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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 March 2006, 20:25 GMT
The religious capital of Hinduism
By Debabani Majumdar
BBC News

A view of Varanasi ghats
Hindu shrines and statues are everywhere in the city

There are few places on earth more important for India's hundreds of millions of Hindus than the city of Varanasi, which has been rocked by twin blasts.

Varanasi (Benares) is perhaps most famous for its ghats (embankments) on the river Ganges, often referred to as Mother Ganges.

Hindus believe if one is cremated in Varanasi or the ashes of the dead scattered in the river and last rites offered at the ghats, the deceased will achieve moksha - or release - from sufferings of the cycle of birth and death.

From dawn to dusk, priests line the ghats - sitting under their distinctive, round umbrellas - waiting for people to offer prayers.

It is not unusual to see the charred remains of bodies floating in the river.

It is said most of the revered sages in India - including Gautama Buddha, Mahavira, Kabir, Shankaracharya and Tulsi Das - spent time in Varanasi.

Steeped in mythology

The city is believed to be nearly 3,000 years old and was ruled by Hindu kings until the 11th Century, before falling to a series of Muslim invaders.

A boy jumps into the Ganges from one of the ghats
A dip in the river Ganges is said to wash away sins

Varanasi is steeped in Hindu mythology, with scriptures describing it as home to millions of shrines and deities.

In almost any street you will find a shrine or image of a Hindu deity.

It is also one of the main centres for the worship of the god Shiva. The gold-plated Viswanath temple, built in 1776, is one of the holiest shrines.

Close by is the Alamgir mosque - which some Hindu nationalists want pulled down because they say it is built on the site of a Hindu temple.

The Sankat Mochan temple, the site of one of Tuesday's explosions, is dedicated to the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman.

Tourist centre

Varanasi is also renowned as a seat of learning.

The Banaras Hindu University (BHU) - founded in 1917 by Indian nationalist leader Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya - teaches among other things Indian art, culture, philosophy and Sanskrit.

The city is also an important tourist attraction for foreigners coming in search of the religious India.

Varanasi is also known for its silk saris with their distinctive prints.

The rich, heavy Benarasi sari, decorated with golden-threaded embroidery, is a possession of pride in every Indian woman's wardrobe - and a must-have in every bride's trousseau.

But the opening-up of international trade with China has brought hard times for the industry.

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