Varanasi is a North Indian city on the banks of the Ganges in Uttar Pradesh, India. The spiritual capital of India, it is the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism, and played an important role in the development of Buddhism.
Varanasi has been a cultural center of North India for several thousand years, and is closely associated with the Ganges River. Hindus believe that death in the city will bring salvation, making it a major center for pilgrimage. The city is known worldwide for its many Ghats, embankments made in steps of stone slabs along the riverbank where pilgrims perform ritual ablutions. Of particular note are the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the Panchganga Ghat, the Manikarnika Ghat and the Harishchandra Ghat, the last two being where Hindus cremate their dead and send the ashes forth into the Ganges River.
The Ganges is the most sacred river to Hindus. It is also a lifeline to millions of Indians who live along its course and depend on it for their daily needs. It is worshipped as the goddess Ganga in Hinduism. The Ganges was ranked as the fifth most polluted river of the world in 2007. Pollution threatens humans, but also more than 140 fish species, 90 amphibian species and the endangered Ganges river dolphin. The Ganga Action Plan, an environmental initiative to clean up the river, has been a major failure thus far, due to corruption, lack of technical expertise, poor environmental planning and lack of support from religious authorities.