It's probably the biggest communal bathing event in the world. Every day, about 60,000 Hindus come down to the River Ganges at Varanasi to wash away their sins. After all, Varanasi is one of the holiest cities in India and the Ganges, or Great Mother, the most sacred river on the Indian sub-continent.
To visit Varanasi is to spend time on the Ganges - together they are the beating heart of the Hindu universe. The old city's one-kilometre riverfront is one of the most colourful places on earth. Women dressed in rainbow-hued saris mingle with holy men in saffron robes (right). Buildings painted pink and white, blue and yellow, to name but a couple of the colour combinations, give way to broad flights of stone steps, known as ghats, which sweep down to the water, where the pilgrims bathe.
Some of the busiest ghats are also the most accessible. At Dasaswamedh Ghat, dozens of Brahmin priests gather at dusk to perform holy rites on raised platforms under giant cobwebs of fairy lights. Dasaswamedh is ghat central, a good place to begin a walk along the river.A five-minute walk north is Manikarnika Ghat, where funeral pyres burn all day in front of the Shiva Temple. The cadavers, dressed in linen shrouds with splashes of gold foil, are brought on stretchers and burnt in public - the poorest on pyres of sticks, the richest on sandalwood logs.
To be cremated in the shadow of this temple is highly auspicious, but a spookier place it is difficult to imagine. Once blood red, the temple domes are now black from the soot of countless cremations. If any place inspired the Temple of Doom in the Indiana Jones film, this must be it. Most of the ghats – and there are about 80 of them - are about bathing rather than burial and the best way to see them is by row boat. Hire one at dawn and watch the sun rise over the river. Then, in the lovely light of morning, ask your oarsman to row up and down the river.
Close to Pandhey Ghat, you will see hundreds of saffron-robed yoga devotees meditating as they walk in long processions behind their gurus (right). Around Shivala and Dandi ghats, magnificent palaces, built by maharajas, line the riverfront. Every ruler of note has built a residence on the western bank of the Ganges. Yet, whether rich or poor, every Hindu lucky enough to die at Varanasi has their ashes scattered in the currents of the great River Ganges.
Hire a row boat at dawn and dusk to watch the multitudes bathing in the river and see the sacred rites and sites along the river's banks. Overseas visitors are strongly advised not to swim in the Ganges because, by Western standards, it is heavily polluted.
Spend a morning at Sarnath (20 minutes drive away), the 6th-century Buddhist sacred site with its giant brick stupa and holy banyan tree, where the Buddha is known to have preached.
Visit Vishwanath Temple, known as the Golden Temple, and admire the 800kg of gold plate on the tower and dome.
In the grounds of the Gateway Hotel Ganges Varanasi (www.thegatewayhotels.com),you'll find a neo-classical marble palace, built by the local maharaja. In 1895, Maharaja Anant Narain Singh decided it was time to court the British, so he built a "guest house" fit for a king. Soon after its completion, an heir to the British throne, George, Prince of Wales, (later George V), arrived with Princess Mary in tow. After that, there was no stopping them - various dukes and duchesses, Queen Elizabeth II, the King of Nepal, a dozen Indian princes, Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first prime minister, and the Dalai Lama followed over the years.
Today, the palace is officially a hotel, called the Nadesar Palace Hotel (above) (www.tajhotels.com) where you can stay in suites named after its former blue blood guests. It's a tranquil spot in an otherwise notoriously noisy city - the perfect place to be pampered like a royal. The floors are either Italian marble with inlaid semi-precious stones or teak. The suites are spacious, the service immaculate and the food - Anglo and Indian - exquisite.
If you have a royal budget, stay at the palace. Otherwise, make a booking at the Gateway with its modern, stylish rooms, where you don't have to be a prince to pay the bill.
Sex sells. In the 10th century, the Chandela dynasty covered their temples at Khajuraho (right) with copulating figures in positions from the Kama Sutra (below). Today, curious tourists still flock to the site, a beautiful park dotted with temples, on the outskirts of the rural town of Khajuraho. "Many people come to see the copulating figures," said my guide, "and they rarely leave disappointed. As you can see, the figures are most sensual."
Of all the figures, the ones I liked least were those copulating. Not because I'm a prude. It's just that sex doesn't look much fun when fixed in stone. It was the humour that charmed me. Next to one naughty threesome was a row of eight elephant heads, depicting the god Ganesh, all looking straight ahead into eternity, except the one closest to the frolicking figures, whose head was tilted their way with a mischievous expression on its face. That made me laugh - a joke frozen in time, 1100 years after it was put there.
Many of the figures are exquisitely carved. Forget the Elgin Marbles. The work from ancient Greece is as fine, but nowhere near as well preserved and totally without playful humour or as much drama.
At Khajuraho, there are maidens dressed in sheer fabrics standing in rain showers, where rivulets running across their skin look as delicate as tracery. One beautiful woman appears to be smiling at her lover, but when the observer takes several paces back, her expression changes to absolute loathing.
There are two main groups of temples on the outskirts of this charming rural town. Both are worth visiting, but if you’re pressed for time, choose the western group first.
Panna National Park Tiger Reserve (see below).
Hotel Chandela (www.tajhotels.com) is surrounded by a gorgeous garden with mature trees and a wonderful vegetable patch, where they grow vegies for the hotel kitchen. It’s comfortable and beautifully maintained, has a swimming pool and garden view rooms.
Just half an hour's drive from Khajuraho is a beautiful national park that attracts so few visitors, you're likely to have its 543sq kms to yourself. It's called a tiger reserve, but at last count, there was only one solitary male, even though there are plans to airlift a young female from Bandhavgarh National Park, where 56 tigers live. Like many tiger reserves, Panna has been targeted by poachers and only recently has the Indian government decided to make almost $180million available to fight this slaughter.
Visitors are more likely to see a leopard than a tiger, but the park is so scenically spectacular it makes for a wonderful day's safari. Cutting through the national park is the mighty River Ken, where thousands of crocodiles live unmolested. Nearby, there’s a great gorge with towering cliffs on which hundreds of vultures nest.
There's plentiful wildlife, including large herds of chital (Indian spotted deer), sambur (a deer the size of an elk), nilgai (a large antelope depicted above) and chinkara (gazelle). You'll also see massive wild boars, hyenas, jackals and maybe a wild cat that looks like a grey alley cat. There are also more than 250 species of birds, some incredibly colourful, such as the peacock, golden pheasant and numerous parrots, and several species of hornbill, including the Malabar hornbill (above).
If you want a guaranteed sighting of a tiger, Panna is not the park to choose. Visit Bandhavgarh, four hours drive south and stay at Mahua Kothi (www.tajsafaris.com). You’ll see plenty of tigers, but you’ll also be rubbing shoulders with hundreds of other tourists.
Minutes away from the entrance of the Panna National Park is a new safari lodge called Pashan Garh (right) (www.tajsafaris.com). Built with local stone and plate glass, the lodge is an exquisite piece of design and comprises a cluster of stone cottages huddled atop a small hill, with magnificent views over the forest and a large nearby waterhole, where antelope come to quench their thirst.
This five-star lodge draws inspiration from the dry-packed stone houses of the Panna region. The cottages reflect Haveli tradition and have spacious central courtyards. The interiors are a contemporary mix of chocolate linen, block-printed black silk, celadon cotton and cotton lace chandeliers.
The lodge features 12 stone cottages, with a central guest area showcasing leather furniture made in Delhi, with massive black and white photo canvasses of the dramatic Panna landscapes. There are subtle references to the erotic stonework at the nearby temples of Khajuraho.