Ancient Varanasi is dominated by the stone ghats, which line the sacred River Ganges, drawing pilgrims from across the world who come for their daily ritual ablutions. Founded by Shiva and known as ‘Kashi' or the City of Light, Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world and certainly India's holiest. The city is a maze of narrow alleys filled with wandering sadhus, flower sellers, astrologers and mourners in this ‘crossing place' between earth and the divine.
In Varanasi life and death is laid bare along the waterfront stone steps, or ghats, which line the banks of the River Ganges. There are more than a hundred ghats, along with pavilions, palaces, temples and terraces. At dawn Hindu pilgrims come to bathe in the sacred waters, or perform meditation and yoga. In the evening Brahmin priests perform synchronized puja, or worship. The burning ghats bear daily witness to the burning sandalwood-scented pyres of Hindu cremation rituals, performed by the ‘untouchables'.
Although it was in Bodh Gaya where the Buddha historically gained enlightenment under a peepul tree, it was at nearby Sarnath where he gave his famous sermon and created the first Buddhist Sangha community. The town is now a cluster of ruins and temples and one of the four places of pilgrimage for Buddhists, the others being Bodh Gaya, Lumbini and Kusinagar.