Ganga: Varanasi, the oldest city, spreads along the western banks of Ganga. The main township stretches from Raja Ghat near the bridge upto Asi Ghat. It is an old city with a maze of lanes and by-lanes, so narrow at times that even a carriage cannot go in. There are places where the sunlight never reaches! Kashi has 365 ghats in total and all of them built by the kings of the olden days. The chain starts from Harishchandra Ghat or the great crematorium at south and ends at north, at Manikarnika. A clumsy cluster of ramshackle houses run along the banks, at times leaning loosely over the water.
Yet with all this Ganga is great. The river, to the devotees, is the ultimate symbol of purity, a way to salvation. Its water, a panacea, absolves one of worldly sins. A three nights' stay by the river is believed to be a ticket to heaven. Drinking one palmful of its water is synonymous with an Aswamedh Yajna. Any charitable offering here is an act of piety. This is the holiest of the rivers. But this is the most polluted stretch of water in the country. Naturally the Ganga Action Plan, formed in 1986, has a monumental task ahead.
The Ghats are of immense attraction to the tourists and travelers. Stretched over an area of 5 km, the Ghat is always bustling in activities. There are the pundits ensconced under the parasols, performing many rituals necessary in a traditional Hindu's life. There are the hatha-yogis attracting people with their mysterious acrobatics. The Ghats are a place for everything like wrestling, yoga, pranayam and kathakata (story telling) which bears tradition of oral chroniclers now turned into the professional practice of narrating scriptures and mythological tales. Among all this are the countless bathers, men and women, from eight to eighty taking a holy dip. The Ghat comes to life right from the break of dawn. Devotees gather to pay homage to the first rays of the sun after their bath. The evening arati at 7-00 pm fetches a huge number of viewers from across the city. The Gangarati is followed by the evening arati's in all the temples.
Dashaswamedh, the greatest of the ghats, is centrally located is 4 km from the Railway station. For believers, a bath here gives the result of a Dashaswamedh yajna. According to mythology, Brahma, the creator of the universe, appointed Divyodas or Ripunjay, the King of Kashi. As advised by Brahma, Divyodas performed Dashaswamedh yajna, an offering of ten horses to appease Brahma on the banks of Rudra Sarovar. That is how the name originated: dash (ten) + aswa (horse) + medh (killing for yajna). All the other gods were driven out to further appease Brahma, the supreme. When even Shiva was about to leave, Brahma, thoroughly pleased, installed the Brahmeswara Linga. That is how the place was created.
You walk past the long row of beggars and reach the Sitala temple at your right.
The chain starts— ghats one after another—Ahalyabai Ghat built by Ahalyabai, the Queen of Indore, Munshi Ghat with Darbhanga Palace nearby, Darbhanga Ghat, Ranamahal Ghat, built by the King and the Queen of Udaipur, Dhobi Ghat, Chaushat Ghat with the temple of 64 yoginis (female attendants of goddess Durga), Digpatiya Ghat, Pandey Ghat, Raj Ghat-built by Bajaji Peshwa Rao of Pune, Narad Ghat-hearsay is, a couple bathing here are bound to have a quarrel, Mansarovar Ghat, built by Man Singh, King of Ambar, in memory of Shiva's abodes in Kailash and Manas, Kedar Ghat, the KedarnathTemple on it has a Shiva Linga of black stone, Someswar (Chandra) Ghat whose water is considered a panacea, Chowki Ghat with an idol of Naga beneath the peepal tree (Buddha is said to have attained Nirvana here), Lali Ghat, Harishchandra Ghat of mythological importance, associated with the tales of Harishchandra-Saibya-Rohitaswa is now the great crematorium. Further ahead are Hanuman Ghat, Kali Ghat or Shibala, a private ghat of the King of Varanasi, Bengali Mata Anandamoyee Ghat beyond the fort of Chait Singh, Tulsi Ghat also known as Lolarka Ghat in the past in memory of Tulsidas. Parents with a wish for child assemble at Lolarka fair during August/ September at Lolarka Kund. The Jains have built the Becharaj Ghat with three Jain temples. Nearby is Janki Ghat, another crematorium with electric pyre. Asi Ghat is at the confluence of Ganga and Asi. Ramnagar is on the eastern banks of Asi Ghat, which is also the end of the southern stretch of ghats.
North of Dashaswamedh are Rajendraprasad Ghat and Manmadir Ghat built in 1600 by Man Singh, the King of Ambar. Later, in 1710, Manmadir, an observatory was built in the old palace by Jai Singh, the King of Jaipur. Adjacent is the house of Lalua, the King of the doms, a Hindu lower caste, whose duty is to burn the dead and look after the crematorium. Though these people of lower rung are untouchable in considered caste-ridden Hindu Society, the house looks good.
Meera Ghat, built by Meera Bai has the Visalakshi Temple and also a holy well. Close to it is the Pashupatinath Temple with sculptures in the parental devotional form. The pinnacle is made of pure gold.
There are also Jalsen Ghat, Lalita Ghat and Manikarnika Ghat. The last of them is the second most important ghat after Dashaswamedh. The ear rings of Parvati are believed to have fallen here. It is believed that the kund or, the crater was dug out by Shiva in search for the rings. The water was formed out of his sweats. There is also a second opinion: the kund was dug out by Vishnu for some death-rituals. Between the Ghat and the well is Chandrapaduka, the foot print of Vishnu on a block of stone. There is also a GaneshaTemple. Manikarnika is also a busy crematorium.
Dattatreya Ghat is another holy place. The temple has an old footprint of its chief worshipper. Scindia Ghat was built in 1830. Part of it was damaged in later years and renovated. Above it is Sidha Kshetra, an abode of many gods who fulfill the wish of the devotees. Ram Ghat was built by the King of Jaipur and Rana Ghat, by the King of Udaipur. Panchaganga Ghat, another holy place was once a confluence of the five holy rivers: Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Trina and Durga. The Vishnu temple here built in the 17th century by Benimadhav Rao Scindia was destroyed by Aurangzeb. Later he built Alamgir Mosque in Hindu and Mughal architecture on the ruins of the temple. The aajan minar offers an overview of Varanasi.
So many ghats are there and each of them unique by itself. Gai Ghat with a stone idol of Garuda, Trilochan Ghat, Raj Ghat and others. The three-eyed Shiva Linga is above Trilochan Ghat. Vishnu is believed to have appeared at Adi Keshava Ghat.
But the holiest of all the ghats are Dashaswamedh, Manikarnika, Panchaganga, Kedar and Asi. Their water absolves one of sins. Devotees come here for offering pinda (food to the souls of ancestors).
Visit Godawlia during sunset and offer a lamp to Ganga. River cruise on Ganga is a special attraction. Particularly an early morning or evening cruise is a pleasant experience. A boat can be hired for leisure cruise. Move along the ghats and visit Kashi. Photography is prohibited. Taking pictures of a cremation is a strict no-no.
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Transport, Tours and Travel agents of Varanasi
Hotels and other accommodation at Varanasi
Choice of Food in Varanasi
Places to visit at Varanasi - Temples
Places to visit at Varanasi - Ghats
Shopping and other attractions of Varanasi
This article is originally published in Travel India and India Study Channel