Expectations were high as we flew into Varanasi's smart little airport.
Years of wanting to visit one of India's holiest cities had always been tempered with a slight fear as to how to handle the piety and religious fervour and, indeed, the spectacle of death that are an integral part of the DNA of this sacred city.
And now, at long last, here we were, barreling into town on a crowded road through suburbs which looked pretty much any suburb in any small town in India.
Until we arrived at the River Ganges. And suddenly Varanasi was so totally not like any other town in India.
A crowd of little children hanging round the water's edge tried to sell us candles and marigolds, but we were too entranced by the view to be bothered. Boats, boatmen, children, goats, pilgrims praying – all in a joyous noisy muddle – and even more exciting, there was our transport to the hotel waiting for us – a wooden boat. We piled aboard and puttered off down the Ganges.
Down the river we sailed, past ghats which, even in the mid-day heat, were crowded with people bathing, praying, washing their clothes, swimming, even indulging in a little illegal fishing – against an unfolding panorama of temples and higgledy-piggledy buildings, and a riot of colorful buildings and yet more temples.
A ghat is, usually, a small flight of steps leading down to a scared lake or river, and in Varanasi, the river Ganges, so important for Hindus, is lined with one ghat after another. Some are busier than others, some are historically more important than others. Some were built and paid for by rich maharajahs. A couple of the ghats are cremation ghats, and that had always been one of the concerns about visiting Varanasi.
Wouldn't it be, well, a little intrusive, if not downright traumatic to see a body burning?
During our time there, yes, we saw funeral pyres burning.
No, we didn't see the actual bodies.
No, we didn't see any limbs floating down the river, as I had read in other accounts.
So no, frankly, the death aspect of the city wasn't overwhelming at all. One afternoon, wandering through the tightly jam-packed gullies behind the ghats, we crossed a funeral procession, jog- trotting briskly through the narrow crowded lanes. A group of young men held a bier aloft, chanting prayers as they went, and smiling cheerfully at me as they sped past. One of my Indian friends explained: there is no greater blessing than to die in Varanasi, so why would the family be sad?
There are, inevitably, certain things you should really do when you visit Varanasi, other than simply wandering along the ghats and in and out of the gullies, soaking up the atmosphere (which is a wonderful way to see the city).
You really should visit the Bharat Kala Bhavan, an excellent museum on the campus of the renowned Benares Hindu University. The museum's collection of Indian miniatures is excellent, and they have some superb statues. The Bharat Kala Bhavn is large and fairly rambling with a sleepy, almost deserted feel to it, but full of beautiful treasures.
You should also go visit a sari shop, even if you haven’t the remotest intention of buying, just for the thrill of seeing so many gorgeous silk saris, which are a Varanasi speciality.
You absolutely, no-two-ways-about-it have to go on the river at dawn and watch the sunrise.
However many images you may have seen of the sun breaking through the mist, and devotees standing in the river praying to the rising sun – however many such images you may have seen, the reality takes your breath away . There is a simplicity and dignity to the sight of the river waking up so calmly and beautifully to another hectic day.
You also have to go see the evening "Ganga Aarti" – this is also pretty non-negotiable on the Varanasi To-Do list.
At sunset, a group of young pujaris (priests) perform a mass prayer ceremony on the banks of the river, which is spell-binding. Huge crowds watch from the ghats themselves, while even bigger crowds make their way downriver in a flotilla of little boats, and you sit in a good-natured, un-harried boat traffic jam and watch from the water. Bells, conch shells, candles, music combine into a mesmerising spectacle.
Whatever your faith or lack of faith, whatever your belief or lack thereof, the Ganga Aarti ceremony is so beautiful that you leave feeling happy and at peace.
Do what we did: though staunchly professing a non-religious approach to the ceremony, we had nevertheless each bought a little candle, called a "diya" and some marigolds, from a persistent little boy. On our way back down the river after the Aarti, one by one we all lit our candles and gently placed them in the river, where they floated away to join the dozens of other little lights bobbing their way down the sacred Ganges.