Set on the banks of the river Ganges, Varanasi (formerly known as Benares) is the holiest place in the Hindu religion. Hindu pilgrims travel here from all over the world come here to wash away their sins in the blessed river water of the Ganges, and to cremate their loved ones who have passed away. In Hindu mythology, to die in the city of Varanasi will result in instant "moksha", a release from the cycle of death and reincarnation. Varanasi is also the birthplace of Buddhism, as the Buddha is said to have given his first ever sermon at the nearby site of Sarnath in 528 BCE.
Dawn is probably the best time of day to experience the city - by floating down the river on a boat, you can witness thousands of worshippers coming to the river's ghats to purify themselves in their morning rituals. You will also be able to see the burning ghats, where the bodies of the faithful are cremated and their ashes strewn out over the waters. To the Hindu people, Varanasi is a very special and spritual place, and it has a very evocative and sometimes other-wordly atmosphere, although being so close to the intimate rituals of life and death can sometimes leave you feeling a little overwhelmed.