Just returned from a visit to Varanasi and still in awe --and a bit of shock-- from the city, the ghats and the spirit of the place. The best part of our visit was the view of the city from on high and its many faithful at dawn down by the ghats. We rose early to walk the ghats before sunrise and also took a local row boat up and down the river. The colors at dawn were rich and truly remarkable, as were the people who sought out the river and raised their prayers to the rising sun or went about their daily business. We also did the same (walked the ghats and took a local boat) at dusk to see the fire ceremony and to get a sense of the breadth of the river. In addition, we hired a guide and walked the old twisty streets above the ghats. After a few hours, we felt at ease to wander on our own to seek out the small Shiva temples and view a slice of life: school kids in freshly pressed uniforms, family members bearing a lost loved one to the ghats, mourners shearing their hair, cows, gorgeous carved wooden walls in the Tibetan temple, a snake charmer or two and the usual vendors and tiresome touts. You can find similar scenes in almost any Indian village or town, but the ghats and spiritual aspect of Varanasi are remarkable. There are colorful sadhus, the lost and crippled (of all ages and from all over), vignettes of gorgeous old people being supported by family as they make their special pujas.
Make sure you rise early and see the ghats in the dawn light. There is nothing else like it in the world.