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There are thousands of religions practiced around the world, from the ancient to the relatively new. Certain cities are closely linked to the faiths practiced by their residents, and have been imbued with a sense of the divine. Known for their religious histories, houses of worship and sacred spaces, these locales connect the faithful and attract visitors and devotees from around the globe.

Chiang Mai
Thailand’s second city is the former capital of the Lanna Kingdom that once ruled the northern part of the country. It is home to hundreds of Buddhist temples, including the famed Wat Chedi Luang with its ruined chedi, (or stupa, top) where visitors can bless Buddha by pulling a container of water to the top of the temple with a rope and emptying it. At the 14th-century Wat Phra That Doi Suthep atop the Doi Suthep mountain just outside of town, Buddhist monks bless the faithful as well as the curious, and temple workers advise visitors on donating to the Buddha statue appropriate to their birth date. But Chiang Mai is not a city preserved in amber: it is a vibrant metropolis packed with locals, students, expats and retirees who fill the lively markets and streets and the restaurants that line the Ping River.

The walled inner city is the core of ancient Chiang Mai, home to bars, cafes, temples and the crafts-filled Sunday Market; while the modern city, which surrounds the core, is where Chiang Mai University and other colleges are located as well as many apartment blocks. In the city suburbs, some expats live in moo baan, Western-style gated communities. “We have around 40,000 expats here,” said Pim Kemasingki, owner and publisher of Chiang Mai Citylife magazine. According to a recent Citylife survey, nearly a third of residents move to Chiang Mai for the culture and another 15% for the cost of living. In or near the inner city, monthly rents are around 5,500 to 8,000 Thai baht for a studio or share. Condos rent for around 20,000 to 31,000 baht, and a luxury property with four bedrooms and a pool in the modern part of town rents for around 56,000 baht per month.

Considered by Hindus and Jains to be the holiest city in India, ancient Varanasi on the banks of the river Ganges is the country’s spiritual capital. Also known as Benares, the city has been in existence for approximately 3,000 years, making it one of the oldest inhabited places on Earth. The many ghats (stone steps) leading down to the sacred river are filled in the early mornings with bathers cleansing their sins by immersing themselves in the water. The two funeral ghats where bodies are cremated are so holy that the dead can achieve moksha, when the cycle of reincarnation is broken and the soul goes straight to heaven. Many festivals are celebrated throughout the year, such as Dev Diwali, held during November’s full moon when the ghats and the river are lit with thousands of diya, or floating candles.

Varanasi has a population of 1.4 million, plus an annual influx of more than three million tourists and pilgrims. Neighbourhoods to the north of the city are quieter and greener than the areas closest to the river, such as the Cantonment area which was where the British lived and worked and is now home to international hotels and a hospital. Families also look in Sarnath, a village just outside Varanasi where Buddha first taught and where the Central University of Tibetan Studies is located. American colleges like Smith hold study-abroad programmes here and the Dalai Lama is sometimes in residence. A three-bedroom apartment in the city centre rents for 17,500 rupees and for 12,000 rupees outside of town. A 90sqm apartment in Sarnath sells for around 2.5 million rupees.

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