willl be released from the cycle of reincarnation and they will attain “moksha” (spiritual liberation).

Cremation Wood, Ganges River, Varanasi, IndiaThat said, cremation is one of the oldest rituals in Varanasi. Two of its  ghats are designated as burning or cremation ghats, where about 200 bodes are cremated each day.

We learned that it takes about 150 lbs.(68 kilos) of wood to completely cremate a body. There are many cases where poor families cannot afford to pay for that much wood, so any body parts that are not completely cremated are… thrown into the river.

Floating body parts are said to be common sights in the Ganges. Fortunately, we didn’t see any. We wondered if our boatman went to a great length of maneuvering us away from  them?

Ganges River, Varanasi, IndiaIt was spiritual, it was colorful, it was intense, it was out of this world. All in all it was a fascinating, unforgettable experience.







Travel Notes:

  • We recommend hiring a local guide when you visit the Ganges River, more for security than informational purposes. There are a lot of con men and persistent hawkers along the Ganges who prey on travelers.  They didn’t bother us when we were accompanied by a guide. If they see you without a guide, they swarm on you like flies. Negotiating for  the boat ride can also be tricky for travelers.  Letting your guide hire the boat will be  hassle-free. If you arrive in Varanasi without a pre-arrange guide, ask your hotel to recommend a licensed  one for you.


Linking to Weekend Travel Inspiration, The Weekly Postcard, Sunday Traveller at Chasing the Donkey and Pack me to, Travel Photo Thursday, and Travel Photo Monday.

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About Marisol

Taking you on our journey one photo - and footstep - at a time.

50 responses to “Varanasi: Morning Rituals on the Ganges River

  1. Anda

    It is so interesting to read about all these rituals. It must have been so fascinating to observe first hand the daily lives and routines of these people. Being awake before the sunset must have been difficult for you, but it’s the time when you can mingle with locals and avoid the tourist crowds. Very suggestive pictures.

    • Marisol

      Hi Anda, thank you. Yes, it was hard to wake so early but was totally worth it for the amazing experience. of witnessing all these fascinating, colorful rituals.

  2. Emma

    What a fascinating place to visit. Your pictures are beautiful, almost like paintings! :)

    • Marisol

      Thanks Emma, it turly was fascinating and glad you enjoyed the photos.

  3. Bama

    What a captivating post, Marisol! I realized that most people visit the Ganges at only one particular time of a day, not at night and the next morning as you and Keith did. Did you arrange a special tour for that? Because it seems like one of the best ways to experience the Ganges in Varanasi.

    Speaking of the highly toxic river, I remember watching a program on TV about a white man who took a plunge into the river and got violently sick a few days afterwards. The doctor who took care of him said, the locals were fine because they had developed a strong immune system, just like what you said.
    Bama recently posted..Candidasa: A Lesson for AllMy Profile

    • Marisol

      Hi Bama, it such a shame if people don’t get to witness the rituals in different part of the day. I really recommend seeing the ritual in night and morning for a full Varanasi experience. We hired a local guide (I just added about it in the Travel Note above) and let him hire a boat for us. Thanks for sharing what you learned from the documentaru.
      Marisol recently posted..Varanasi: Morning Rituals on the Ganges RiverMy Profile

  4. Freya

    That must have been such a unique experience. It’s very fascinating to learn about other cultures & habits & believes. It is true that most of the locals became immune but a tourist should never jump in there cause I’m sure he/she will get very sick.
    Freya recently posted..The Quintessential Guide to BangkokMy Profile

    • Marisol

      Hi Freya, it truly was a fascinating and enlightening experience.

    • Marisol

      You’re welcome SJ. We we’re also shocked and sad to learn about the body parts.

  5. Agness

    Although I’ve never been there, I feel like I would absolutely enjoy exploring it! Wonderful picture. Would it be possible to explore it for less than $25 a day? You know me :D!!

    • Marisol

      Hi Agness, I’m certain you will love exploring Varanasi. I believe its possible to explore anywhere in India for $25 a day.

  6. Vlad

    Such an interesting post! You paint a really lovely picture on the life in India, it looks exactly like I had imagined it.
    Vlad recently posted..10 Photo Tips I’ve LearnedMy Profile

    • Marisol

      Thanks Vlad. Life in India is full of contradiction, which makes it really interesting,

  7. Loved your vivid pictures, description and I too ponder how people don’t get sick here, this river is so polluted. Loved the last bit “It was spiritual, it was colorful, it was intense, it was out of this world. All in all it was a fascinating, unforgettable experience” That’s how I feel in so many places in India and the subcontinent! Thanks for sharing :-)
    samiya selim recently posted..Lama Temple in Beijing, ChinaMy Profile

    • Marisol

      Thanks Samiya, Glad that you can relate to the experience.

