The great Hindu city of VARANASI, also known as Banaras or Benares, stretches along the crescent of the River Ganges, its waterfront dominated by stone ghats where pilgrims and residents come for their daily ritual ablutions. Known to the devout as Kashi, the Luminous – the City of Light, founded by Shiva – Varanasi is one of the world's oldest living cities. It has maintained its religious life since the sixth century BC in one continuous tradition, and stands at the centre of the Hindu universe.
Located next to a ford on an ancient trade route, Varanasi is among the holiest of all tirthas – "crossing places", that allow the devotee access to the divine and enable gods and goddesses to come down to earth. It has always attracted pilgrims, seekers, sannyasins and students of the Vedas, including sages such as Buddha, Mahavira (founder of the Jain faith) and the great Hindu reformer Shankara. Anyone who dies here attains instant moksha or enlightenment. Widows and the elderly come here to seek refuge or to live out their final days, finding shelter in the temples. Western visitors since the Middle Ages have marvelled at this most alien of Indian cities: at the tight mesh of alleys, the accoutrements of religion, the host of deities – and the proximity of death.
The great riverbanks at Varanasi, built high with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pavilions and palaces, temples and terraces, are lined by stone steps – the ghats – which stretch along the whole waterfront, changing dramatically in appearance with fluctuations of the river level. Some have crumbled over the years while others continue to thrive, visited by early-morning bathers, brahmin priests offering puja, and people practising meditation and yoga. Hindus regard the Ganges as amrita, the elixir of life, which brings purity to the living and salvation to the dead, but in reality the river is scummy with effluent, so don't be tempted to join the bathers; never mind the chemicals and human body parts, the heavy metals, dumped by factories upstream, are the real cause for concern.