If you are in one of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and are short of time, all you have to do is go along its lifeline. This is precisely what I got to do in that one day that I spent in Varanasi. Going along the Varanasi Ghats along the River Ganga that gave me a pulse of this lovely city. It showcased its centuries-old legacy while allowing me to enjoy the divine beauty of the river. It is no wonder that visiting the Varanasi Ghats is deemed as one of the key things to do in Varanasi.
“Ghats” refers to bathing steps and there are over 85 of these in Varanasi. It was impossible to see all of these in one single day but I did manage to skim along some of the important ones. It was a boat ride on the Ganges that made it possible for me to get a bird’s eye view of these ghats of Varanasi. I would have loved to stop by each one of them and walk to the important sights but as always, time was the enemy. Despite that what I managed to experience will convince you why these Ghats are the most important of places to visit in Varanasi.
The existence of Varanasi can be archaeologically traced back to 800 BCE. In fact, there have been mentions of it in the Vedas and Puranas. The city is said to be the abode of Lord Shiva and is referred to as Kashi. The city grew not just as a religious center but also, as an educational one. In the year 528 BCE, Lord Buddha came here and gave his first sermon. Thus, began the spread of Buddhism.
It wasn’t just Hinduism and Buddhism that flourished from here. It was also, Jainism for the 23rd Tirthankara – Lord Parshvanath was born in this city, They say that even Guru Nanak Dev came to Varanasi and that had a huge bearing in the spread of Sikhism. With such prominent religious events, it was no wonder that Kashi became an important pilgrimage center.
The city was attacked by the Muslim Invaders from the West for quite a few years until Emperor Akbar showered his patronage. He helped rebuild several of the destroyed temples and the city went back to its original glory until Emperor Aurangzeb again destroyed it. The British later took over and made it into a princely state of Banaras. Banaras as it was called then, lost its princely status post-Indian Independence. It was renamed as Varanasi after its location at the confluence of River Varuna and Assi.
Even today, Varanasi is considered to be the religious capital of the country. The famous Kashi Vishwanath temple is where one of the 12 Jyotirlingas is present. It is believed that if you die in this city, you will attain Moksha or release. It is no wonder that if you visit Varanasi, you are bound to see elaborate religious rituals in play – especially along its Ghats.
The Key Varanasi Ghats
The Varanasi Ghats line the River Ganga and have been built for easy access to the River. This is where a lot of pilgrims gather for their holy dips in the sacred river, for Ganga Pooja and for cremations – among other religious ceremonies. What you see today has been constructed in the 1700 CE – largely by the Maratha kings. In fact, some of the erstwhile royal families like the Bhonsales, Peshwas, Holkars and Scindias still own some of these ghats of Varanasi. And then, there are some which are for the public and have a deep mythological connect.
While it is impossible to cover the 85+ ghats in a single day, a boat ride gave me a bird’s eye view of the key ones. Sharing them with you along with what makes them so prominent.
This was the first Varanasi Ghat that I visited. Besides being the boarding point for our morning boat ride on Ganga, this was the venue for the Morning Aarti of Varanasi. Assi Ghat is at the southernmost part of Varanasi and is at the confluence of the River Assi and River Ganga. The site has an interesting legend attached to it. When Goddess Durga finished slaying two demons, she threw her sword here. Out sprang River Assi.
Assi Ghat is considered to be quite holy for a dip and on popular Hindu festivals, you will find a lot of people here for the same. They say a lot of long term travelers too, find a home near the Assi Ghat. All that may be the case, for me, this particular ghat will always be associated with the most amazing Ganga Aarti that I have ever seen!
If there is one Ghat that is considered to the most auspicious, then that would be Dasaswamedh Ghat. And it will not be difficult for you to identify which one that would be. The crowd will be the giveaway. Naturally so, for rationally, the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple is close to the ghat. Mythologically, this is the place where Lord Brahma performed a Yagna where he sacrificed 10 horses. The Yagna is called Dashashwamedh for Dash or Dus means 10 and Ashwa refers to horses.
For years together, an evening aarti is performed here. The same is dedicated to River Ganga, Agni -the fire, the setting sun – Surya and Lord Shiva. It never fails to draw the crowd – so much that you will find people spilling over on boats to witness this grand ceremony. More on that – coming up.
Before you leave the ghat, don’t miss the working timepiece – a sundial constructed by Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur. Called the Jantar Mantar, this model is a smaller one when compared to the elaborate Sundial built by the same Maharaja in Jaipur.
Did you know that the Jantar Mantar in Jaipur has the biggest sundial in the world? And it still works to give you accurate time. Read about this in my post on Jantar Mantar Jaipur
Also referred to as the Burning Ghat, the Manikarnika Ghat is the main cremation ghat. This Varanasi Ghat always has some cremation ritual taking place. There are boats piled with logs that are used for building the cremation pyre. It is said that any dead body that is burnt here is released from the cycle of life and death.
