Benaras – Entrancing Ghats

Benaras had us engulfed in its quaint and historical charm despite all the negativities and oddities – the chaos, the crowd, the touts. The energy of the Spiritual Capital of India is hard to ignore. We found ourselves embracing and enjoying every bit of it as we blended into the surroundings with utmost ease.

Not surprising though. Every nook and corner has something that would capture your mind, something that you wouldn’t have seen anywhere before, something that’s exciting enough to thoroughly engage you – the seers and the sadhus, each one different from the other; the colourful boats some parked on the ghats, others ferrying scores of people through River Ganges; the curious tourists trying to make sense of the surroundings; the vibrant ghats exuding stories everywhere; the crowded and narrow alleyways with houses, lodges, temples, shops, restaurants, people, cows, dogs, bikes, and what not; the paan shops and the sweet shops; the list is endless.

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Pic 1: Somewhere in Daseshwamedh Ghat just before going on another boat ride.

The three of us had decided unanimously that we wanted to walk the length of the ghats. There are 88 ghats and we were told they cover a distance of about 12 Km. I am not too sure of the distance though.

We walked from Daseshwamedh right up to Assi Ghat, which happens to be the last ghat at one end. Then, we retraced our path and went right up to Panchaganga Ghat towards the other end. Our guess is we would have covered about 70 ghats. We would have continued beyond Panchaganga had we not run out of time. We didn’t want to miss the evening aarti at Daseshwamedh Ghat, though it wasn’t the first time we would be watching it. Also, we walked leisurely aiming to experience the ghats rather than to rush and cover them all.

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Pic 2: The only time we got a glimpse of the Sun in the four days we were there.

Here’s an account of the ghats that touched us a little more than the others:

Daseshwamedh Ghat

This is the oldest ghat and considered to be the most important one. It’s also the busiest and one cannot escape its vibrancy and liveliness. The famous Ganga Aarti (Ganga River worship ceremony) is staged on this ghat every evening. Ironically, this overcrowded busy ghat attracted us the most, all because of its energetic surroundings. Persistent boat owners, flower sellers, pujaris, pilgrims, tourists, sadhus, temples, tiny shops, massage practitioners, touts of all kinds – Daseshwamedh had it all. One can just sit on the steps and spend an entire day simply watching people and their activities.

The Story Behind: Lord Brahma is said to have sacrificed 10 horses at this place. (Medh meaning sacrifice; Das meaning ten; and Aswa meaning horse) 

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Pic 3: The busy Daseshwamedh Ghat.
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Pic 4: Devotees & pilgrims bathe in River Ganga at Daseshwamedh Ghat notwithstanding the cold weather while migratory birds play around.
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Pic 5: Seen at Daseshwamedh Ghat – someone cared enough.
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Pic 6: A pujari all set while waiting for pilgrims at Daseshwamedh Ghat.
Chet Singh Ghat

It is the Chet Singh fort on this ghat that attracted us the most besides the fact that it was a relatively quieter ghat. Nothing much was happening here.

The Story Behind: The name of this ghat is derived from the Palace of Raja Chet Singh, the illegitimate son of Balwant Singh, the first Maharaja of Banaras. This ghat witnessed a fierce battle between the troops of Warren Hastings and Chet Singh in 1781.

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Pic 7: Chet Singh fort at Chet Singh ghat.
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Pic 8: A view of Chet Singh ghat.
Mahanirvani Ghat

The quietude of this ghat is what appealed to us most. The fortified Akhara situated here also made it quite intriguing.

The Story Behind: Named after the Mahanirvani sect of Naga Sadhus, this ghat houses their famous Akhara as well. This Ghat also has four small Shiva Temple, said to have been made by Nepal’s Maharaja.

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Pic 8: The emptiness at Mahanirvani Ghat.
Panchaganga Ghat

We visited this ghat thrice in our attempt to visit Trailanga Swami’s Ashram, which wasn’t happening for some reason or the other. A yogi and mystic, famed for his spiritual powers, Trailanga Swami is one of the 54 foremost saints of India. The great saint, Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, referred to him as “The walking Shiva of Varanasi”.

The Story Behind: Panchaganga Ghat (Pancha means five) is supposed to be the meeting point of five rivers – Ganga, Dhutapapa, Kiran, Nadi, Saraswati, and Yamuna – but only Ganga is visible.

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Pic 9: Approaching Panchaganga Ghat, as seen from the boat.
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Pic 10: Panchaganga Ghat that had this nice wall art.
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Pic 11: Somewhere near Panchaganga Ghat
Mainkarnika Ghat

The feeling of heaviness is what we associated with this ghat. This is the burning ghat, where dead bodies are cremated. This ghat is considered to be an auspicious place for Hindu cremation. Pyres burn non-stop here. There were about five pyres burning when we were there. The overpowering smoke rising from the pyres made it difficult to stand here for long.

