The City, the River, the Sacred

The Varanasi program allows students to examine the intersections between religious life, urban studies, and the environment in contemporary India. A challenging destination for U.S. undergraduates, Varanasi is a city that has stimulated scholarship on South Asia for hundreds of years. It offers boundless, rich opportunities for research, academic study, intercultural experience, and personal reflection. The program provides a structured, balanced blend of classroom and field-based learning, including a required language course and an individualized ‘culture in practice’ component.

Program Terms Fall Semester, Spring Semester
Credit Hours 15
Subjects Offered Gender Studies, Hindi/Urdu, Peace and Conflict Studies, Religious Studies
Language Pre-Requisites None
Field Components Culture in Practice, Directed Research
Housing Homestay
Excursions Week-Long Field Study Trip
Application Deadlines April 15 (Fall), November 1 (Spring)

All students are encouraged to consider studying abroad for an academic year in India, whether continuing in their current program to deepen their knowledge of Varanasi, or at a different Alliance program center to broaden their understanding of India’s regional diversity.

The City, the River, the Sacred program challenges you to examine the urban realities and geography that define Varanasi and place it in a greater context of national and global currents. This 15-credit semester is comprised of a required core course and field component plus Hindi or Urdu language and two electives. Students choose from three Culture in Practice field component options—music and dance, yoga and yoga theory, or artisanal apprenticeship—which take learning outside of the classroom and into local communities in Varanasi. 

Required Courses

SOCI 360 Varanasi: City of Confluence (3 credits)

This interdisciplinary core course explores the complex intersections of the city, the river, and the sacred that both define Varanasi and place it in the greater context of national and global environmental, urban, and religious currents. Various local field visits are also incorporated into this course.

HIND 100 Beginning Hindi or URDU 100 Beginning Urdu (3 credits)

Fundamentals of conversation and written Hindi or Urdu for beginning students. Intermediate and advanced levels will be taught through individual tutorials, such as HIND 200 Intermediate Hindi.

CLTR 280 Culture in Practice (3 credits)

CLTR 280 Culture in Practice: Music & Dance 

CLTR 280 Culture in Practice: Yoga & Yoga Theory 

CLTR 280 Culture in Practice: Artisanal Apprenticeship

This field-based component provides the rare opportunity for students to go into the local community and study under master teachers known as gurus. Students choose from three options—music and dance, yoga and yoga theory, or artisanal apprenticeship—and spend the semester examining the history and theories behind them as well as learning the skill or trade first-hand. More information about this component is available on our Culture in Practice page.

Students may select DIRR 380 Directed Research as an alternative to the Culture in Practice field component. More information is available on our Directed Research page.

Elective Courses

Not all electives may be offered in a given semester depending on enrollment and faculty availability.

GEND 320 Studies in Gender (3 credits)

This course introduces students to salient discourses and local practices in Indian society from a gender perspective. Through a socio-cultural framework, students explore the diversity of social practices and complexities of gender relations in different social groups. The course highlights key structural issues and marginalization of women in the economic, legal and cultural areas. It also focuses on counter responses in the form of activism and social movements. Case studies from diverse areas supplement the conceptual analysis. 

PEAC 380 Peace and Conflict Studies: Gandhi and Beyond (3 credits)

Peace and conflict studies have taken on an important role in South Asia studies in the last decades of 20th century. This course analyzes the links between conflicts, security and development in the theoretical framework keeping special focus on the Indian experience against the wider context of South Asia. Selected lectures also focus on Varanasi, a representative site of contestation and cooperation for inter-civilizational dialogue and communal peace. 

RELG 350 Living Religious Traditions in India (3 credits)

This course aims to expose students to the religious diversity of India and enhance their understanding of the diverse and composite character of Indian culture and its people. The course focuses on the study of the history, texts, beliefs, and practices pertaining to the main religious traditions of India (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, and Sikhism), while also exploring the socio-political implication of religious beliefs and customs. Students develop an academic understanding of the festivals and rituals that may be observed during a semester in Varanasi.

IS379-01 Exploring Community & Culture in a Global Context (3 credits)

In addition to required and elective courses, Alliance students may participate in an exciting online course with a global cohort from IFSA-Butler locations around the world. Enrolling in this course brings your course load to, or above, 18 U.S. semester credit hours and requires approval from your study abroad advisor.

