Our boat driver spits a red streak of chewed betel nut into the murkypre-dawn water, and quickly stuffs another pinch of the mild narcoticbetween his scarlet-stained lips. Without a word he picks up his oars andgently rows us along India's holy river, the Ganges.

The Ganges flows with the history and religious fervor of thousands ofyears, and has become one of India's main tirthas, or places ofpilgrimage. Hindus believe the river flows from the toe of Vishnu, one of the three Hindu trinity of gods, along with Siva and Brahma. DevoutHindus, who often call the river Mother Ganga, head there every morning towash away their sins. My traveling partner and I, along with dozens ofother tourist boats, do not seem to be disturbing this ancient ritual. Wewatch Hindu men and women immersing themselves for an early morning bathand dipping toothbrushes into the river for some sunrise dental hygiene. The smacking sound of clothes being beaten against rocks fills the thickIndia air. While we witness men washing bundles of clothes, an olderwoman, wrapped up in her sari, is fashioning cow dung into round pattiesto be dried and, presumably, later used for fuel. Several men along theway seem deep in prayer, reciting words over and over like a mantra asthey submerge themselves in the holy water. I had heard about riverdolphins in the Ganges and am convinced I see one rise up briefly from thethick water.

As much as the Ganges is the river of life for Hindus, it is also theriver of death. Hindus believe that the souls of those who die and arecremated on the Ganges will have a quicker path to moksha, or spiritualsalvation. Animals and children, however, are sometimes simply buried in the Ganges and not cremated. We see one calf's head float by along or ride, at firstunnerving, but the forces of life using this river outweigh the brush withdeath.

The tranquility of this river journey is interrupted when a man on anotherboat pulls up alongside us and hands us small tin plates lined withflowers and a small burning candle at the center. "Think your name, make awish, and let go in water," he instructs us demonstrating how it shouldset sail on the river. "Wish will come true." We nudge him away but aftermuch persistence, we finally oblige, only to realize there is a heavy servicecharge for these wishes. We refuse to pay but he blocks our boat frommoving, demanding his money. We give him far less than the asking priceand he continues to pester us until he finally tires and heads to the nexttourist boat.

We spend the rest of our two-hour trip in relative peace, save for ourboat drivers' occasional appeals to extend it to a four-hour trip. Hefinally gives up and lets us admire the hundreds of temples, palaces, andshrines that border the river, one of which is sunken so far that it seemson the verge of floating away.

Hundreds of ghats, or landings on the river, line the western bank of theGanges, some for bathing and others for burning the dead. Dasaswamedh Ghatis one of the main ghats, and the spot where Brahma is said to havesacrificed 10 horses. The five ghats where pilgrims are supposed to batheon the same day are Asi ghat, followed by Dasaswamedh, Barna Sangam,Panchganga, and Manikarnika, in that order. The best view of the Gangesand ghats is from the balcony of the Man Mandir Ghat observatory, built byRaja Jai Singh in 1710.

Out of respect for the dead, our boat driver only takes us within distantviewing of the Manikarnika Ghat, the main burning ghat, where we watch menhard at work preparing a fire for a cremation. The boat driver turns usaround after we watch the activity at the burning ghat, and returns us toour boat landing.

A lineup of bicycle rickshaws awaits us, each vying for our business. Wehire one, and the driver peddles deftly through craggy streets ofVaranasi, amid choking car and motorcycle fumes, between ambling cows andscores of locals hawking their wares.

The crowded city of Varanasi stands as one of the holiest spots in India,and is thought to be one of the oldest cities in the world, with someexperts claiming it was founded as many as 3,000 to 5,000 years ago.Varanasi was once known as Kashi, meaning bright, thought to refer to itsspiritual light. The name Varanasi, sometimes called Benares, derives fromits location between two tributaries of the Ganges--Varuna and Asi.

"You want tour of Varanasi?" the rickshaw driver, Rajindra, asks as we'reheading back to our guest lodge.

"How much?" we question, knowing from past experiences that ifnegotiations aren't firm beforehand, the special tourist price can be outof proportion. We agree on a few dollars, and Rajindra takes us to thecity's most important Hindu temples.

First we visit the courtyard of the Durga Temple, or Monkey Temple. As itsnickname implies, the outer area of the 18th-century, brick-red templehouses hundreds of cantankerous monkeys who become annoying enough todrive us out.

We are not allowed inside the Durga Temple, nor arenon-Hindus allowed inside the Vishwanath Temple, or Golden Temple, themost sacred in Varanasi. We view the temple, dedicated to Siva, fromacross the street, taking in the beauty of the gold-plated towers. We are allowed in the modern Tulsi Manas Temple, built in 1964, and sporting a mechanical man in a glass box singing prayers. The walls of thetemple are engraved with the verses of Ram Charit Manas, a Hindi take onthe famed Indian legend Ramayana. More majestic is the Sree VishwanathTemple at Benares Hindu University. Verses from Hindu scriptures line the walls, sending messages about living life with a peaceful mind.