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Varanasi (or "Benares," as the British called it), is the most sacred city of Hinduism. The goal of many is not only to bathe here in the holy Ganges, but to die in the central part of the city (known as Kashi) and be cremated on the ghats (water steps) and have their ashes thrown in the river. Because a major confrontation was expected at noon on this Friday between Muslims and Hindus worshipping at a contested site, we took a very early morning tour of the mist-shrouded city which was almost depopulated: fearful pilgrims were staying away to avoid the anticipated trouble.

Above, a riverside vendor of flowers and clay pots for collecting Ganges water.

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