Through a creative online format, this course facilitates active engagement with your host community, exploration of cultural identity and examination of diversity in the context of political, economic and sociocultural structures. Students cover topics such as intercultural communication skills, intercultural learning theories, tools for intercultural analysis and the development of personal strategies for engaging with differences of any kind following the study abroad experience. This course is ideal for students who seek transferable skills and specific competencies for successful work in the global marketplace. The asynchronous course format allows you to take part in online discussions, post responses, review peer contributions, submit your assignments, read materials and watch instructor videos at the time of day (or night) that best suits your personal schedule.

Download the course outline or course syllabus to learn more.

The Culture in Practice component provides students with the rare opportunity to study under master teachers in the local community. Students must select one option out of the three listed below.

Students spend a third of their time in a classroom setting with their peers. Weekly lectures provide the academic framework in which students learn about the theory and history of their Culture in Practice choice. The remaining two-thirds of the class are spent ‘in practice’, focusing on a specific aspect of the category chosen. Here, students study their respective art or discipline first-hand through one-on-one or small group lessons with their teachers called gurus. Regular assessments are conducted jointly by the professor and the teacher throughout the semester. 

Music and Dance

CLTR 280 Music and Dance

Varanasi boasts a longstanding tradition of music that is still vibrant in the city today. Despite the widespread popularity of Bollywood, Indian classical music has continued to play a prominent role in the socio-cultural life of the city. The active performing arts community in Varanasi has a strong legacy in classical Indian music, and was home to legendary figures like Pandit Shanto Prasad (tabla) and Pandit Ravi Shankar (sitar).

Music students are introduced to North Indian classical music and dance through the Indian method of learning. One-on-one practice with gurus allow students to develop their personal skill. Lectures for music and dance students are led by scholars of Indian performing arts, providing a historical and theoretical foundation for the student’s experience. Students may choose from instruments such as tabla or sitar, Khyal classical singing, or Kathak dance.

Yoga and Yoga Theory

CLTR 280 Yoga and Yoga Theory

The Hindu spiritual destination, Varanasi is home to hundreds of shrines and temples and remains the center for Hindu enlightenment, yoga, and learning. An integral part of Hinduism, yoga has been practiced in India for centuries as a way of freeing the mind, body, and spirit. For these reasons Varanasi provides yoga students with a wealth of context and opportunities for profound experiential learning. Students have classroom lectures with their Yoga professor two times per week to study both the religious and theoretical foundations of Yoga. Students then meet Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings with their teacher to practice Yoga.

Artisanal Apprenticeship

CLTR 280 Artisanal Apprenticeship

Varanasi, long known as a center for silk production, has attracted many of the world’s finest luxury brands to its doorstep. This apprenticeship provides an opportunity to study local crafts and trades of significant importance to the local economy in Varanasi. During weekly courses students learn about the history and importance of trades, such as silk weaving and ceramics, and venture into artisan communities throughout the city accompanied by a professor. In private classes with teachers, students enjoy hands on learning using looms and pottery wheels to better understand the level of skill and artistry in existence in Varanasi today.

Students may select Directed Research as an alternative to the Culture in Practice field component. Pre-approval is required prior to November 15 (for spring semester) and May 1 (for fall semester). Contact your Student Services Manager for more information about this option.

Students who choose to pursue directed research as their field component are paired with a faculty member appropriate to their academic area of interest, such as performing arts, religious or cultural studies, tribal, environmental or women’s issues, or text-based historical research, and are expected to produce a formal research paper. Research students have regular meetings with faculty guides in their subject area to discuss the formation and execution of their research plans. All directed research projects are subject to the interest and availability of faculty and feasibility in the program location.

For more information, consult the Directed Research syllabus.

Alliance faculty are drawn from universities and other institutions in Varanasi as well as from its renowned artistic and artisanal communities.

Dr. Sanjay
SOCI 360 Varanasi: City of Confluence

Prof. Swarnali De
GEND 320 Studies in Gender

Dr. Binda Paranjape
RELG 350 Living Religious Traditions in India

Dr. Manoj Mishra 
PEAC 380 Peace and Conflict Studies: The Indian Experience 

Prof. Binit Mishra 
HIND 100 Beginning Hindi, HIND 200 Intermediate Hindi

Dr. Salman Raghib 
URDU 100 Beginning Urdu

Dr. Yogesh Kumar Bhatt and Mrs. Geeta Yogesh Bhatt
CLTR 380 Culture in Practice (Yoga and Yoga Theory)

A study abroad experience is first and foremost an academic experience. All Alliance for Global Education courses have undergone a faculty review and approval process, and are transcripted by Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. While in most cases students who have received approval from their home institution to study on an Alliance program can be assured of credits transferring, it is each student’s responsibility to work with the home school study abroad advisor and faculty or academic departments to ensure credit transfer for specific courses.  

