The ghats of Benaras – a place like no other

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.

The colourful Dasaswamedh Ghat, in close proximity to the Golden Temple, is a beehive of activity. The spectacularly choreographed Ganga Aarati, performed every evening, is a visual delight.


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 at dusk. Boatloads of tourists can be seen heading for the Ganga Aarati ceremony.

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.

Some places are quirky too; people avoid taking a dip at the Narad ghat. The popular belief is that bathing here leads to domestic strife. In Hindu mythology, Narada is a celestial who revels in creating misunderstandings

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.

At the Ganga Mahal ghat, I stumbled upon the Karlstad University! I later googled it and found it to be a bona fide Swedish institution, which has a local campus. The entrance is located at the rear of the palace, away from the ghats.

The imposing Chet Singh ghat

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.

The skyline at Dasaswamedh ghat is marred by hideous, ramshackle buildings; some of them look straight out of a slum.

Ganga Maiyya not only washes bodies and sins, she takes care of dirty laundry too

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.

Manikarnika then and now. I have juxtaposed a shot I took with a photograph shot in 1922 which I have sourced from the net. It was much cleaner 9 decades ago. The buildings built subsequently have not only congested the area but have also ruined the harmony of the architecture

 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 Alamgir Mosque looms high over the Panchaganga ghat. Built on the site of a demolished Krishna temple, its architecture mirrors the arrogance of the monarch responsible for its existence. It seems to disdainfully avert its face with barely disguised contempt for the ancient civilisation of the land, which the self-proclaimed conqueror of the world sought to annihilate

Numerous invaders came, ruled and left. All of them tried, in their own way, to superimpose their own ideas, their beliefs on the land they had conquered. Yet, in the end, they had to retreat, vanquished by a spiritual force that was beyond their comprehension. The all-knowing Ganga, unperturbed by such delusions of grandeur,  gently flows along these blessed ghats as she has been doing since the beginning of time.

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.

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude.

12 Comments

  • DL

    I went to kashi in march 2011 and i have not posted that in ghumakkar beacuse of my bad experience of people in kashi………………….

    What is written in scriptures is totally different what we see today Sir,,,,,,,,,,,,,

    i was very much blessed that i visited kashi , thanks to Mahadeva. Same time my experience was very bad…………………..

    Anyway your descriptions of ghats is excellent . i went walking from Dasashwamedh ghat to harishchandra ghat when i visited the city………………………

    Thanks and keep posting………….

  • Mahesh Semwal says:

    As always very detailed post equally supported with awesome pictures. I too heard that in some of the Ghats in Varanasi it never stops burning of corpses for many years. It’s our faith that a body ensures Moksha if it is cremated in Kashi.

    Keep traveling , keep sharing

  • D.L.Narayan says:

    Thanks, gentlemen, for your appreciation.

    Vishal, sorry about your negative experience in Kashi. The fact is that wherever tourists go, there will be cheats. One has to be extremely careful and do proper research before going anywhere. Ghumakkar is an excellent place to start researching because posters share their experiences, both good and bad, for the benefit of fellow ghumakkars. So, please do share your experience even if it wasn’t a very memorable one.

  • ashok sharma says:

    a beautiful place.but too much crowded.

  • VED PRAKASH says:

    nicely and extensively covered are the ghats of Ganga..
    hope u will continue posting ur stories with Ghumakkar…
    GANGA MAIYA… GANGA MAIYA ME JAB TAK KE PAANI RAHE….
    GHUMAKKAR PE AATI TUMHARI KAHANI RAHE…..
    Nice and informative post…
    toddler ved.

  • AUROJIT says:

    Hi DL,

    thanks for this detailed post on Kashi…your description remains lucid and elaborate.

    Interesting to note that no ghats on eastern bank (so logical yet I never knew about it). That Sweden University too.

    Westerners drawn by morbidity… I would say it is perhaps uniqueness…

    About the chaotic regimes, well it is unfortunately a typical scene in our religious places….perhaps that’s why we found visit to Golden temple gurudwara so refreshing…

    May be a collective awareness will improve things…

    Thanks, Auro.

  • D.L.Narayan says:

    Dear Ved, Ashok and Auro,

    Thanks a lot for reading the posts and sharing your insights.

    Auro, yes, our rites are unique and they appear exotic to western eyes. I used morbidity to describe the curiosity about funeral rites, since humans have a morbid fascination with death and everything associated with it. These feelings are normal since death is inevitable.

    As far as collective awareness improving things, I am sceptical. Without political will, nothing is possible. Present day politics is all about personal aggrandisement and devoid of altruistic public service.

    It feels so great to be a part of the ghumakkar community. I wonder why I didn’t stumble upon it earlier.

    DL

  • ashok salvi says:

    Excellent article and photographs. very informative too.

  • ram dhall says:

    Dear DL,

    You have posted yet another brilliant write up. The pictures are sharp and simply scintilating.

    The post creates an urge to visit this holy place.

    Thanks for sharing your wonderful experiences.

  • D.L.Narayan says:

    Thank you Ramji and Ashok for your kind words.

    Ashok, I know that you go on regular treks to places few have been to before. I also have seen the beautiful pictures you have shot and the informative write-ups that you have posted elsewhere. Please join this forum and post the details of your latest trek here; you will find a large, like-minded and appreciative audience here.

  • swetad says:

    ????? ????? ????? ?????? ???? ????,???????? ?? ??? ???? ???? ?? ?? ????? ????? ?? ???? ????? ????? ???? ????? ???? ????? ????? ?? ?? ??? ??? ?? ????? ?? ??? ??? ?
    ??? ?? ??????? ?? ???? ???? ????? ???? ?? ?? ???? ????? ?? ??? ????? ??? ????? ?? ??? ???????? ?? ??? ????? ??? ????? ??

    ???? ????? ?? ???? ?????? ?? ?? ?? ?? ?? ???????? ??? ?? ????? ??? ??????? ?? ???? ?????? ?? ?? ??? ??? …?? ??? ???? ?? ??????? ?? ?? ????? ???? ??? ? ???????

    • D.L.Narayan says:

      Since I am rather busy these days, I have requested Mr. Vishal Rathod to reply personally to you and I am sure that he has given you excellent advice and guidance.

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