Whether you like it or not, Varanasi, India, is guaranteed to make an impression. Located 415 mi/670 km southeast of Delhi, the city (formerly known as Benares) is the holiest site in India and one of the most ancient in the world. Thousands of Hindu pilgrims tour its temples and bathe in the Ganges River to gain religious merit. Thousands more go to die and have their ashes thrown into the holy waters.
You must be emotionally prepared to view this, because the waters contain not only ashes, but also corpses in various stages of decomposition, and the beggars who line the paths to the rivers are often disfigured from leprosy. If you're braced to see this, you'll want to venture down to the boats and onto the water at dawn to see an amazing sight. Scores of people enter the water from the 70 ghats (riverside platforms with steps) to purify themselves before the rising sun. Some perform religious rituals in the water; others go to brush their teeth, bathe and swim. While you watch all of this, cremations take place on some of the ghats (vultures will likely circle overhead).
Don't even think of entering the water—it may be spiritually pure, but it's one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Nor should you take pictures of the cremations. It is considered disrespectful and may cause people to attack you. All of this incredible commotion takes place along the western bank; the eastern bank is unpopulated and almost barren. You can view the scene from tour boats that patrol the waters. Small boats (with or without rowers) also can be hired.
Providing the backdrop is an incredible array of temples and ancient buildings, several of them standing at odd angles because their foundations have been eroded unevenly by flood waters. There are 2,000 temples and shrines in Varanasi, but the holiest, Vishvanatha, is closed to non-Hindus. Nonetheless, the occupants of the house across the street supplement their income by letting tourists look in from above, and a viewing hole has been made in the wall at the back of the temple. Touts will offer you a chance to take a picture from the roof. Do not go with them—they will later demand outrageous fees for just one photo, and you'll be in a precarious place to deny them.
The Durga Temple, which can be visited, is teeming with monkeys (hold onto your valuables). There's also a wonderful temple devoted to the Ramayana, a Hindu tale of love and adventure. The temple's walls tell the story, and in back there's a gallery of mechanically animated displays. There's also a lovely temple and garden on the university campus. Farther downstream on the eastern bank of the Ganges is the Ram Nagar Fort. It isn't one of the country's best, but it does have a fascinating, if gruesome, collection of weapons (from huge serrated swords to machine guns to rhino-skin shields).
Take a walking tour of the Islamic section (Muslims make up a quarter of the population). The streets are filled with Arabic music and veiled women, and it's there that Varanasi silk is dyed, dried and woven. The silk trade is most active on Thursday, and a walk through the neighborhood will surely lead to an invitation into a house where the living room has been converted into a loom room.
Be sure to take a half-day trip to Sarnath. Plan on spending at least two nights in Varanasi.
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