I was terrified when we got off that train. It was midnight, there were bodies laid flat all over the railway station platform and we were accosted by autorickshaw drivers who thought we were foreigners until I spoke Hindi and ruined it for them. I was so overwhelmed I spent most of the night looking through Varanasi photo blogs with our overpriced hotel’s wifi trying to make sense of the place. But the next morning, everything changed and I did too and Varanasi ended up being one of my favourite places.

Tiny alleyways through which no motor vehicles could fit led us at sunrise to the most stunning, surreal and unexpected view of the Ganges. We spent the morning walking the ghats, watching the babas pray and smoke chillums, people wash themselves and their clothes in the holy river completely unfazed by the tourist-filled boats that sailed past. On the main ghat Dasashwamedh, we bought bracelets with the pictures of Gods and brass agarbati stands, and a T-shirt that read 'No rickshaw. No hashish. No silk. No change money. No boat. No problem', things we got asked if we wanted countless times over. People kept taking our hands in theirs and demanding money for blessing us. Thanks but no thanks.

The whole place was raucous, dirty, imperfect and spiritual, commercial and chaotic all at once yet it was moving and alluring. The aarti every evening was very special. It’s hard to describe, feverish and fragrant with smoke. We prayed and released our little flower lamps into the Ganga, something I’d always wanted to do.

Though I loved the magical light filtering through the claustrophobic alleys, they were nothing short of unsettling. You would never know when you might cross paths with a moody cow or a (covered) corpse will suddenly appear behind you, mourners chanting ‘Bhagwan satya hai’ as they carry it down to the river to the two burning ghats.

We found the German Bakery there to be our favourite spot of solace, where we met lovely travellers and ate delicious organic food while listening to some live classical santoor and tabla. We moved to a guesthouse on the ghats so we could be closer to everything and at night it was especially eerie but wonderful, the sunrise even more so. We took a boat ride at dawn to see everything from a different perspective which I recommend everybody does. We spent almost two hours on the water, witnessing some incredible things from swimming schools to burning bodies. With a little more exploration, and a lot more cycle rickshaw rides to buy stunning Banarasi silk, and a lazy lunch at El Parador, a Tibetan gem of a restaurant with delightful service and delicious food; we bade goodbye to Benaras.

This photoblog is from my archives.