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VARANASI - Uttar Pradesh
Banaras is the most visited pilgrimage destination in all of India. One of the seven Holy Cities, one of the twelve Jyotir Linga sites and also a Shakti Pitha site, it is the most favored place for Hindus to die and be cremated. Myths and hymns speak of the waters of the Ganges as the fluid medium of Shiva's divine essence and a bath in the river is believed to wash away all of one's sins. The particular river-side location of Banaras is considered especially potent because, in less than six miles (ten kilometers), the Ganges is met by two other rivers, the Asi and the Varana. Commenting of this specific location of Banaras along the river Ganges, the Hindu scripture Tristhalisetu explains that, 

Varanasi and Kashi, meaning “where the supreme light shines”, this great north Indian center of Shiva worship has had more than 3000 years of continuous habitation.

Few standing buildings are older than the 16th century, however, as Muslim armies raiding from the 11th century onward destroyed the ancient Hindu temples and erected mosques on their foundations. Qutbuddin Aibak's armies were said to have destroyed more than a thousand temples in 1194, and Shan Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, had seventy-six temples demolished.

In Hindu Kashi, it is said there are thirty-three hundred million shrines and a half a million images of the deities. Kashi is also traditionally called Mahashamshana, ‘the great cremation ground’. Hindus believe that cremation at the holy city insures moksha, or final liberation of the soul from the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Because of this belief, dying persons and dead bodies from far-off places are brought to Kashi for cremation at the Manikarnika and other cremation sites (five principal and eighty-eight minor cremation/bathing sites lie along the Ganges). In her book, Banaras: City of Light, Diana Eck writes:

Encircling the holy city at a radius of five miles is the sacred path known as the Panchakroshi Parikrama. Pilgrims take five days to circumambulate Kashi on this fifty-mile path, visiting 108 shrines along the way. If one is unable to walk the entire path a visit to the Panchakroshi Temple will suffice. By walking round the sanctuary of this shrine, with its 108 wall reliefs of the temples along the sacred way, the pilgrim makes a symbolic journey around the sacred city. Another important Banaras pilgrimage route is the Nagara Pradakshina, which takes two days to complete and has seventy-two shrines.
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