The cremation ritual itself is quite an elaborate process. As our guide – Kunal shared with us, it almost takes 6 – 8 hours. The cremation ceremony is handled by a person referred to as Dom Raja. He is said to be the official keeper of the sacred fire of Varanasi. The fire is said to have been burning eternally and it is this fire that is used to light the funeral pyre. No matchsticks can be used.
The body arrives on a stretcher and is purified with the Ganga water. The dead are draped in the finest of their clothes and jewelry and from then on, the Dom Raja takes over. He hands out the sacred fire to the next to kin to ignite the pyre. Eventually, he takes over and once the body is reduced to ash, he scrounges it for the precious jewels left. These are his to keep.
Legend has it that Goddess Parvati lost her earring in a pit at this ghat. The earring was called Manikarnika and could not be found. A Brahmin found it but did not return it to Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. When Lord Shiva found out about it, he cursed the Brahmin to the lowest order of society. He became the untouchable Dom and thus, sprang a new sect. The place where the earring was lost is thus, called Manikarnika Ghat.
Harish Chandra Ghat is yet another domain of the Dom Rajas. This cremation ghat is a smaller one and is linked to the story of King Harishchandra who was sent into exile as a test by the famous sage Vishvamitra. During the exile, he worked for the Dom Raja and did cremations on this particular Ghat. Thus, the name. There are fewer cremations that take place traditionally out here, for now, there is an electric crematorium constructed here.
Chet Singh Ghat
A very impressive fortress dominates the ghat named after its builder. Maharaja Chet Singh built this in the late 1700s. He was the ruler of this princely state of Banaras. His disagreements with the first British Governor-General – Hastings led to a war between the two. It is rumored that he escaped using a rope made of turbans. He did lose the war but even now, his legacy lives on in the form of this stunning building.
Darbhanga Ghat & Munshi Ghat
Technically these are two ghats next to each other but the boundaries between them are sketchy. However, they are arresting owing to the Darbhanga Palace on it. The palace was built by a Bihari Royal family but now, has been converted to a heritage hotel. It might be a good idea to stay here just for the views. 😉
To some extent the place did remind me of the heritage buildings by Lake Pichola in Udaipur. The same grandeur with the charm of the water around.
Neighboring the Manikarnika Ghat, the Scindia Ghat (also, called Shinde Ghat) has a partially submerged temple by its stairs. The temple collapsed during the construction of the ghats in the 1870s. It is said that the God of Fire – Agni, was born here. Behind the ghats is a maze of narrow alleys which has a lot of temples. They call that the Siddha Kshetra or the Section of Fulfillment.
Owned by the royal family of Nagpur – Bhonsales, this ghat has yet another attractive monument which looks like an elaborate gateway with artistic windows. Behind those are two important temples – one dedicated to Lord Yama (God of Death).
Earlier called Vaccharaja Ghat, the name changed to Jain Ghat after the Jain community bought it. The ghats are home to a few Jain temples and are used by the community for their religious rites.
The Mansarovar Ghat is called so owing to a sacred pool of water – Mansarovar Kund – which is near the ghats. The pool was built by the same Maharaja Jai Singh II of Jaipur – the one who built Jantar Mantar. What I loved about them was the peaceful aura amid the vibrant, colorful buildings.
Rajendra Prasad Ghat
The colorful wall art of Lord Shiva and Goddess Durga is the identifying mark for this ghat. There is not much of history to it except that it was called Ashwa ghat earlier. The name changed to Rajendra Prasad to honor the first president of India.
Ganga Mahal Ghat
Ganga Ghat or the Ganga Mahal Ghat is home to a beautiful Rajput Palace. This was built by the Narayan clan who ruled the state of Banaras in the 1800s. The palace now has different offices and studios.
Chousatti Ghat is quite a vibrant site owing to its colorful steps that lead to the temple of the fierce Goddess Kali. From what I hear, the place also, has some rooftop restaurants that give you a great view of the River Ganga with a cup of tea.
Though this one is not in the regular circuit of the guides, I could not help finding out more about the Janki Ghat. It was the whole heritage aura by the Ganga that made me want to. From what I understand, this was built by the royal family of Bihar. There is no major temple here but I think the architecture just makes it interesting.
Kedar Ghat attracted my attention not just for its colorful aura but the typical South Indian- Dravidian styled temple on its banks. The ghat was built by the Vijayanagar King. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, this is popular among the South Indian pilgrims. Another interesting this is the presence of a pool around here called Gauri Kund or Parvati Kund. The pool is said to have water that has medicinal value.
Lalita Ghat is synonymous with the name Nepali Ghat. The place was constructed by the late King of Nepal and has wooden temples akin to the famous Pashupatinath temple of Kathmandu. At any given time, it is not unusual to see a lot of ascetics doing penance or praying at the Lalita Ghat. I was particularly enthralled by the sight of the sadhu sitting in a small shrine.
