One of the most telling images of my trip to Varanasi was of a holy man sitting on the steps of one of the ghats (landings on the river) -- back ram-rod stright, forehead smeared in ash, a limp piece of cloth covering his taut body -- merrily chatting away on his mobile phone. This stark juxtaposition between the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, was one of the several mystifying scenes that greeted me over the next week. There is a little glimpse of every stereotype you might have had about India as a travel destination: density, chaos, colour, rituals, godmen, labyrinthine alleys, and aromatic food. If you happen to come around a popular Hindu festival, you will get to see the city at its resplendent best, milling over with people and festooned with lights. However, for a city breathing from its every pore, it is ironically the country's most sought-after cremation site: located on the banks of the Ganges, you will always find the Manikarnika and Harishchandra ghats lining the river swarming with families and holy men, performing the final funerary rites, burning the body, and scattering the ashes into the holy river. The paradoxes never seem to end.
Varanasi makes for a great opportunity to soak in a city steeped in history and coming to terms with the future. It takes a day or two simply to fully acquaint yourself with the labyrinth of tiny streets and hand-painted signs all over the walls – like the Brighton Lanes but smellier; with animals, motorbike drivers and hundreds of people vying for space. So I suggest you spend about a week here, roaming, eating, taking sunset boat rides, and striking up conversations with the perenially interesting babas. You'll come back with more stories than you would imagine!