Varanasi: India's Holy City (PHOTOS)

In this holy place beats the heart of an ancient civilization.
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Varanasi - also known as Benaras, Kashi - is among the oldest cities in the world and the most important pilgrimage site of the Hindus. It is located in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh on the banks of the holy River Ganga. Varanasi is associated with Lord Shiva who is regarded as its founder. The city is of significance to Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs as well.

Like much of India, Varanasi is a welter of the ugly, the filthy, the beautiful, the sublime, and the ridiculous. In this holy place beats the heart of an ancient civilization. For thousands of years Indians have come here to live, to die, or to contemplate in Lord Shiva's presence. Varanasi has a long and distinguished history as a crucible of many philosophical, spiritual and cultural traditions. Legions of great scholars, writers, poets, artists, musicians, and dancers have flourished here in centuries past. The Varanasi of today is not easy on the senses given the attendant squalor, chaos, and cacophony. Be that as it may, a visit here can be a deeply stirring experience.

The old quarter of Varanasi abuts the western bank of the Ganga. The steps leading to the water - called the ghats - is where the action is. Hindus from all over India and the world journey here for the privilege of a dip in the river. The macabre sight of round-the-clock cremations on the ghats blends with the surrounding nonchalance of worldly rhythms. Away from the water, the old quarter ramifies into a warren of narrow interconnected lanes.

In this slideshow we take in the sights of Varanasi.

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