Sometimes travelers sign up to go on a far-flung Wildland Adventure such as to India, and then friends or family comment that they shouldn't go because it's unpleasant or not safe. One Wildland traveler who recently signed up to include Varanasi in their trip to India was warned by an associate of Indian heritage living in the U.S. not to go because as he put it:
"I don't recommend this Indian experience.It can be quite horrid and un-hygienic. There are far better pleasant places to visit. Its a holy place but a holy mess with innumerable holy cows doing their thing wherever and whenever. Monkeys also abound. The less said the better. The municipal corporation is in a trance or has ascended. Unholy things apparently flock there for their purification, I believe. It's too Indian, even for me. Diarrhoea (sic) is a serious possibility.”
Here's my honest perspective and what I advised our traveler:
As a traveler deeply interested in exotic cultures different from our own. I certainly am not looking at this from your friend's perspective as a successful Indian busnessman living in the US. In fact, I often find myself conversing with Indians about trips we arrange to their birthright who are disgusted and embarrased about places in their country, especially some ex-pat Indians living here working in various technical professions who appreciate our living standards and lifestyle; some don't even want to return home except out of necessity because the want to avoid the bureaucracy, chaos, noise, dust, etc.
No doubt, among many places you are likely to visit in India, Varanasi may likely be the most intense which is why we try to put it at the end of any itinerary once you've become accustomed to Indian culture and lifestyle. Just riding through Varanasi in a rickshaw can be overwhelming with so much humanity (and other living things) walking between town and the river where they go for rituals and funerals. The banks of the Ganges in Varanasi is where Indians go to absolve themselves of sins or for cremation and final rites of their loved ones. As the major pilgrimage site in North India, it is a sacred city with very interesting and deeply meaningful spiritual rituals and religious practices. As a tourist, there's no place more fascinating to see and understand this aspect of Indian spirituality and culture, not to mention the opportunities for photography. For these reasons, Varanasi is a place unlike any other in India.
It's not true that you need to be more concerned about illness in Varanasi than anywhere else in India, generally speaking. You're staying in lovely accommodations where every aspect of your stay is safe, clean and comfortable. I've been to India four times for over 3 months of traveling there and I've never gotten an intestinal illness other than a 24 hour bout of minor gastrointestinal discomfort due to over consumption of greasy and spicy food, not becuase I was actually sick with a bacterial problem. We plan lunches for many of our travelers in local homes in Varanasi and Jodphur and nobody has ever become ill.
Travel in Varanasi is chaotic. When you are walking from the funeral ghats on the Ganges back to the rickshaws or taxis, you have to be careful and pay attention to cars, cows and motorcycles moving all around you, and indeed, you might even have to walk around a cow in your path, or cow patties at your feet. That's all quintessential India! But, you'll have your own guide looking out for you, making adjustments for your comfort (taking a taxi instead of a rickshaw if you prefer, or going back to the hotel early if anyone so desires, etc). Your guide knows what is challenging, emotionally or physically, for our guests and is there for your comfort and security.
Based on your travel experience, and your obvious interest in India, I think you should go! Varanasi is often the highlight of many travelers experience in India, because it's so intense and also such a deeply human experience.
Keeping it wild,