Reputed to be the city with the longest continual history in the world, at over 3,000 years, Varanasi in India is like no other city on earth.
The city is spread along the west bank of the Ganges River (or Ganga as it's known in India). Confusingly, the river, which flows from the Himalayas in the North to the ocean in the South East seems to be going the wrong way, so it appears that the sun rises on the wrong side of the river. This is due the fact that the Ganges makes a switch back in its course and flows North past Varanasi. Perhaps, this contributes to its holy mystic.
There are two points of interest in Varanasi to the visitor. First is the ancient, winding back streets of the old city. Often only wide enough for two people, they seem to bustle with people, motorbikes, cows, stalls, rickshaws and all manner of other 'chaos'. In a way that only Indians can manage, everyone (and everything) seems to always get to where it's going in the end. Here, you can find every type of produce on sale - flowers, spices, food, mobile phones, furniture, clothes and the most important of all, chai wallas.
The other area, and where it all happens, is the Ghats, which translates roughly as river bank. Depending on when you go, the ghats are either right on the edge of the river or 20 metres or so down steep steps. In the dry season, the river is considerably lower than during the monsoon season.
The river is a holy revered place in Hindu culture and legend has it that taking a dip in the waters cleanses away sins and prevents the cycle of rebirth. It also has some significance for Buddhists and there is a large Muslim population.
It's also a premier place for a funeral for Hindus and this is where cremations are carried out, on funeral pyres on the river bank, in public view. Photography of cremations is not appreciated and is considered disrepectful (understandably) so this is the only area of Ghat life that I didn't capture during my week in Varanasi. That said, you are welcome to sit and take in the ceremonies, if you are so inclined, and they are truly fascinating.
There are many temples along the Ghats where devotees come, often also consulting with Sadhus, the mysterious monks who chant mantras, intervene in disputes and more. However, it is bathing in the Ganges that is at the heart of all worshipping.
The best time of day to experience the Ghats is at dawn, which is around 5am. The best views are from the river and it's easy to rent a space on a boat or even the whole boat. Prices vary depending on who you are, how busy they are, time of day, and your bargaining skills. We paid 400 rupees for 2 hours of slow rowing up and down the river. The experience was magical!
If you love people watching, and most do, then a day on the Ghats is like nothing else. Life, love, death and everything in-between plays out every day. For photographers, another major plus is that Indians, in general are not in the least bit camera shy. It's very rare for someone to refuse a polite request. Be prepared to do some modelling though. As much as they like be photographed they enjoy just as much taking snapping pics of you, and often as part of a big family group shot. Those that make living on the Ghats may ask for some coins for the privilege of making a photo of them but this is not unreasonable.
After your dawn river trip, a day people watching, lots of tea, maybe some samosas from a stall, an afternoon watching ceremonies and you still have some energy, you can watch the Ganga Arati. This is a ceremony that follows a set routine and involves music, chanting and various rituals. You can watch from on land or by boat from the river. No one minds if you sit right in the mix of it at the front either. It's very well done and popular with many Indian tourists that descend on Varanasi every day.
Getting here is easy and information is widely available. Most foreign visitors either fly or take hte train from Delhi. It's also possible to rent a car from Delhi and have a driver take you. There are countless hotels and guest houses but be careful with some of the more budget ones with river views. They will be buried deep in the narrow streets and can be awkward to find.