Credits and Accreditation

Credits granted for Alliance courses are identified in course listings on the Curriculum page for each program, and appear on the official transcript issued at the completion of a student's term. Credit is issued in U.S. semester hours, ensuring that students continue to make progress toward their degrees and verifying the full-time course load they completed while abroad.

All Alliance courses have been reviewed and approved by Butler University’s Undergraduate Academic Programs Committee. Butler University is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission and is a member of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. Programs approved by the Butler University College of Business—which include the Alliance’s International Business in China Program—are accredited by AACSB International, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.


Students receive a letter grade on a scale from A to F for every course taken while enrolled on an Alliance program. Withdrawals may be granted due to exceptional circumstances. Although policies at students' home institutions may differ, the Alliance does not permit students to take courses on a credit/no credit or pass/fail basis. Student grades are determined by criteria set forth in course syllabi. The grading scale used in determining letter grades is as follows:

Excellent      A 93-100% Acceptable C+ 77-79%
A- 90-92% C 73-76%
C- 70-72%
Good    B+ 87-89% Unsatisfactory D+ 67-69%
B 83-86% D 63-66%
B- 80-82% D- 60-62%
Failing F < 60%


At the conclusion of a program, an official transcript is sent to the participant's home campus and to the student's permanent address. Please use this form if the Alliance has accepted you into a program and you have changed your home, school or billing address. Federal regulations require official documentation and a signature for address changes.

Because timelines for final evaluation may vary due to respective program calendars or administrative structures of partner universities abroad, transcripts may take longer to issue than they do at U.S. institutions. While the timeline varies by program, a general timeline for issuing transcripts is:

  • Fall programs - transcript issued in late February
  • Spring and Summer programs - transcript issued in late September

Transcripts are not released for students with an outstanding balance of program fees or other charge incurred while on the program. Students enrolling in consecutive terms with the Alliance do not receive their first term transcript until their second term fees are paid in full.

Students in Alliance programs from Summer 2014 and beyond can request additional transcripts of their transcripts online at any time from Butler University's online transcript ordering service provided by the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization serving the higher education community. 

For all Alliance programs through Spring 2014, transcripts were issued by Arcadia University. Students enrolled during that time can request additional copies of transcripts online or in writing from the Arcadia University Registrar's Office.

If you have a question about the transcripting process or timeline, please contact your Academic Records Coordinator.

Academic Record Appeal

The Institute for Study Abroad, Butler University (IFSA-Butler) can assist you with your academic record appeal for any IFSA-Butler or Alliance program by contacting the host institution you attended and/or program instructor as well as our staff abroad for further information.

Academic record appeals can be varied in nature, including grade appeals, credit appeals, courses missing from the transcript, course title, etc.

Students may appeal the content of their academic records according to the official procedures set by the host university and/or program. All appeals must be submitted to IFSA-Butler promptly after receipt of the Butler University transcript via our online Academic Record Appeal Form. IFSA-Butler allows students one year from the program end date to submit appeals, however it is the student’s responsibility to be aware of and meet the deadlines set by the host university and/or program attended. The earliest deadline takes precedence.

No appeals will be undertaken for those students who have taken early examinations, have arranged to submit any course work outside the scheduled dates, have a financial hold on their account or have been accused of academic dishonesty for the course in question.

The appeals process may be lengthy due to differences between universities abroad and the U.S. academic systems and calendars. Therefore, you should expect that an appeal may take three weeks to three months to resolve.

What constitutes a valid academic record appeal?
You must have reason to believe that an error has been made in calculating your grades or credits (i.e. submitted work was not received; an error may have been made in marking your final exam, etc.) or that you were exempt from a portion of the coursework due to a documented medical or personal emergency.

The following arguments, on their own, are insufficient reason for an appeal:

  • “My home university requires a higher grade for transfer of credit.”
  • “I feel I deserve a better grade.”
  • “I was over my head in this class.”
  • “I worked hard and spent a lot of time, effort and money on this class.”

Complete the IFSA-Butler Academic Record Appeal form, clearly describing the nature of your academic record appeal. Upload any supporting documentation. You must be polite, specific, and when appropriate, substantiate your well-written logical appeal by providing relevant documentation. Upon receiving a response from your host institution and/or program instructor, your academic records coordinator will notify you of the results as soon as they are available.

All decisions made by the host university and/or program instructor are final. An academic record appeal may result in a higher or lower grade. IFSA-Butler reserves the right to withhold the submission of those appeals that do not meet the above criteria and to issue a final decision.

Click here for the academic record appeal form.

