Varanasi, in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is considered one of the oldest and most holy cities in the world. It lies at the only point along the River Ganges where the water flows from south to north, interpreted as moving from death to paradise.
Despite dangerously high levels of pollution in the river, for devout Hindus it’s the place to come and cleanse the sins of both the living and the dead.
Along the series of steps leading down to the river, known as ghats, you’ll find the spiritual heart of the city, the site for bathing, praying, and cremating your loved ones.
The main ghat is Dasaswamedh, where finding room among the dawn bathers our group steps into a small wooden boat.
Sitting cross-legged at the helm as he steers us out on to the river, our boatman is a silhouette against the burning orange disc of the rising sun.
Behind him a lone swimmer glides through the water as smoothly as one of the few remaining Ganges dolphins might.
We row on to Man Mandir Ghat, where two dhobis (professional washermen) thwack the laundry dry on the steps, their wet arms glistening in the early morning light.
In the distance a lone fire burns, the flames licking the pink glow of dawn and turning the domed temple in the background into a hazy mirage.
“The city has been declared the greatest of the greatest cremation grounds for Hindus,” says our boat tour guide Prince, by way of introduction.
We’re at Manikarnika, the city’s main cremation ghat. It operates 24 hours a day and though at this time in the morning only one body is burning, later it’s a different story.
As the sun rises the activity along most of the ghats falls, and by the heat of midday they’re all but deserted.
Walking from Kedar Ghat towards Manikarnika, aside from the odd group of bathers the most action I see is a buffalo making a bid for freedom by leaving the herd to head upstream at bathtime.
Rounding a corner to the cremation ghat, the city suddenly comes to life.
The scene is one of organised chaos with some men fetching wood from scattered piles before weighing it, others deftly building pyres or clearing charred remains.
Groups huddle before the crumbling buildings that surround Manikarnika Ghat, and all the while bodies wrapped in shrouds edged in gold and carried aloft on bamboo stretchers covered in garlands of seasonal flowers arrive.
“You can look,” says a man as we hesitate at the fringes. “Burning means learning.”
A queue starts to form at the river where those bearing the bodies wait to cleanse the corpse of sin before it’s placed on a pyre and set alight.
There are a dozen bodies already burning and smoke fills the air, the fragrance of the sandalwood masking any other odour.
As we walk away from the cremation ground, making way for several funeral processions weaving through the narrow streets of the old town towards the river, the words of our guide Bishal ring in my ears.
“You don’t like or dislike Varanasi, you experience it,” he had told us in preparation. “It’s an overwhelming experience. It’s all of India in one city.”
In a bid to take stock we follow the myriad painted signs that advertise Brown Bread Bakery.
Just as we’re about to give up the ghost in the labyrinth of Varanasi’s old town we stumble upon the backpackers’ hangout: two darkened floors of battered cushions around low tables.
Refreshed by a cool lassi we launch ourselves into the bazaar, making our way past the glittering bangles and stalls laden with floral offerings towards the Golden Temple – the city’s most popular place of Hindu worship.
Non-Hindus can’t visit the main temple, but there are shrines in the complex around it and before we know what’s happening we’re being cajoled inside one, our wrists wrapped in red thread as we receive a blessing – and then the bill for it.
With a bit of luck we find our way back to Dasaswamedh Ghat, where the evening prayer session ganga aarti (in India the Ganges is known as Ganga) is about to begin.
Once again we pile into a wooden boat, this time rowing only a few metres from shore to get a view of the nightly ceremony.
Seven priests dressed in saffron robes stand on platforms facing the river, ringing bells in one hand and using the other to draw shapes in the dark sky with burning chalices.
One by one our group lights a candle cushioned in a small paper bowl by marigolds and rose petals.
We set them floating on the Ganges, watching as they gradually sink into the inky depths of the river to join the life and death that mingles freely beneath its surface.
» Amy Adams travelled with Imaginative Traveller (0845 077 8808). The 12-day Classic India tour starts at £699
While you’re in Northern India
See the Taj Mahal at sunset
There’s no denying the striking elegance of this monument – it hits home even when your view’s obscured by hundreds of tourists. To get the Taj Mahal to yourself head to the banks of Yamuna River and watch the setting sun turn the twinkling, white marble a soft, dusky blue.
Explore medieval temples
Orcha might be a small rural town, but it’s stuffed to the hilt with temples, palaces and cenotaphs. Fork out 20 rupees for a tour through the Escher-like interior of
the ramshackle Chaturbhuj Temple to sit with the vultures and admire the view.
The erotic temples of nearby Khajuraho are worth the trip too.
Hit the shops of jaipur
There’s a lot to see in the Pink City: the vast Amber Fort, the terracotta buildings of its nickname, a Bollywood flick at the art deco Raj Mandir Cinema. Make a beeline for the Bapu Bazaar though, where poky shops are stuffed with groups of gossiping women, half-buried in rainbow rolls of sari fabric.
Stay in a Maharaja’s palace
A great benefit of travelling with a tour group in India is the access it gives you to remote villages and unusual accommodation. Our group was almost unanimous in voting an overnight stop at a crumbling former Maharaja’s palace in the small town of Karauli one of the highlights of the trip.
Brave the chaos of Delhi
If you’re flying in and out of Delhi, leave time to explore the capital at the end of your trip. By this time you’ll have warmed up to India and be able to appreciate the city’s sights without succumbing
to its sounds and smells. Put Humayun’s Tomb and the Ghandhi Smriti museum at the top of your to-do list.