Benares (Varanasi, Kashi)
   Benares on the GANGES is the most visited pil-grimage destination in all of India. It is one of the seven primary pilgrimage cities in India, one of the 12 jyotir LINGAM (lingam of light) sites, and a SHAKTI PITHA site sacred to the Divine Mother. It is considered the most desirable place where a Hindu can die and be cremated, as it is understood that liberation from birth and rebirth is conferred upon a person by the holiness of the city. Myth says that the Ganges flows through the topknot of Shiva down to Earth; for many it is understood that those who bathe in it derive special blessings from Shiva.
   At Benares any act of devotion whatsoever, be it the smallest offering, act of penance or char-ity, or chant, yields unlimited results. Benares has been known at different times as Varanasi or Kashi (the place of the supreme light). It has been a great center of Shiva worship in particular and has known more than 3,000 years of continuous habitation. Only a few buildings are left from before the 16th century, as Muslim armies from the 12th century destroyed nearly every temple there.
   The city’s primary Shiva shrine, the Vishwanath Temple, dates only from 1776, when it was rebuilt across the road from its original ancient location. The jnana vapi, or Well of Wisdom, is adjacent to the site of the original temple and is the ritual cen-ter of Benares. The well is said to have been dug by Shiva himself, and its waters carry the liquid form of JNANA, the light of insight.
   Benares contains so many hundreds of shrines and temples that it is said a pilgrim would need all the years of his or her life to visit them all. Some of these temples are named after the great pilgrimage centers, in other parts of India: RAMESHVARAM, DVARAKA, Puri, and KANCHIPURAM. In this way, visiting Benares is tantamount to vis-iting all the major shrines and temples of India. Most pilgrims make only short visits of days or weeks to Benares, but there are also many thou-sands who see it as the last port of call of their earthly existence. There are nearly 100 cremation spots in the six-mile expanse of the Ganges at Benares.
   A well-worn 50-mile pilgrimage path encircles the holy city; pilgrims generally take five days to complete the walk, visiting 108 shrines along the way. A second important Benares pilgrimage route takes two days to complete and has 72 shrines.Bustling, dusty Benares was once an area of sylvan wilderness. Sages and saints such as BUD-DHA, MAHAVIRA, and TULSIDAS all at one time or another prayed and meditated here. For centuries Benares may have been the most often-visited sacred place on the planet. In any case, for Hindus there is no holier city on Earth.
   Further reading: Winand Callewaert and Rober Schil-der, Banaras: Vision of a Living Ancient Tradition (New Delhi: Hemkunt Publishers, 2000); Diana Eck, Banaras: City of Light (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

Encyclopedia of Hinduism. . 2007.

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