Varanasi, the oldest living city in the world is synonymous with temples and ghats on the banks of the river Ganga. They extend across the length of the city between the two confluences that define the limits of the city of Varanasi. In the north, river Varuna merges with Ganga and in the south river, Assi merges with it.
Between these two holy sangams lie the ardhchandrakar or half-moon-shaped ghats leading the city and its innumerable pilgrims to the sacred Ganga. There are 84 or so ghats in all. You can walk all of them from north to south or south to north measuring 6.2 km. You may have to go up and down the steep steps that they are well known for.
Each of these ghats of Varanasi has a story to tell. Their names give away these associations mostly, but then that would just be scratching the surface. These ghats have changed hands as they went from one kingdom to another or to an ascetic or saint. Like living spaces, they have changed shapes, forms, sizes, and names.
My first memory of ghats is during my childhood when I lived in the city. We used to descend the steps, take a boat, feed the fish, and go to the other end and visit the Ramnagar Fort. Now, every time I visit Kashi, I walk on the ghats and talk to the boats and boatmen like one talks to childhood friends.
Ghats are the beautiful riverfront with steep steps joining the city and the river. The river water may go up and down with rain, and you can take as many steps as needed to touch the sacred Ganga.
Most sacred rivers have ghats on their banks to facilitate easy reach. There are beautiful ghats on Narmada by Maheshwar or Yamuna at Mathura.
What makes Ganga special at Varanasi is that it flows northwards here, while in general, it flows southwards. A popular saying goes that ‘Kashi Mein To Ganga Bhi Ulti Behati hai’ meaning in Kashi, even the Ganga flows in the reverse direction. In Sanskrit it is called Uttarvahini – the one who moves northwards, looking back at its origin before it merges with the sea.
Crescent-shaped ghats lined with temples make it look like a giant amphitheater circling the Ganga. They have water on one side, temple shikharas, palaces, and ashrams on the other, connected by steep steps.
The Ghats of Varanasi are its cultural nerve center.
Boating is a popular activity in Varanasi. My favorite boat ride is at sunrise when the first rays of the Sun fall on the ghats and the temples lining them. On one side the sunrays make the waters of Ganga golden, on the other side temple bells and chants fill the air with sacredness. It is an experience worth getting up to before sunrise. You can also shop on boats.
Walking on ghats is like conversing with the Ganga, with Kashi and the universal energy that descends here. You can meet fellow pilgrims from around the world and talk to Sadhus who are here to do Sadhana or just as pilgrims. You never know who you meet. For me, it has always been a learning experience.
The walls of the ghats are painted with scenes, cartoons, verses from scriptures, and graffiti. They create a curious combination of spirituality as well as a bohemian vibe. It is a city that can hold the opposites on its ghats with absolute ease.
At Assi ghat, you can take part in morning yoga, perform yagna if you have taken bath, and attend some cultural programs. You must get up early and reach the ghats to enjoy this.
Ganga Arti is the biggest attraction of the ghats of Ganga in Varanasi. Earlier, it used to happen on Dashashwamedha Ghat but now it happens on many ghats like Assi ghat. Dashashwamedha itself has multiple Artis taking place. It is a spectacle that you have to experience to know.
Well, this is what most people came to Kashi for, so do perform the Puja for your ancestors or for yourself.
Let me take you to the ghats.
Situated bang in the middle of the crescent-shaped ghats, with the main road of Varanasi leading to it, it is the most popular ghat of Varanasi. It gets its name from the 10 Ashwamedha Yagnas that Brahma ji performed here for Divodasa, the king of Kashi. A temple called Brahmeshwara commemorates this. At some time in history, this was also the place where horses were traded. There used to be a Murti of a horse that is lost now.
In the modern days, it is popular both due to easy access, closeness to Kashi Vishwanath and Annapurna temples, and most importantly for Ganga Arti. You can also see the Kashi Pandits with their cane umbrellas helping pilgrims with various rituals. They also guide you to the temples close by, especially during the Arti times.
