If you only visit one place in India, many would argue Varanasi – or Benares, if you prefer the old-world name – is the one you should drop in on. There’s no doubting that the city is a true taste of India, a genuinely frantic, dirty place with more spirituality than most cities could ever dream of.
Everything in Varanasi centers around the ghats, where the locals pray, wash and even go to die. The funeral ghats see regular pyres burning the bodies of recently deceased Hindus while their relatives look on, before offering the remains to mother Ganges. Whatever you do, don’t whip your camera out on the funeral ghats (you’d be surprised how many do), it’s incredibly offensive and gives the huge number of western tourists a very bad name.
Another essential Ganges experience is in taking a ride down the river at sunrise or sunset aboard a rickety boat, watching the buffaloes bathing on the waterfront, ogling the temples and experiencing the flow of the dirty river and all that goes on around it. The local Saddhus - traveling holy men who you’ll find in orange gowns, draped in prayer beads and coated in paint – see Varanasi as a spiritual hub and come together here, drinking from the river and worshiping at the temples.
The temples themselves include the Vishwanath Temple, an impressive golden structure that is occasionally off limits to foreigners; the Gowdi Matha Temple, where you can make offerings of overpriced seashells to the Gods; and the Kaal Bhairav Temple, where you can buy adornments to protect against evil forces. Wandering around, though, you’ll find the winding backstreets of plenty of interest, with many opting to stay in Varanasi and take part in extensive charity work, whilst soaking up the reverent atmosphere of the intensely holy city.
This is not somewhere to come to relax; it’s the kind of places that effects a visitor profoundly, a life-changing experience that hangs in the corner of the mind for years to come, and a place that changes views on life and the reality of human’s basic functionality. It’s a place everyone should visit once, and no one can really prepare for.