If you do only one thing in Varanasi, take a boat cruise past the ghats at dawn ; you can repeat this at sunset or, better still, head for Dasashwamedh Ghat to watch the Ganga Fire Aarti. For 45 minutes, young Brahmin priests perform age-old prayer rituals with conch shells and burning braziers accompanied by drummers, while children hawk candles for you to light and set adrift. Unfortunately, the recent addition of live musical prayer recitals through loudspeakers has somewhat robbed the original format of its mesmerizing effect and enigma.
Aside from these two must-sees, you should set aside some time to wander the ancient streets of the Old City, particularly those centered around Kashi Vishwanath Temple -- but a few hours of picking your way past cow pats amid the incessant din of clanging temple gongs, not to mention striking out to view the 24-hour cremations at Manikarnika Ghat, are likely to have you craving peace and solitude. Hire a car and visit Sarnath, where Buddha first revealed his Eightfold Path, and where you can spend a few hours exploring the archaeological ruins, visit a modern Buddhist temple, and admire the beautiful Indo-Greek and Mathura styles of Buddhist art and sculpture at the museum. Alternatively, stay in Varanasi to explore the fascinating collection in the Bharat Kala Bhavan Museum at Benaras Hindu University. Both experiences are enriched by having a good guide with you.
Ramnagar Fort (Rs 12; Oct-Mar daily 8am-noon and 2-6pm, Apr-Sept daily 10am-5pm), the palace of the former Maharaja of Varanasi, is billed as another worthwhile attraction. Although the actual palace is beautiful in a run-down sort of way, and the location (the only Varanasi site on the east bank of the river) is lovely, the museum is filled with dusty, moth-eaten, decaying exhibits, such as the once-ornate howdas (elephant seats) that transported the royal family -- fascinating in a way to see such beauty so discarded. Do stop for a glance at the palace's grand Durbar Hall, though it's hard to see through the filthy windows. The lack of care says much about the dedication of the current young maharaja. Although he is said to involve himself in local tourism, his name does not enjoy the reverence that the Maharajas of Rajasthan still evoke. Attempts at renovation continue, so check for improvements. Another of Varanasi's fascinating sights is Bharat Mata, or Mother India Temple (located just north of the Old City), worth highlighting if only because it is the incarnation of the spoken Hindu belief that the very land of India is sacred (ironic, given the pollution). Pilgrims walk around a large relief map of the subcontinent before Partition, featuring all its holy tirthas, mountains, and rivers.
Varanasi has produced some of India's most talented musicians (the great Ravi Shankar was born here; if you're unfamiliar with his genius, purchase without delay the CD Chants of India, produced by George Harrison -- highly recommended). Ask your hotel what performances are being hosted while you are in town, or head for the International Music Centre in Ganesh Mahal on Wednesday and Saturday (check with your hotel for exact dates and times) for live Indian classical music performances by up-and-coming artists.
If you'd like to learn to play the tabla (set of two small drums) in Varanasi, which is renowned for its tabla merchants, head for Triveni Music Centre (D24/38 Pandey Ghat) and ask for Nandlal. Nandlal and his father also stage regular concerts at Triveni.
Yoga schools and teachers are plentiful in Varanasi; even your hotel will likely have a morning yoga session. If you're more serious, however, contact Dr. Vagish Shastri at his residence behind the Bread of Life Bakery (Vagyoga Chetanapitham, B3/131A, Shivala; tel. 0542/227-5706; email@example.com) between 7 and 9am. He operates a range of courses in yoga as well as kundalini meditation and Sanskrit; as he's always on the move, it's worth contacting him well before you intend traveling to see if he will be resident while you are here.
Note: If you take a cycle-rickshaw for the evening aarti ceremony, you will encounter terrible pollution. Additionally, because the supply of electricity to Varanasi is erratic, most hotels and restaurants use diesel generators. Unfortunately, their exhaust pipes are often at face level, spewing diesel fumes into Varanasi's narrow streets as you walk or cycle by. Carry a cotton handkerchief/scarf with you, cover your nose and mouth with it, and breathe through the cotton to make your way through an otherwise suffocating environment.
Cruising the Ghats
Drifting along the Ganges, admiring the densely textured backdrop of 18th- and 19th-century temples and palaces that line the 84-odd bathing ghats, you will be confronted with one of the most spiritually uplifting or downright weird tableaus on the entire crazy subcontinent: Down below, waist-deep pilgrims raise their arms in supplication, priests meditate by staring directly into the rising sun or are frozen in complicated yoga positions, wrestlers limber up, and disinterested onlookers toss live rats from the towering walls of the Old City, among other assorted goings-on. Note that you'll need to get here between 4:30 and 6am (check sunrise times with your hotel, as well as the time it takes to get to the ghats), so plan an early wake-up call. You should be able to hire a boat anywhere along the ghats, but most people either catch one from Assi Ghat, the southernmost ghat, or -- particularly if you're staying in the Cantonment area -- from Dasashwamedh (literally "10-horse-sacrifice," referring to an ancient sacrificial rite performed by Brahma). Situated roughly halfway, this is the most accessible and popular ghat and is always crawling with pilgrims, hawkers, and priests surveying the scene from under bamboo umbrellas. Boats operate at a fixed rate of Rs 100 per hour (one to four persons) -- this hasn't changed in years. The following descriptions of the 100-odd ghats assume that you will leave from here; note that it's worth traveling both north and south. You can do another trip in the evening as the sun is setting, but don't travel too far -- boating is limited after sunset (except at the time of aarti, when you can sail up to watch the ceremony from the water).
