A crumbling maze of a city that rises from the ghats (steps) on the western banks of the Ganges, Varanasi is in many senses the quintessential India. With an ancient history -- Mark Twain famously described it as "older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together" -- it is also one of the most sacred cities in the world today. Kashi, or "City of Light, where the eternal light of Shiva intersects the earth," as Varanasi is seen by devotees, is the holiest of Indian pilgrimages, home of Shiva, where the devout come to wash away their sins. Earliest accounts of the city go back 8,000 years, and "the city of learning and burning," as it is affectionately referred to, has attracted pilgrims from time immemorial, not all of them Hindu -- even Buddha visited here in 500 B.C. after he achieved enlightenment, sharing his wisdom at nearby Sarnath.