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India's Ganges River is sacred to Hindus and flows by their holiest city, Varanasi (formerly Benaras).
Varanasi is principally known to travelers for its ghats (stone steps leading directly into the water). It has about 100 of these riverbank stairways.
Varanasi = vah-rah-nuh-see
Ghat = ghah't
Ritual bathing ghats
Most ghats are used for ritual bathing. Hindu pilgrims, while standing waist high in the water, pray to cleanse their souls as they face the rising sun.
It is the tourist's favorite ritual bathing ghat because of its picturesque backdrop of old temples, palaces and pavilions (see photo).
Varanasi also has cremation ghats because Hindus believe that those who die and are cremated in Varanasi go directly to heaven, bypassing the lengthy reincarnation process. First the dead are burned on riverside pyres, then their ashes are scattered on the sacred Ganges River.
Best visiting time
Being at the ghats (especially the ritual bathing variety) is glorious at the crack of dawn. Most worshipers prefer that time because the surroundings mystically glow with the reflected golden-red hues of the low-lying sun. Photographers do, too, for the same reason.
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