    • Marisol

      Thanks a lot, Marissa!

  8. Corinne

    Marisol, I love your photos. The rising sun and birds is gorgeous. I found the Ganges to be a paradox with the pollution and devotion all rolled into one. It was a fascinating place! Thanks once again for linking up with #wkendtravelinspiration!
    Corinne recently posted..Jokulsarlon Glacier LagoonMy Profile

  9. There are such fascinating nuances to the Ganges River. I don’t know that I’ll ever visit Varanasi, so I am glad to see it through your eyes. The laundry service in Malaysia that I used was called Dobi Ghat. I guess it is a reference to the traditional way that the laundry was done. There are also a few streets in Penang leading down to the water that are called Ghat although there are no steps. It’s interesting how learning about India through you helped me understand Malaysia a little better.
    Michele {Malaysian Meanders} recently posted..Flashback to Before the Fall of the Berlin WallMy Profile

    • Marisol

      Hi Michelle, interesting to know that they have Ghats in Penang, at least in name. Do you know that the laundry ghats in Varanasi is called Gobi Ghat? I guess there’s a strong Indian influence in Penang.

  10. I always learn some interesting things from your posts. It looks like it’s a catch-all river. I knew about the washing clothes in river but didn’t realize the extent the pilgrims do with bathing, etc. This was such a fascinating look at the rituals and culture at Varanasi. Beautiful photos as always, Marisol. Thanks for letting us travel with you through such a memorable experience.
    Mary {The World Is A Book} recently posted..A Stroll Through Higashiyama District KyotoMy Profile

  11. Your pictures do an excellent job of capturing the mood on the Ganges, Marisol. I love all of the vibrant colors and the misty dawn light. It would be so fascinating to witness all of this in person. In recent years, India hasn’t been very high on my travel wish list, but your posts are really inspiring me!
    Dana Carmel @ Time Travel Plans recently posted..The Best of the Rogue ValleyMy Profile

    • Marisol

      Hi Dana, thanks Glad you enjoyed the photos. I hope you make it to India someday and witness these fascinating rituals yourself.

    • Marisol

      Thanks Nancie, glad you enjoyed the photos. We really recommend the early morning boat ride.

    • Marisol

      Hi Denise, it truly is special. Hope you make it there soon.

  12. ‘spiritual, colorful, intense, out of this world and unforgettable.’ … Couldn’t agree more ….
    A beautiful and insightful post on the Ganges …

  13. What a great post. I love all the pictures, especially of the colourful steps early in the morning. Great insight into what going on by the river side too.
    Catherine recently posted..6 Top Tips For Visiting IndiaMy Profile

  14. I have often heard India described as a country unlike any other, and viewing your photos from Varanasi, I feel I really understand what that means without ever having visited myself. Once again, your photography has catapulted me into a farflung, foreign destination and made me feel like I am right in the middle of all the action. Reading this post, I kept thinking how otherworldly Varanasi seems to be—somewhere that lets us straddle the lines between two very different realities. Thanks again for taking us on one of your incredible adventures!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..Mini Budget Breakdown: Paris Travel CostsMy Profile

    • Marisol

      HI Steph, a county like no other is a good description for India. It truly is a fascinating land of contradiction. I’m glad that the photos gave you a good feel of Varanasi and its paradox.
      Marisol recently posted..The Temples of KhajurahoMy Profile

  15. these photos are incredible! i always wondered if people actually still bathe in the river there or if it was just in the movies, also super interesting that they pray in the river as well! and good tip about hiring a guide!;-)

    • Marisol

      Thanks Jess. Yes, bathing in the river is still much a big part of the local and devotee’s spiritual tradition..

  16. kay

    Great info & Pics! I am on my way to Varanasi early Feb. Do you have any recommendations for accommodations? Do you think staying near the town center the air is somewhat toxic with the burnings?

    • Marisol

      Hi Kay, it you’re concerend about the air pollution I suggest you stay as far away from the river. I recommend staying at one of the hotels in the Cantonment area, where most of the high end hotels are located. It’s away from the hustle and bustle but still convenient to go anywhere.

  17. Surendra

    Finn influenced by J.D. Salinger?It’s a no-brainer. The kid’s got a ssiter that’s named after one of his characters! He’s not influenced by J.D he’s channeling the guy!Now it’s time for Franny to write a piece in the spirit of Mark Twain. Get it? xox, #1FANNY

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  19. I am just back from Varanasi and I can absolutely connect with your post.
    Beautiful captures indeed!

  20. Interesting post. Such vivid and beautiful pictures. Your clicks and words put the morning ritual of Varanasi the holy abode of God, to life.The bathing ritual in the Ganges, the smell of the incense, the sound of the bells and puja (prayers) fills my mind and heart with spiritualty. I went there 5 years back and this post was enough to freshen up my memories of the place. thanks

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