IFSA/Alliance: The City, the River, the Sacred
90% Rating
(4 Reviews)

IFSA/Alliance: The City, the River, the Sacred

Explore the intersections between religious practice, urban studies, and environmental issues in the ancient city of Varanasi. Arguably the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, Varanasi serves as an important holy site for Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist communities alike. Today, this dense urban center is defined by its close symbiotic relationship with the Ganges River, which can be simultaneously understood as pure and polluted. Artistic and artisanal traditions thrive in Varanasi, known for its silk-weaving and pottery, as well as generations of mastery in classical Indian music forms.

In addition to your academic studies, you will also have ample opportunities for language learning and cultural immersion. You will live with an Indian host family and participate in co-curricular activities that take learning outside of the classroom. A week-long excursion to West Bengal will expose you to India’s cultural diversity and colonial history.

Program Type
Subject Areas
Asian Studies
Conflict Studies
Cultural Studies
Global Studies
Peace Studies
Degree Level
Academic Year
Host Family
Online Application

Questions & Answers

Program Reviews

based on 4 reviews
  • Academics 6.5
  • Support 9.3
  • Fun 8.8
  • Housing 8.5
  • Safety 8
Showing 1 - 4 of 4

Varanasi: City of Confluence

I really enjoyed my time abroad in Varanasi. The Global Alliance for Education set me up with an amazing host family who really helped me to understand the city and their culture. I took an incredible gender class as well which brought me on many interesting and moving field trips. Varanasi isn't always an easy city, but the Global Alliance for Education set me up in a way that made my experience there incredible.

How can this program be improved?
More ways to interact with local students-- you really have to put yourself out there to meet people and in Indian culture it's not always appropriate to be forward in the same way it is in the US.
Yes, I recommend
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I left with more questions than when I started

I'm going to be honest, it was challenging. Not just in adjusting to a new culture and being away from home, but in the daily encounters I experienced. Varanasi is a whirlwind; it hits you right in the face. There are winding alleys and cows, dirt and pollution, traffic and beggars. But there is also the Ganges and the ghats, friendly shopkeepers and delicious lassi, hundreds of temples and beautiful sunrises. I came in with a lot of questions, and left with even more. But that shows me that it was worth it. Studying abroad was a taste of reality, a sliver of the "real world," if you will. I saw poverty and discrimination, but also hope and beauty. And I was in a supportive community that helped me process these difficult realizations. The program staff is incredibly attentive and sacrificing to the students' needs and wishes, but they are also there to talk things through and give insight into a new culture and way of life. Plus, you have your American roommate and your Indian host family. Not to mention that the classes deal with pressing issues that you experience on a daily basis. Gender studies and peace and conflict studies, religion and Hindi. These are relevant courses with an interesting Indian perspective. While it is important to note that the teaching style is rather different, there are plenty of field visits and places to connect what you are learning in the classroom with what you are experiencing in the city. Perhaps one of my favorite parts of my semester was my Culture in Practice class. Students can choose a variety of topics, and I decided on textiles. Three days a week I traveled by bike to my textile teacher's house (about a 25 minute ride away), where we learned about the various Indian textiles and created some of our own. From batik to natural dyes, from block printing to weaving, we were able to tangibly experience an important part of Indian culture and history. Our textiles professor was incredibly hospitably, constantly serving us sweets and teas, and treating us as part of the family. Now, I am hooked on textiles and on India. I realized that India is massive and diverse, that it has beautiful aspects, yet there are dark, rough edges too. Varanasi is crazy and chaotic, but full of life and connection. I couldn't walk down the street without the various shopkeepers greeting me. Sure, there were times I wanted to go home, but now that I am home, I want to go back.

How can this program be improved?
While the courses offered were interesting and thought-provoking, the overall academic caliber of the classes was lacking. Part of it is adjusting to a different teaching style that is more lecture-based instead of discussion based. The readings were good and informative, but I think we could've gone even deeper into Indian society and culture. Still, I learned a lot and the program was very willing to hear feedback and make adjustments.
Yes, I recommend
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Cultural Immersion in Varanasi

Varanasi is a challenging city to study abroad in. It pushes you outside of your comfort zone and you inevitably learn a lot about yourself in the process. That being said, it is also an amazing and beautiful city, and 100% worth it. I loved living with my host family and the program staff were all super cool and helpful. Plus, the food is phenomenal.

Yes, I recommend
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Best Decision I Ever Made

I would get up before the sunrise every morning and go to the river to watch the city come to life. I'd watch the holy men do yoga and greet the blazing Indian sun as it broke the horizon. I will have already had at least three clay cups of chai tea by the time I walked to school, navigating through the bustling rickshas and the slow moving cows. My school day was spent contextualizing our daily experiences and learning in-depth the complex concepts of Indian religions, women's studies, and the insanely useful Hindi language! After school I'd walk along the river, hang out with locals, do my own version of the real-life "Temple run," explored ancient structures and admired the monkeys climbing on the concrete jungle that was Varanasi. By evening time I would snuggle up with my host family, gossip about the biggest Bollywood stars, and watch the festival lights parade down the street from our window. This was the most difficult and rewarding experience of my life. You will be challenged in ways you never imagined, but every second is worth it.

How can this program be improved?
I had a few difficulties with the academics of the program. It was tough to adjust to the different teaching styles, obviously, but I think a little more could have been done to convey expectations to the professors.
Yes, I recommend

About Institute for Study Abroad

The Institute for Study Abroad (IFSA) is a nonprofit organization founded in 1988. Our primary goal is to provide quality study abroad opportunities, plus academic and personal support services, for qualified North American undergraduates seeking to...