Varanasi is the India of your imagination and the spiritual side of the country. This is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, and among the holiest in Hinduism. Pilgrims visit the Ganges here to wash away sins in the holy waters, to cremate their loved ones, or simply to perish here, hoping to find liberation from the cycle of rebirth.

Most people agree Varanasi is magic — but not to the faint-hearted. Intimate rituals of death and life take place in public, and the sights, sounds and smells of the maze-like old town — not to mention almost continuous attention from afar — could be intense. Still, the so-called City of Light is among the most colorful and fascinating places in the world. Strolling the ghats or watching sunrise from a boat on the Ganges are a highlight, and confronting the fact and ritual of death can be a powerful experience.