The sacred city of Shiva stands graciously on the banks of river Ganga which are lined with an endless chain of stone steps known as the Ghats. Spread out in an area of around 7 kms along the river Ganga, these 90 odd ghats are dotted with a number of palaces, princely mansions, ashrams and mutts, ancient temples and shrines.
Soon after the sunrise, the ceremonial steps of the ghats come alive with thousands of pilgrims performing interesting rites and rituals which continue through the day - People bowing to the rising Sun God, or taking a holy dip, ringing of the temple bells, chanting of devotional hymns combined with the heavy smoke billowing up from the funeral pyres – all these activities revolve around the sacred river Ganga and add magic and intrigue to the timeless city of Varanasi.
[ A Brahmin Priest sitting under a palm leaf
at the Dashashwamedh Ghat ]
[ A woman gets ready for a prayer on the Asi Ghat ]
[ An old man selling flowers, incense sticks,
oil lamps, etc for offerings to the river Ganga ]
[ People performing ritualistic activities ]
[ A woman indulging in some charity,
A banner in the background raising awareness
to avoid pollution of the Ganga ]
A walk along these ghats offers a unique and a pleasurable experience. Here one comes across saffron clad sadhus meditating with rudraksh malas in hand, priests chanting holy mantras, Brahmins sitting under palm leaves, tourists soaking in the entire atmosphere, little children playing cricket or flying kites, sacred cows roaming around and shops selling all sorts of souvenirs. Indeed, this unique relationship between the river Ganga, the Ghats and the city is the actual essence of Varanasi.
[ An old man lights fire to keep himself warm ]
[ Capturing the Life of Ghats on a Canvas ]
[ Holy Cow on the Tulsi Ghat ]
First up is the Asi Sangam Ghat, one of the most important ghats of Varanasi, it is the southernmost ghat where river Asi meets the Ganga. The Ganga Mahal Ghat is an extension of the Asi Ghat, and includes a palace built by the Maharaja of Benaras. Adjacent is the Tulsi Ghat where saint Tulsidas wrote the epic RamCharitManas (Ramayana). Next is the Bachhraj Ghat where there are Jain temples followed by the Anandmayee Ghat dedicated to the famous Bengali female saint Mata Anandmayee.
[ Asi and Tulsi Ghats abuzz with various activities ]
[ Palatial palace on the Ganga Mahal Ghat ]
Moving up is one of the burning ghats, the Harishchandra Ghat named after the truthful Indian king Harishchandra who is said to have worked here as the person responsible for cremating dead bodies. Up next is the Kedar Ghat with the Kedareshwar Temple followed by the Kshameshwar Ghat. Then comes the Narad Ghat dedicated to the Lord Vishnu’s devotee Narad who always chants ‘Narayan Narayan’.
Proceding further we come across the Chausathi Ghat where there are idols of 64 female saints. Further ahead is the Rana Mahal Ghat built by King MahaRana Pratap of Rajasthan. Next is the Shitla Ghat where there is the Temple of Godess Shitla Devi whom we pray to keep away from Pox. Besides it is the Dasashwamedh Ghat where Lord Brahma is said to have performed ten Ashwamedh Yagna’s to celebrate the return of Shiva on earth. It is the most famous ghat of Varanasi for bathing which further extends into the Prayag Ghat.
[ Morning activities in full swing at the Dasashwamedh Ghat ]
Then comes the Man Mandir ghat, built by Maharaja Jai Singh of Jaipur and houses a lingam of Lord Someshwar. The terrace also has an observatory. After that is the Lalita Ghat which has a Temple of Goddess Lalita and the famous Nepali Temple dedicated to Lord Pashupatinath (Lord Shiva).
[ Historical Nepali Temple in red on Lalita Ghat ]
Further up is one of the sacred burning ghats, Manikarnika Ghat. Legend has it that Parvati’s Karnika (earring) fell here while bathing, hence the name. Funeral pyres continue to burn here night and day. Ashes are immersed and flown into the currents of the Ganges just as life flows into eternity.
[ Manikarnika Ghat – Here Death is not the end but only a new Beginning ]
Next is the Panchganga Ghat where 5 different rivers merge and is one of the most important ghats of Varanasi. The last of the ghats is the Varuna Ghat where river Varuna becomes one with the Ganga.
Some of the other ghats in Varanasi are the Ahilyabai Ghat, Munshi Ghat, Scindia Ghat, Janki Ghat, Reewa Ghat, Shivala Ghat, Dandi Ghat, Hanuman Ghat, Karnataka State Ghat, Mansarover Ghat, Raja Ghat, Bhosle Ghat and the Darbhanga Ghat. Each of these ghats is distinct and the list is almost endless…
After walking through some of these ghats, I took a few moments out and felt the cool breeze gently patting on my face. The fog and the mist had completely engulfed me and transported me to the realm of a different world altogether… I sat there on the steps gazing at the holiest river of India flowing endlessly faraway into the heavens perhaps…