Program Structure

The 16–17 week semester begins with an off-site orientation. Students are acclimated to their new environment through introductory sessions on Indian culture and program policies, training on health and safety, and excursions into the surrounding area. Upon arrival in Varanasi, students are given more in-depth orientation to their new home and hosts before beginning their coursework. Excursions during the semester may include field visits to locations such as Kolkata (Calcutta), Lucknow, Agra, and various hill stations in the Himalayas. The semester concludes with a final two-day seminar where research is presented and discussed, and students are prepared for their return home.

Given the program’s busy academic schedule, weekly local activities and excursions, and field study trips, the Alliance STRONGLY DISCOURAGES students from hosting visitors until the end of the semester. Please encourage family and/or friends to visit AFTER the program has ended. Students should make their travel plans accordingly.

No summer session is offered in Varanasi.

2017 Fall Semester Calendar

20 August 2017                   Flight departure from U.S.
21 August 2017                   Arrival in Delhi***
22 August 2017                   Orientation begins
25 August 2017                   Group flight to Varanasi—Orientation continues    
28 August 2017                   Classes begin
22-30 September 2017        Field study trip
19-25 October 2017             Independent travel week
11 December 2017              Closing ceremony
12 December 2017              Return flight to U.S. (after 5 p.m.)


14 January 2018                  Flight departure from U.S.
15 January 2018                  Arrival in Delhi***
16 January 2018                  Orientation begins
19 January 2018                  Group flight to VaranasiOrientation continues
TBD                                       West Bengal excursion
TBD                                       Independent travel break
05 May 2018                        Closing ceremony
06 May 2018                        Return flight to Delhi and U.S. (after 5 p.m.)

*** Students should consult the Pre-Departure Information section for the designated Arrival Window. Students arriving within the window will be met by Alliance staff at the airport. 

The Varanasi program emphasizes cultural immersion, experiential learning opportunities, and extensive interaction with local residents in the host context. All housing arrangements are associated with an Indian host, and students should be prepared to share a room with another Alliance student. Students will take most meals in their homes and at the program center, though there may be days when students will be required to eat out on their own.

Off-Site Orientation

In addition to sessions on health and safety, academics, and cultural adjustment conducted at the start of the program, students will be exposed to the modernity of Delhi, India's burgeoning capital city. While in Delhi, students may visit some of the city's most famous landmarks, such as the Red Fort and Jama Masjid in Old Delhi, and Humayun's Tomb and Qutab Minar in New Delhi.  Students will experience the unique collision of the ancient, the colonial, and the modern, in a city that continues to redefine itself as a significant global player and one that will present a stark contrast to the traditional setting of Varanasi, where orientation concludes.

In and Around Varanasi

The program calendar is filled with numerous activities in and around Varanasi. Activities vary according to the season, religious and secular holidays, and cultural and academic events in the area. A list of possible activities is included below. Please keep in mind that all activities are subject to change.

  • Visit to Hindu temples such as Kal Bhairav (manifestation of Shiva and protector of Varanasi), New Vishvanath temple, Durga temple, Nepali temple (reproduction of Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu), and Baba Kinaram Ashram
  • Boat rides along the Ganges at sunrise or in the evening to watch Ganga Aarti at the Dasashvamedh ghat and during Dev Diwali (a famous festival during which all of the ghats are decorated with lights)
  • Visit to Bharat Mata temple inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi in 1936, where a huge map carved in marble depicts an undivided Indiasaid to be perfectly to scale both vertically and horizontally with mountains, rivers and the holy tirthas (pilgrimage centers) all clearly visible
  • Visit to Krishnamurti Foundation at Rajghat
  • Visit to the Alamgir mosque at Panchganga Ghat
  • Visit the Ramnagar Fort and enjoy Ramlila (an enactment of Ramayana) during Navaratri festival (October-November)
  • Visit Sarnath's deer park, the location of Buddha’s first sermon and the site of Tibetan University
  • Visit villages on the outskirts of Varanasi
  • Visit waterfalls in Mirzapur and Chandouli districts

Program Fees

Total Tuition Housing
Spring 2018 $16,900 $14,650 $2,250
Fall 2017 $16,900 $14,650 $2,250

What’s Included

The program price includes tuition and fees, housing, most meals, pre-departure materials and advising, student visa authorization documents, orientation, organized activities, field study trips, course materials and basic stationery supplies, phone and internet set-up assistance, the services of a full-time resident staff, and medical/evacuation insurance.

what's not included

The program price does not include airfare to India, the cost of your student visa, some meals, transportation, phone and internet, travel week, and other items not mentioned as included.

out of pocket expenses

When making your budget, think about your spending habits – are you a “Just the Essentials” Traveler, happy to eat all meals with your host family or at program center, doing “time-pass” with your Indian buddies? Or are you more of the “Everything Extra” Traveler, who wants to experience everything – coffees and pizza in the tourist district and taking every weekend to travel?