Heading North from Dasashwamedh Ghat -- From here, you pass Man Mandir Ghat, which, along with the beautiful palace that overlooks it, was built by the Maharaja Man Singh of Amber in 1600. Jai Singh, who built the Jantar Mantars, converted the palace into an observatory in 1710. Hours are 7am to 5:30pm; entrance costs Rs 100. Next is Mir Ghat, where the New Vishwanath Temple, Vishalakshi shrine, and Dharma Kupa (where the Lord of Death relinquished his hold over those who die in Varanasi), are found. North lies Lalita Ghat, with its distinctive Nepalese Temple, and beyond it is the "burning" Manikarnika Ghat, the principal and favored shamshan ghat (cremation ground) of Varanasi, where you can see funeral-pyre flames burning 24 hours, tended by the doms, or "Untouchables" -- touching the dead is considered polluting to all but these low castes. Boats are requested to keep their distance as a sign of respect. On this ghat is the venerated Manikarnika Kund, the world's first tirtha, said to have been dug out by Vishnu, whose sweat filled it as he created the world as ordered by Shiva. Some say that Shiva shivered in delight when he saw what Vishnu had created, dropping an earring into the pool; others say that it was the earring of Sati, Shiva's dead wife, hence the name Manikarnika: "jeweled earring." Between the Kund and the ghat is what is supposed to be Vishnu's footprint. Adjacent is Scindia Ghat, with its distinctive, half-submerged Shiva temple, toppled by weight; then Ram Ghat and Panchganga Ghat (said to be empowered by the five mythical streams that flow here into the Ganges), and one of the five tirthas at which pilgrims perform rituals. Behind the ghat glowers Alamgir Mosque, built by Aurangzeb on a Hindu temple he destroyed; note also the almost submerged cells where the Kashi pundits (priests) are freeze-framed in meditation poses. Proceed from here to Gai, Trilochana, and Raj ghats, but it's best (if you still want to proceed south) to turn back at Panchganga (or explore the north banks further on foot).
Heading South -- Passing Chaumsathi Ghat, where the temple houses images of Kali and Durga; and Dhobi Ghat, alive with the sound of laundry workers rhythmically beating clothing that have been "cleansed" by the Ganges, you come to Kedara Ghat, notable for its red-and-white-striped South Indian-style temple. Farther south lie Harishchandra Ghat, Varanasi's second cremation ghat (though less popular because it also houses an electric crematorium); and Tulsi Ghat, named in honor of Goswami Tulsidas, a revered Hindu poet. Nearby is Lolark Kund, where childless women come to bathe and pray for progeny. The final stop (or the first, if your accommodations make a south-north journey more convenient) is Assi Ghat, a simple clay bank situated at the confluence of the Ganga and Assi rivers. From here you can walk to Durga Temple, which lies farther west from the ghat. Note: If you want to walk from Assi Ghat to Dasashwamedh, the trip will take a leisurely 60 to 90 minutes. Although the best time to walk or cruise the river is at sunrise or before sunset, you may wish to see the river in a completely different and relatively quiet "avatar," in which case take a late-afternoon stroll down the ghats in winter.
Up in Flames -- You need a pretty strong constitution to hang around Varanasi's burning ghats (Harish Chandra or Manikarnika) and watch a human corpse, wrapped in little more than a sheet, being cremated in public view. Bodies are burned around the clock at these famous open-air cremation sites, which draw a constant crowd of grievers, curious pilgrims, bug-eyed travelers, and confused cows. Only one particular Hindu caste group is allowed to touch the bodies or perform the cremation. After bathing the body one last time in the holy Ganges, they place it on wood piles, and cover it with more logs (ask your guide about the kinds of wood -- teak, sandalwood, and so on -- used and their significance) before being doused in a flammable paste, or ghee, and lightly coated with incense powder (the latter used to hide the smell of burning flesh). Then a male relative, usually the son (female relatives of the deceased, even wives, rarely if ever visit the cremation grounds), lights the pyre. No photography is allowed, and you should treat the mourners with the respect their grief deserves. Avoid touts offering to show you a cremation up close; not only do many drug addicts trying to part tourists from their cash hang around these areas, but gawking at an unknown person's funeral pyre from close quarters is considered fairly offensive. To get a quiet glimpse of a cremation ritual from a respectable distance, without causing any offense, take a boat ride down to Manikarnika Ghat.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.