The heady aroma of incense is contrasted by the stench of garbage, the cobblestone pathways are coated red with paan, and the chant of a sanyasi is interposed by the groan of a passing buffalo. That's Varanasi in a nutshell for you. Among the oldest cities on the planet, it is as well-known for its ancient culture and temples as it is notorious for its grime and filth.
Pilgrims have visited Varanasi for many thousands of years. But the timid will not survive long in this city. Either a longing for adventure or an intense fervor for the ultimate are needed to make this journey. Even its name underlines its multifaceted nature. Varanasi is just one face of the city. Since ancient times it has been known as Kashi, the city of light. Another name for the city is Banaras, which signifies the juice of life. It is also Avimukta, which means the land never forsaken by Shiva. Anandavana is a popular name among spiritual aspirants, meaning the forest of bliss. And as Mahasmashana, it is the great cremation ground where death is a doorway to liberation.
The most beguiling aspect for many visitors to Varanasi are the burning ghats, where the dead are cremated by the hundreds next to the river Ganga. The biggest draw is Manikarnika, by far the most famous of the ghats, which attracts the likes of yogis and tantrics, as well as tourists and curiosity-seekers. The informal and matter-of-fact way in which death is dealt with here really got to me. When I reflected that my death could also be seen as just a matter of business for someone else, it really put a lot of things in perspective.
The Vishwanath Temple was the next stop on my list. One of the most famous temples of India, it is dedicated to Lord Shiva as Vishwanath, the "Lord of Everything." However, the original Kashi Vishwanath temple was razed to the ground by invading armies in the 1600s, and a mosque was built over the site. The present temple, just adjacent to the mosque, was built in 1776. This checkered past has left its imprint on the present. Before entering the temple, you are obliged to go through a series of pat-downs, reminiscent of international airline travel nowadays.
Varanasi also offers many relatively unknown gems of historical value, which are on the secluded periphery of the city. The tomb of the poet-saint Kabir as well as the Omkareshwar and Madhyamaheshwar temples are among the noteworthy places. Though these places were major attractions in their day, all three were practically vacant when I visited, drawing only a small devoted following. Even if you hire a guide, I'd still suggest getting a map or at least using Google Maps on your phone to get to these places. Even the more experienced guides have to ask for directions sometimes.
Far from just being a temple town, Kashi's appeal goes beyond just the spiritual attractions. Food-lovers can get their fix in Varanasi from the many pushcarts, cafes, restaurants and hotels that line the street-side, offering snacks in a thousand other flavors to pique your palate. "Caveat emptor" is a good motto to follow though, if you don't possess an iron stomach. You'll be hard-pressed to find any assurances about hygiene in these parts!
All together, Varanasi is a stimulating blend of everything India has to offer - the ups and the downs. As Mark Twain said about Varanasi, "Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together." You won't find a better description than that!