Estimated Out of Pocket Expenses for One Semester

Roundtrip airfare to India $ 950-1,400
Flight to Varanasi $ 80
Visa processing and shipping $ 255
Meals $ 250-500
Local transportation (for Culture in Practice lessons) $ 250
Phone usage $ 30
Internet usage $ 100
Indian clothing $ 250
Field component supplies (varies) $ 100
Incidentals and personal care items $ 50
Entertainment $ 100-250
Weekend travel $ 100-500
Estimated Total $ 2,515-$3,765

*Estimated in-country expenses based on 1.00 US Dollar = 62 Indian Rupees


Remember to check in with your home university and visit our Finances pages to learn more about financial aid and study abroad scholarships.

Continuer's DISCOUNT

The Alliance encourages students to consider studying abroad with more than one Alliance program. The Alliances offers a $500 scholarship to repeat students who choose to study on our programs a second (or third!) time to help you get there faster!

The first program can be any Alliance opportunity, and your participation can be in non-consecutive terms. The scholarship does not apply to semester students who choose to extend to a year-long program, as a discount is already included in our full-year program fees.

Our program center is located in the heart of the Assi Ghat neighborhood near Banaras Hindu University. Meet our on-site staff!


Assi Ghat is the southernmost ghat in Varanasi, situated along the banks of the Ganges River. Varanasi is one of the holiest cities for Hindus, and people flock to Assi Ghat year-round for religious festivals.

Banaras Hindu University

Banaras Hindu University (BHU) is one of India’s top research institutions and home to the UNESCO Malaviya Centre for Peace Research. Founded in 1916, BHU has nearly 20,000 students, including 2,500 research scholars and 650 foreign students from across Asia and around the world. Many of the Alliance faculty members hold appointments within BHU’s various faculties and institutes.

Check out this interactive map of the Alliance's resources across Varanasi:

View Alliance On Location: Varanasi in a larger map.

Kolkata, Darjeeling and the Himalayas

One week of the semester is set aside for an extended field visit to Kolkata and Kurseong in West Bengal that develops the program’s academic themes of the City, the River, the Sacred in a different cultural, linguistic, and geographical context.

Students follow the river Ganges from Varanasi to Kolkata, where the river meets the sea. From the Kali Ghat temple, where students witness devotion to Kali — goddess of destruction and patron of the city of Kolkata—to the missions of Rama Krishna and Mother Teresa, students explore the many aspects of religious expression in Kolkata. Also a literary, intellectual, and artistic center of India, Kolkata’s role at the forefront of India’s intellectual life and independence movement in the early 20th century is brought to life by a visit to the house of the famous poet and author, Rabindranath Tagore. Visits to the Victoria Memorial, Prinsep Ghat and the Coffee House near Presidency University recall Kolkata’s heritage as the colonial capital of the British Empire. A bustling modern-day Indian metropolis, Kolkata pulses with an energy all its own—a blend of past lustre and present optimism, politics, innovation, music, and culture.

From Kolkata, students continue their travels through West Bengal into the eastern Himalayan foothills. Against a backdrop of steep mountains, temples, and tea plantations, the threads of historical and contemporary migration intertwine in the town of Kurseong. Popular during the Raj for its temperate climate, British officers and their families used to retreat to Kurseong in the summer to escape the heat of Kolkata. The Tibetan refugees that populate this hill station today are part of the contemporary Tibetan diaspora, which students learn more about at the Tibetan Refugees’ Self-Help Centre. Blending economies of the tea plantations and the contemplative traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, Kurseong offers students a lens into an India that is distinct from other dimensions they have encountered in their semester thus far.

Students return to Varanasi for their last month of study, with an expanded understanding and awareness of India’s geography, history and demographics.

What Students Have to Say:

"We first spent a few days in Kolkata where we explored this bumping city, toured Tagore’s house, the Queen Victoria Memorial and played in the colorful Holi festival on a roof! We went to the Kali ghat and said namasté to Ganga-Ji, seeing her miles away from Varanasi just reinforced her grandeur and sanctity not only in Varanasi but in all the places through which she flows throughout India...

We then hopped on a plane to Koersong (I really will never know how to spell that) and drove for hours up the windy foothills, through the mist and clouds to break through and see an absolutely stunning world."

- Allie Barteldt (Elon University) 

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