Sitting on the banks of the Holy Ganges River, Varanasi is often referred to as the spiritual capital of India. With a history spanning thousands of years, it is also one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the whole world. Varanasi is a city of deep religious sentiment and rich cultural tradition, yet also currently suffers from great urban poverty. It is this last fact which beckons volunteers from all over the world to Varanasi, to lend a helping hand to the less fortunate in India’s most holy city.
Volunteering in Varanasi
Most volunteer placements in Varanasi deal with alleviating the burdens of urban poverty. India is one of the poorest countries in the world and life can be a daunting challenge everyday for those left behind in the cities. Varanasi is actually one of India’s smaller cities, with just around 1.5 million inhabitants; nevertheless, the effects of urbanization and poverty can be striking throughout the city.
Volunteering at an orphanage is one popular form of volunteering in Varanasi, which fills a very urgent need. Every year many children in the cities are left on their own to fend for themselves at a young age. Giving them the attention, mentorship, and care they need or may be missing can have a real impact in their lives.
Others who volunteer in Varanasi may find themselves in placements related to education, healthcare, and activism. Teaching English to children or adults, holding workshops and providing care at a local health clinic, working with grassroots organizations, and empowering local women are all examples of the type volunteer work you might engage in.
International volunteers typically have the flexibility to determine their own length of volunteering in Varanasi, with most staying anywhere from two weeks to six months. Hindi is the local language in Varanasi, and while you will get by just fine knowing English, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to pick up some basic phrases to help you interact with locals better while volunteering abroad in Varanasi.
Life in Varanasi
For a first time visitor, life in India’s cities might seem quite intense and chaotic: rickshaws buzzing around at high speeds, lots of noise and movement, and scores of people living in slums with very little infrastructure. Varanasi is calmer in this regard, than other major cities such as Mumbai or Delhi, but adapting to life in the city will undoubtedly still prove quite culturally shocking.
The defining characteristic of Varanasi is its place as the holiest city in Hinduism and Jainism, as well as its foundational role in Buddhism (Gautama Buddha delivered his first sermon at Sarnath very nearby). Somewhat akin to a Jerusalem of the East, Varanasi is the pilgrimage site for millions of devout followers from all over the world. The Ganges River is considered very holy, and every night you will walk by open air cremations along its banks.
If Varanasi seems like a faraway place full of mystery and intrigue, that’s because for most people it is. India is a deeply religious country, and in Varanasi this spirituality is manifest to the fullest. You will learn a lot about yourself and the world around you while volunteering in Varanasi. Keep your eyes and ears open, make the effort to absorb your surroundings, and your time as a volunteer in Varanasi will undoubtedly prove to be life changing.
Costs & Affordability
Since India is a very poor country, Varanasi is a highly affordable destination to volunteer abroad in. Your meals and transportation will rarely cost you more than a few dollars at a time, and many monetary exchanges are negotiable by bartering. Airfare and volunteer program fees will be your greatest expense, but the good news is you can check out FundmyTravel to raise funds to help cover these costs.
Accommodation & Visas
Many individuals who volunteer in Varanasi choose to live in a homestay, which is a fantastic opportunity to immerse yourself fully in the Indian lifestyle. Host families are enthusiastic about welcoming foreign volunteers into their homes, and will often treat them just as another member of the family. Volunteers can also choose to live in an apartment while volunteering abroad in Varanasi, although real estate in Varanasi can sometimes be hard to come by. Communicate with your volunteer program provider about the different available housing options before volunteering in Varanasi.
You will have to apply for a visa before you can volunteer abroad in Varanasi. The exact visa you will need depends on your home country and the duration of your volunteer program. You can check out GoAbroad’s Embassy Directory for more information from your nearest Indian consulate.
Benefits & Challenges
Give Back. Many of the people you will be volunteering to help in Varanasi have very little opportunity for education and limited access to basic resources. Volunteering in Varanasi is a great way to make a positive impact on the lives of locals in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Have a Spiritual Experience. There is something bordering mystical about living and volunteering in Varanasi, a spiritual depth which pervades all aspects of the city. From strolls along the Ganges at sunrise to exploring the city’s many temples at dusk, those who volunteer in Varanasi will have a great opportunity for soul searching.
Witness India. With a population of 1.3 billion people, and a rich and complex history that spans millennia, the Indian subcontinent is a world of its own. While volunteering in Varanasi, make sure to pencil in the time to explore as much as you can of this incredible country.