Varanasi (vəränˈəsē) [key], formerly Benares bənäˈrĭz, city (1991 pop. 1,030,863), Uttar Pradesh state, N central India, on the Ganges River. Although a rail hub and trade center, Varanasi is chiefly important as a holy city. Thought to be one of the world's oldest cities, it is the holiest city of the Hindus, who call it Kasi. There are about 1,500 temples, palaces, and shrines. Few of these, however, date back further than the 17th cent., since Muslim invasions destroyed many Hindu religious sites. The most famous Hindu temples are the Golden temple, dedicated to Shiva, and the Durga temple with its swarms of sacred monkeys. The banks of the Ganges in the city are bordered by ghats, or flights of steps, that Hindus descend in order to bathe in the sacred river. Hindus believe that to die in Varanasi releases them from the cycle of rebirths and enables them to enter heaven. About one million religious pilgrims visit the city annually. Varanasi is of importance to other religions also. Buddha is said to have begun preaching at Sarnath, 4 mi (6.4 km) outside the city. The mosque of the emperor Aurangzeb stands on the city's highest ground and is one of Varanasi's notable buildings from the Muslim period. Varanasi is also famous for its silk brocades and brassware. The city is an educational center, especially for Sanskrit studies; Benares Hindu Univ. (1916) is there. Across the Ganges from Varanasi is Ramnagar, which was the capital of the former princely state of Benares and is still the seat of the maharajah. Ramnagar is noted for its 31-day Ramilla, the enactment of the events of the Ramayana.
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