This southernmost ghat is situated at the confluence of the Assi and Ganga Rivers, duly marked by the presence of Sangameshwar Mahadev temple. It used to be a Kachha ghat, but recently it has been made Pucca. This is where the Subah-e-Banaras program takes place every morning and yagna is performed at the yagna shala. Evening Ganga Arti is also performed.
Assi ghat is famous for its eateries and bookstores. I love the roasted Dana that you get here in the evenings as well as the Pizza served at the rooftop restaurants. Pilgrim’s book store is a delight for book lovers, especially for books about the city.
Right next to it is Ganga Mahal Ghat which belongs to the royal family of Kashi.
Panchganga ghat is believed to be the meeting point of five rivers – Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Kiran, and Dhutapapa. Of these only Ganga is visible and the rest are assumed to be present but not visible to the human eye. This ancient ghat is mentioned in the Kashi Khand of Skanda Puran. I remember this ghat for Kabir, who met his Guru Ramananda on the steps of this ghat one morning. Tulsidas ji also wrote his Vinay Patrika at this ghat. You can see the murals telling you the long history of this ghat.
Named after Goswami Tulsidas who gave us Ramcharitmanas and Hanuman Chalisa, part of which he wrote right here. You can see his house overlooking the Ganga River – a truly relaxing place to sit, meditate and write.
Close to it is Tulsi Akhara where you can see the pahalwans or wrestlers doing their practice.
Cultural aspects of this ghat include Ramlila, Sankat Mochan Temple close by, and Dhrupad Mela.
Close to Tulsi ghat is Bhadaini Ghat known for Lolark Kund and the temples of Chamunda and Mahishasurmardini.
Kashi is believed to be sitting on the Trishul or trident of Shiva. Three temples representing the three tips are Kedareshwar, Vishveshwar or Kashi Vishwanath, and Omkareshwar. Of these Kedareshwar is located closest to the Ganga River, right on its banks. No wonder then it lends its name to the ghat. It is one of the important temples of Kashi mentioned in Kashi Khand of Skanda Puran.
Archaeological and literary evidence suggests that Varanasi used to live around this ghat initially. The southern parts of the city were Anand Kanan – the forest of Shiva. Over time, the city expanded and grew along the ghats till Assi ghat and even beyond. Today Raj Ghat almost defines the northern limits of the ghats marked by the Malviya bridge across the Ganga.
Once upon a time cows used to come to drink water on this ghat. I remember visiting it for Mukhnirmalika Gauri and for the famous Gulabi Minakari of Varanasi.
This is one of the two burning ghats, the more famous one nowadays. It gets its name from the Manikarnika Kund located here which is believed to pre-date the Ganga in Varanasi.
The story goes that the earring of Parvati fell here creating this pond and hence the name Manikarnika. Vishnu performed Tapas here. Shiva is believed to give Taraka mantra to the people dying here that liberates them from the cycle of birth and death. Located almost in the middle of the ghats of Varanasi, you can not miss this ancient ghat.
This is the older of the two burning ghats of Kashi and hence is also called Adi Manikarnika. Ghat gets its name from the King Harishchandra of Ayodhya who was known for always speaking the truth and for keeping his words at any cost. As per his story, he worked here at this cremation ghat as a Dome, after selling his wife and son to pay what was demanded by Rishi Vishwamitra. This story dates back to before Sri Ram’s time and probably in Treta Yuga, making this ghat ancient at least. Burning Pyres can be seen at any time here, especially from the boat ride.
The Temple of Vriddh Kedara is located on this ghat.
Royal families from across India used to visit Kashi and own a piece of it, most preferably on the ghats to be close to Ganga. Let’s visit some of the royal ghats of Varanasi.
Venue of the laser show during Dev Deepawali, this fort palace on the ghat has seen a battle between Chet Singh, the king of Kashi, and British Warren Hastings in late 18th CE. This and adjoining Prabhu Ghat are now with Kashi royal family.