“Would it be appropriate to call this Death Tourism along the lines of Adventure Tourism or Medical Tourism?” we wondered.

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Pic 12: The burning pyres and their rising smoke.

The huge piles of firewood stacked along the ghat made us depressed, thinking about all the trees that have been chopped off. The three of us agreed in one voice that given a chance, we would like to be cremated in Manikarnika Ghat because of all the mythology associated with it, but in electric pyres.

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Pic 13: Another view of Manikarnika as seen from the boat.

The Story Behind: It is a belief in Hinduism that cremation in Manikarnika Ghat leads to moksha (complete liberation from the cycle of birth and death). There are a couple of legends about this ghat and almost all are associated with Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva.

  • One talks about Lord Vishnu digging a pit with his Chakra, the pit gets filled with his perspiration, and Lord Shiva’s earring falls in the pit while watching Lord Vishnu in action. (Mani means jewel in the earring and Karnam means ear).
  • Another talks about Goddess Parvati hiding her earring and asking Lord Shiva to look for it in the hope that the Lord would remain near her forever searching for the lost earring.
  • Yet another, says that Manikarnika is a Shakti Peeth and Sati Devi’s earing had fallen here.
  • Some sources also say that Manikarnik Ghat is named after the Rani of Jhansi, Laxmibhai.
Harishchandra Ghat

This is the only other ghat that is dedicated to cremation rituals. There was a pyre burning in this ghat while another dead body arrived on a bamboo stretcher draped in shining yellow and red sheets of cloth amidst chants of ‘Ram naam satya hai’ (Truth is the name of Lord Rama.)

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Pic 14: The pyre at Harishchandra Ghat.

The Story Behind: Like Manikarnika, bodies cremated here are believed to attain moksha. This ghat is named after the mythical King Harishchandra, who worked at the cremation grounds for the establishment of truth and justice. Rishi Vishwamitra, a sage, asked the king to pay him a ritual fee. The king, known for his generosity gave up his entire kingdom, wealth, and riches but the sage was still not satisfied. Dejected, the king made his way to Kashi. Here he sold his wife and son into slavery and offered himself up for bondage. Years later his wife visited the cremation ground with their son’s dead body who had died from a snake bite. This was supposed to have been the final test for the King. The Gods rewarded him for his honesty, strength, and courage by giving back his throne, kingdom, and son.

Author: neelstoria

Traveling, Gardening, Trekking, Hiking, Storytelling, Writing, Nature, Outdoors, Yoga, DIY

18 thoughts on “Benaras – Entrancing Ghats”

  1. Thanks for descriptive post on ghats of Varanasi. I have heard few names but never got into details. I am hoping I get to visit this town someday. Looks like it was quite cold when you visited Varanasi.

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    1. I think you’ll enjoy Varanasi. It’s a photographer’s delight. I also had no idea that there are so many ghats even before going. It was really very cold. The temperature during the day was 5-6 degrees centigrade. We never got to see the sun, except a tiny glimpse one afternoon.

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  2. That’s such an informative piece of work! I have not been to Varanasi and never knew there were so many ghats there. The details of each ghat make it so much more interesting – as I scrolled down reading, I wished it would never end. Thanks for sharing all this knowledge.

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    1. The ghats and the legends associated with each one is very intriguing. Each one has a story or a history associated with it. Even I had no clue that there were so many ghats till I was actually there. Besides the puja activities and Ganga Aarti and all that in the various ghats, we were told that Assi ghat has Kathak performances every evening. We had planned to be there one evening but it didn’t happen for some reasons. Many people told us 2 days was more than enough for Varanasi and that we would have nothing much to do for four days. On the contrary, we were short of time and wished we had more.

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    1. Manikarnika is indeed the most intriguing one. The vibes are totally different from the other ghats. I just saw that you have posted write ups on your Manasalu trek. Have been looking forward to reading those. Surely you would have had a wonderful trip.

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  3. Echoing many of the others’ thanks. I really loved the explanations and stories relating to the ghats. I did this walk in a couple of different pieces (to Assi ghat one day, then in the other direction on a different one). It is a great way to see a beautiful city. In my case I walked down to Assi ghat and then meandered through the lanes on the way back. I’d love to do it again.

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    1. Thank you, Todd. I also loved walking the lanes and ghats there. There’s so much that catches your imagination and the best way to experience those is to walk around. I vaguely remember your Varanasi posts, you did talk about your walks. Will have to go back and read again.

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  4. Wow I never read such details about the ghats anywhere. It is not only enriching but also make me realize that how fortunate we were to visit these ghats. Thanks for sharing details with us. I will certainly carry your write up during my next trip to Varanasi to add more value to my trip.

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