I have never visited a more photogenic location than the ghats of Varanasi, sprawling and tumbling over the banks of the Ganga for as far as the eye can see. This sacred city of many names is considered to be the holiest of the Sapta Puri or seven sacred pilgrimage cities and is considered India's spiritual heart.
I felt mine swell watching the cremations along the banks of the river - it is said that to have one's ashes scattered here liberates them from samsara - the endless cycle of death and rebirth. My pulse raced as I watched the next of kin bringing down large hammers to crack their loved one's skulls - thus freeing their souls - whilst wrapping my (thankfully intact) head around the concept that local women cannot attend these ceremonies, (said to be too distracting when grieving or with a tendency to leap into the flames after their lovers) yet as a half-Indian woman raised in Australia I was granted the privilege without question. I suppose I paid the price for it though - the kindly local man who had invited me to join the small audience before proudly showing me some local temples took me to a 19th Century Nepalese temple covered in erotic wood carvings, turned to me and asked me if I "liked Kama Sutra" and subsequently if I would like to "make Kama Sutra". I politely declined and returned to my monkey infested hotel.
Another chance encounter one morning, I found myself drinking masala chai chatting to the owner. He turned to me, intense brown eyes penetrating my own, and said "Man, woman, Hindu, any other faith or no faith at all - we are all the same. We are all made of the stars." Without a doubt the most beautiful thing I've heard before even having my morning coffee!
Life and death collide in this breathtaking city that really must be seen to be believed. Give it a few days and the sight of a corpse being rushed down the narrow streets while you enjoy your chai or bhang lassi will become as natural as hailing a cab. Aim to make it during one of the country's many spiritual festivals such as Diwali and prepare to be enchanted.
Oh and by the way - I'm told that dying or being burned on the barren, lunar landscapes of the other side of the riverbank guarantees you a fate reincarnated as a goat - try to avoid it if you can!