This is one of the most beautiful ghats built by Sawai Man Singh of Jaipur. Of the 5 observatories called Jantar Mantar he built, one is located here on this ghat. I am told that the museum here offers a wonderful experience of the eternal city of Kashi.
Built by the kings of Nepal, has a lovely temple in wood in the typical Kathmandu valley style.
Built by the Scindias of Gwalior.
By Peshwas of Maharashtra.
By Panchkota estate of Bengal, has a small royal palace.
Belongs to the Mysore estate and has a temple dedicated to Sati.
Renovated by the Vijayanagaram kings of South India, this ghat was home to Karpatri ji Maharaj who lived in his Karpatri Ashram.
Has a palace of Ranas of Udaipur built in typical Rajasthani style
The palace on this ghat is now a popular luxury hotel overlooking the Ganga. I have been to this hotel and it is beautiful inside with a lovely view of the Ganga as well as the ghats.
Initially known as Kevalagiri, this ghat along with many others was renovated by the Malwa queen Ahilya Bai Holkar. She was also responsible for the renovation of the Kashi Vishwanath temple and Manikarnika Ghat in the late 18th CE. This ghat also has a palace where I assume the royal family would have stayed when they visited Kashi.
Named after Lalita Gauri, one of the nine Gauri temples that exist in the city of Kashi.
This ghat belongs to 64 Yoginis, whose temple is close by.
Also known as Varahi ghat due to the mighty Adi Varahi temple close by.
Named after the famous Sankata Devi temple here, surrounded by temples of Siddhidatri, Yameshwara, and Yamaditya.
Named after Mangala Gauri and Mangala Vinayaka temples.
Built by the queen of Sursand or Sitamarhi, has a temple dedicated to Sita and is hence called Janaki Ghat.
Has a temple of Hanuman and Navagrahas. Another ghat next to it called Old Hanuman ghat has Shivalingas built by Sri Ram, and his three brothers, Sita and Hanuman.
Named after a Shivalinga that was established by Narada and later a Dattatreya Math was established here.
Has a temple of Shitala Mata and is located close to the more famous Dashashwamedha ghat.
Earlier known as Vighneshwara ghat, it was named after the Ganesha temple built by the Peshwas.
Named after the Ram Panchayatan temple here.
Named after the famous Bindu Madhav temple here, which was the biggest Vishnu temple. It was demolished by Aurangzeb and a mosque stands in its place. The temple exists in a lane next to it.
Located close to Brahmacharini temple is part of Navadurga Yatra in Kashi.
Named after the Brahmenshwar temple, this is the second ghat associated with Brahma Ji. It also has the Kashi Mutt of Gaud Saraswat Brahmins.
Named after the Badrinath of Garhwal hills.
After the Nandi, vahana of Shiva.
Gets its name from the Shiva Temple here.
After the great devotee of Vishnu, this is an ancient ghat.
The northernmost ghat is dedicated to Vishnu and is mentioned in Skanda Purana.
Originally called Imaliya ghat, it came to be known as Anandmayi Ghat as Mata Anandmayi purchased it and built her ashram here.
Gets its name from Niranjani Akhara located close by and has a temple of Kartikeya.
Comes from Maha Nirvani Akhara of Dashnami Naga Sadhus. The place is associated with Kapil Muni too.
Named after Lali baba of Champaran it has his Gudaradas Akhara.
7th Jain Tirthankar Suparshavanath Ji was born in Varanasi, probably close to this ghat. A Shwetambar Jain temple is located here and gives the ghat its name.
This is the boatsmen ghat with a temple dedicated to Nishadraja – the boatsman who was also a king and an important character in Ramayana.
Tirtharaj Prayag is present here at this ghat. There is a tradition of all major Tirthas having their presence in other Tirthas. So, this is where Prayag is in Kashi.
Named after the first president of India.
Built by a rich merchant, now belongs to the Birla family.
You can spend a lifetime exploring the ghats here. It is like experiencing the microcosm of the universe.