What makes Benaras a place like no other are its ghats. Over several millennia, the Ganga gently and lovingly sculpted on the banks of her beloved city, a magnificent natural amphitheatre to proudly showcase not just her ethereal beauty, but also the quintessence of our nation, our culture, our philosophy, our religions, our mythology, our diversity, our psyche and our way of life.
Our holiest river communes with our holiest city on these ghats. This a place where extreme contradictions seem to co-exist with unselfconscious ease: activity and inertia, the sacred and the profane, the ephemeral and the eternal, death and immortality. All that is great about our country can be seen here as well as all that isn’t.
The Assi ghat is the southernmost ghat, located at the confluence of the Assi with the Ganga. It is a good starting point for peregrinations along the riverside. Traditionally, a pilgrim takes the first dip in the Ganga here, followed by dips at the Dasaswamedh, Adi Keshava at the northern end (where the Varuna river joins the Ganga), the Panchaganga and the Manikarnika ghats. On completion of this ritual purification, they go for a darshan of Lord Vishwanath and other deities.
There are 84 contiguous ghats along the crescent-shaped west bank, (Shiva adorns his hair with a crescent and the Ganga spouts from the top of his head; our iconography is loaded with esoteric symbology) Unsurprisingly, there are no ghats on the east bank since all Hindu shrines face the rising sun, in accordance with the principles of temple architecture as specified in the Agama Shastra.
Kashi was ruled by the Marathas in the 18th century and many ghats bear their names such as the Bhonsle, Ahilyabai and Scindia ghats. The beautiful Man Mandir ghat, built by Jai Singh of Jaipur, has a temple dedicated to Somnath. Tulsi ghat is named after the composer of the Ramacharitamanas. Other noteworthy ghats are the Lalita, the Darbhanga and the Munshi ghats.
Towering above the ghats are a number of edifices, of varying antiquity; some like the one at the Chet Singh ghat look as if an impregnable fortress has been transplanted from Rajasthan, giving the skyline a medieval look. The Dasashwamedh ghat, arguably the busiest and one of the most important, is rather nondescript; it has a motley collection of shops and is flanked by temples.
On the ghats, we see all kinds of activity; the rituals of the pilgrims, washerfolk spreading clothes to dry, cows and goats foraging for food, vendors selling flowers and puja items, barbers plying their trade, municipal workers washing mud deposits off the ghat steps, camera-toting tourists, painters defacing the walls with lurid graffiti, housewives washing clothes and utensils, meditating sadhus and touts looking for gullible tourists. Everything takes place here, from the mundane to the arcane. There is even a Swedish university on the ghats, believe it or not.
In spite of all the reverence for the sanctity of the ghats, we seem to be hell-bent on obliterating our priceless heritage. Amazing pulchritude is interspersed with repulsive hideousness. Graffiti defaces the hoary walls of these ghats. Ugly superstructures, probably illegal, are being appended to existing buildings in a haphazard manner. Some of these ramshackle constructions are already crumbling. In some places, tin-roofed shacks are seen on top of elegant mansions. Some of the buildings sport garish colours which are an affront to the beauty of this place. Untreated sewage is directly dumped into the revered Ganga Maiyya, with the assurance of an errant child who knows that the Mother will forgive, no matter how grave the transgression. Public toilets and dustbins are conspicuous by their absence. Why care when Ganga Maiyya is here seems to be the prevailing attitude.
Hindus believe that cremation at Harishchandra and Manikarnika ghats ensures moksha. The fires here have been burning 24/7 for over 5,000 years and it has been reported that on an average, over 100 corpses are cremated every day. I counted up to 15 burning pyres at the Manikarnika during a nocturnal boat ride. The temple behind the ghat has a facade heavily blackened with centuries of soot from burning pyres. Tall piles of Banyan wood are neatly stacked on the steps. This particular wood is said to neutralise the odour of burning flesh, which is probably why there is no discernible stench here.
Cremation grounds are perceived as unclean by Hindus and are usually sited far away from human settlements but in Kashi, they are right in the centre as they are deemed to be sacred. Westerners, who usually bury their dead, flock to Manikarnika, drawn by exotic morbidity of our funeral rites.
The three days I was privileged to spend in Kashi are deeply entrenched in my consciousness. Less than two weeks have elapsed since then, yet my spirit pines to return. I yearn to sit on the ghats of the Ganga and experience once again the transcendental bliss it confers.