The Ganges doesn't just nourish India by providing the people who live along its banks with food, power and water, it also nourishes India spiritually. Ceremonies are performed along its path every singe day and some of the most moving of India's landmarks crowd the banks along with those who worship here, and a journey along this river is a pilgrimage for many. For non-believers it's a way of seeing life in rural India as well as some of the country's most spectacular displays of religious love.
Hindus believe the river is a goddess, the Mother Ganga, and they believe that bathing in the water washes away your sins. So every day Hindu pilgrims arrive to be blessed here and to bathe in the waters, which means that in the religious centres of Haridwar, Allahabad and Varanasi, there are intricate ceremonies performed every day: from individual people casting tributes into the water accompanied by quiet prayers, to cremations taking place on Varanasi's ghats and the grand 'aarti' at Dasaashwamedh Ghat, where each evening thousands of lit lanterns are released into the water to please the river goddess.
The journey between Allahabad and Varanasi passes along one of the most colourful stretches of river, so is a good Holiday Idea for people wanting to experience India's spiritual side. You can drive between these two cities in a day but if you travel this flowing pilgrimage route it takes up to five days, stopping in small bankside communities, watching for the unusual birdlife and visiting some of the magical temples.
Ganges travellers will be presented with a range of potential craft options, from larger modern boats with sleeping facilities to traditional local boats – the big difference between these boats is whether they have benches to sit on, in some cases you just sit in the boat's spine on cushions, and camp on the riverbanks at night.
Even outside of the towns and cities people still flock to the water's edge, so you'll never be entirely alone – and you'll often within the range of singing prayers and in the evenings floating lanterns...
The journey begins in Allahabad, which sits between two real rivers and one imaginary one: the Ganges and the Yamuna are the real ones and because of them the town has three sides facing water with many bridges across them. Allahabad has two distinct quarters: the well planned Civil Lines, with their grid road pattern - once the home for the Raj administrators - and the old congested Chowk area where all the markets are.
Before you get out on the river you should pay a visit to a couple of the city's highlights: Allahabad Fort , one of India's most impressive 16th century forts and home of the Patalpuri temple and the Akshaya Vat, an ancient, ancient banyan tree that you're supposed to attain immortality by jumping from. And Anand Bhavan, which is the Ghandi family home and now a museum.
The three rivers, the Ganges, the Yamuna and the invisible Saraswati, join at Sagam, just out of town, so this is the first point of interest once the river journey proper has started. The river here is lined with fields of mustard and wheat, all the way to Lakshagrih, where some trips will stop for the night, while some push on to Kheira. Both are small riverside communities.
By the second day on the water you 'll be in Bihar, heading for Sitamarhi. Sita was supposed to have been born here, and it has the only Valmiki Ashram on the banks of the Ganges. It's also the site of the Shree Sita Samahit Temple. After Sitamarhi is Vindhyachal, which also has its own important temple, this one is a tribute to Vindhyavasini Devi. This temple is visited by hundreds of people each day, most specially Tantriks. It's supposed to be a seat of female power. If you have time there's another pilgrimage site in Vindhyachal, Kali Khoh, it's a statue of Goddess Kali where her mouth is represented by a cave.
Explore the ghats of Mirzapur and possibly pop into town for a look round the carpet and brass markets. This is an interesting town to visit – it's much larger than the others visited so far, and the culture is quite unique – just check out the jeweller on the women for a start, it's almost got its own language.
Aim to get to Chunar before nightfall, but hold off exploring the fort until morning and instead visit the temple of Durga, or, if there's one on, go to the local fair. Most people in this town rely on farming for their living, and fairs are something they do well.
Visit Chunar Fort first thing in the morning and hopefully you'll have a view from the western ramparts all the way to Varanasi. This fort isn't the most impressive in India, but it was built in 56BC, and has been worked on by many rulers since then, so is a fusion of historic architecture.
You've seen Varanasi, now you just have to take the short trip there past some of the ancient homes that start to increase in number as you get closer to his holy city.
Spend the afternoon at the Ramnagar Fort, wandering the rounded balconies and pavilions and expansive paved courtyards and exploring the on site museum. So that in the evening you can get your first taste of Varnasi's ghats at the grand aarti at the Dasaashwamedh Ghat. This is a ceremony held every evening conducted by five priests, who perform acts of worship that are so graceful it's almost a dance, using incense, camphor, flowers and lamps. Then thousands of lanterns are released into the water and that scene you must have seen images of, with the water covered in floating lanterns looking like something divine. So that it's no wonder people believe it's the way to heaven.
Head back to Dasaashwamedh at dawn to hire a boat so that you can see the wonderful action on the ghats at dawn. The most famous ghats include Asi Ghat, Tulsi Ghat and the marigold covered Manikarnika Ghat, which is one of Varanasi's two burning ghats, which is where the cremations take place and around which you can see the bodies in their shrouds waiting to be burned on funeral pyres.
Some of the Varanasi's other highlights include the Kashi Vishwanath Temple one if the holiest Hindu temples celebrating Vishwanatha, the ruler of the universe, and the Banaras University. Varanasi is also the place to buy silk saris – if you can haggle visit the shops in Vishwanath Gali, if not make your purchases at the state run shops at the UP Handloom and UPICA.
The best time to make this trip along the Ganges is between the beginning of November and the 20th of December and from the 10th of January to 15th of March. If you're planning your trip for January or February allow for an extra day in Allahabad for Magh Mela, which is the annual version of the Kumbh Mela, which is only held every 12 years.
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