Ancient Benares certainly has a strange spiritual atmosphere and Varanasi is unlike anywhere else.
Before you even get to the riverfront ghats in Varanasi the painted saddhus and ageing pilgrims make this a less-than-normal town, even in India.
Watching a fat red sun rise up over Varanasi and the wide and shining Ganges, monkeys scamper about the rooftops and the whistles and cries of pigeon fanciers can be heard on neighbouring roofs. They wave what look like flywhisks, causing their flocks of thorough-bred pigeons to swoop and soar in formation, returning on command.
The ghats stretch out as far as the eye can see, with dilapidated pavilions, temples and fluttering orange flags glowing in the early morning light. The palaces along the river have been built over the years by kings from across India.
Boats carrying tourists cross and re-cross the river. People walking on the far shore of the Ganges look like tiny figures in a desert.
I can see boys flying a kite and tumbling deliberately down the sandbanks. In the evening there is aggressive kite flying on this side also. The powerline below the balcony of our Varanasi guesthouse is clearly a kite graveyard.
Candles and flower garlands floating on the Ganga: At Raja Ghat tiny dishes of oil with wicks have been laid out on the stairs – thousands of them. We helped some children lighting them then jumped on a boat to be rowed along the Ganges watching the lights.
At the main ghat a ceremony to Mother Ganga was taking place with many lights and bells and salutations.
At dawn we watched Varanasi pilgrims and residents of all shapes, sizes and ages performing ritual ablutions or more vigorously washing from the hopefully unobtrusive distance of a rowboat. The dhobi wallahs are already hard at work pounding fabric against stone.
A family of water buffalo promenade and a brightly dressed saddhu with yellow marigolds in his topknot of hair makes a beeline for a tourist. His skin looks white-washed, he wears a bright orange lungi and there are multiple flower garlands around his neck.
He sells her a flower candle and they kneel to float it. Small boys gather, eager to sell more. They look dejected when they fail; there is something heart breaking about Varanasi.
By Natasha von Geldern