Even if you have visited the 12 Jyotirlingas, your journey is not complete till you visit the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu. Such is the belief. Read more about this divine temple.
The heritage of these ghats is pretty apparent in the snapshot that I have given you. However, it is time you experience that divine beauty of them all. It all starts at the wee hours of the day – the morning Ganga Aarti or what they term as Subah e Banaras!
Subah e Banaras at Assi Ghat
It was still dark at 5:30 am when we arrived at Assi Ghat for the morning aarti. There weren’t many people in the morning which actually might not be surprising given the chilling temperatures. It was good in a way for I did manage to get up, close and personal when the Aarti was conducted.
As the pandits took their place, the soothing morning prayers began in the background. The Pandits began their ritual by bowing to the rising Sun and the river Ganga. They paid their respects to the Fire God Agni and lit numerous diyas. The coordinated moves told me that this was a well-rehearsed act – except that it was not an act. It was an age-old ritual that they did since times immemorial.
The blowing of the conch shells to signal the arrival of Lord Surya or Sun God, the play of manjiras to resonate the divine sounds, the pattern of smoke let out to purify the calm atmosphere of Varanasi and the synchronized bowing to forces beyond our understanding – the morning aarti of Varanasi by the Ganga was an unforgettable experience. Even if you are an atheist, this ritual will touch your heart.
Boat Ride on Ganga River
With the aarti done, we boarded our boat to greet the Rising Sun over Ganga. It was then that I saw all the Varanasi Ghats. While on one side the heritage sites kept me engaged, on the other side the play of light on water had me enthralled. Adding a punch to the scene were the Siberian Gulls that swam and flew around to any boat that fed them.
The touch of orange grew more pleasing at the Sun rose and what seemed to be hazy figures on the boats far away, became lovely silhouettes. Such was the morning calm of the River Ganga.
I was fortunate to experience yet another boat ride later that night. This one took me in the opposite direction to the Dasavamedh Ghat for the famous Ganga Aarti. Watching the Ghats lit up with the heritage monuments sparkling like gemstones gave me a different perspective of the famous Varanasi Ghats – a little majestic and a little mysterious too!
Ganga Aarti at Dashawamedh Ghat
If the morning aarti in Varanasi had a little crowd, the evening was just the opposite. The Dashawamedh Ghat was overflowing with people. We got there in the boat and thought we would get an amazing view like morning but surprise surprise! We were way behind the other boats. What I did get was just a bird’s eye view of the entire heritage ritual. However, around me, there was plenty happening. People chanted in chorus. Some release lit diyas in water. The sight of those floating diyas on the Ganga is one that will be etched in my memory for long.
The divine spirit in the air was so strong and it was easy to see the strong faith that is associated with the city of Varanasi. This was a perfect example of how there was peace in the chaos. It took us some time to get to the banks after the aarti was done and even more time to exit the departing crowd.
Varanasi ghats charmed me as no other city has. Something about the atmosphere there was pure. Maybe it was the collective faith. Or maybe it was the history associated with it. Whatever it was – it is meant to be experienced to get the real feel of this historic city of Varanasi.
How to get to Varanasi?
- Varanasi has its own airport. There are plenty of flights to Varanasi from all the major cities of India.
- Varanasi is well connected by rail and road as well. There are plenty of buses and trains that can get you directly to the city
Where to stay in Varanasi?
- Varanasi has plenty of hotels. These are available in all possible budgets.
- If you wish to stay close to the River Ganga, you can book yourself at any of the Varanasi hotels near the Ghats.
- I stayed at the Ramada which was in the Cantonment area of Varanasi. This was not close to the Ghats but was a comfortable and luxurious hotel.
How to explore the Varanasi Ghats?
- You can avail of a boat ride from Assi Ghat that takes you along the entire length of the river. There are a few boats that you can custom hire to stop at the Ghats that you fancy. However, these would cost you more and you will have to engage them for a set number of hours.
- Walking along the Ghats is also, a good way to enjoy the same. It gives you a little more flexibility to explore.
- The Varanasi Ghats is a religious place. You will find plenty of people worshipping or performing pujas. You are free to observe them without disturbing them.
- Please be mindful of the pictures that you take at the Ghats. Certain ceremonies like the funerals are quite private to the families.
- There are enough public restrooms and restaurants along the ghats.
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Popularly referred to as a Restless Ball of Energy. My Mom refuses to entertain my complaints about my equally restless daughter & assures my husband that I was born with a travel bug.
I am a Post-Graduate in Marketing by qualification and a travel blogger by passion. Besides travel, I enjoy photography and if you don’t find me at my desk, I would be out playing badminton or swimming or just running. I believe in planning for every long weekend through the year. And when I cannot travel physically, I travel virtually through this travel blog. My travel stories have also, got published on various websites and magazines including BBC Travel, Lonely Planet India and Jetwings. I have recently published my first book – When Places Come Alive – a collection of stories that are based on legends, landscapes, art and culture of a place which is available in both ebook and paperback format.