With its thousands of devotees, burning funeral pyres and ceremonial chanting, Varanasi on the holy river Ganges is India at its most spiritual, colourful and chaotic best. It’s not for the faint-hearted but it is an utterly absorbing city to visit.
One of the oldest living cities in the world Varanasi’s prominence in Hindu mythology is virtually unrivalled. For the devout Hindu it is a special pilgrimage centre and it is considered especially auspicious to die here, ensuring an instant route to heaven. Life revolves around the Ganges. Before dawn pilgrims make their way barefott to the steps along the river bank, or ghats, to immerse themselves in the holy waters at sunrise to be cleansed of their sufferings and wash away their sins.
The ghats are lined by 18th and 19th century pavilions and palaces, temples and terraces where Brahmin priests offer puja, people practice meditation and yoga and bodies are burned on huge wooden funeral pyres. One of the best ways to appreciate the river’s spirituality is from a small boat, watching as the ghats come to life in early morning, and returning to them in the evening when the air is thick with the scent of incense and flaming lights dance on the water as devotees make offerings to the Ganga during the Aarti ceremony.
If you're interested in more cultural immersion then you should head to Sarnath, about 13km north-east of Varanasi. Sarnath the the site of the deer park where Buddha gave his first teaching after gaining enlightenment and it is now a pilgrimage centre. Within the deer park complex is the large Dhamekha Stupa, constructed by Emperor Ashoka in 249 BCE, and several other later Buddhist structures.