Ganga river and its ghats are the lifelines of Varanasi.
What are Ghats?
Ghats are the steps leading to the riverfront of Ganga. There are so many things happening on the Ghats of Varanasi, I can spend days here and still not get bored.
There are 88 ghats according to the official count. These ghats were made in different centuries and each ghat has a story behind its name. Almost all except for Manikarnika and Harish Chander ghats, all ghats are used for taking holy bath in Ganga river. Some ghats are more popular than others and used for different purposes according to the story or myth associated with them.
Ghats are connected with each other and it is possible to walk along Ganga on the ghats. Ghats of Varanasi start from Assi ghat goes till Raj Ghat on the other end. A walk on ghats gave me an opportunity to see things up close. When I went for my boat rides in Ganga river, the same ghats looked so different.
Boat rides in Ganga River
I loved my sunrise as well as sunset boat rides. For morning boat ride I reached Ghat 30 minutes before the sunrise. Our hostel has a tie-up with a boatman and he came to pick us up and we walked to Ganga through small dark alleyways. The time of sunrise and sunset boat rides depends upon the sun and keeps changing.
I booked a sunset boat ride, this starts before sunset and also stops at Dashashwamedh Ghat to show evening aarti. It is better to reconfirm with boatman that he will stop for aarti because sometimes they don’t stop and just do a round trip.
The flow of Ganga is very slow near the ghats. I enjoyed it a lot and even went to Ramnagar fort by boat, it was a long ride from ghats.
A brief about some of the Important Ghats of Varanasi
The ghats of Varanasi were not built at the same time, they were built by kings and nobles from all over India over the centuries. Every ghat is different from another Ghat in terms of architecture and size. Here is my list of some of the must-visit ghats of Varanasi with a brief history.
This Ghat is made at the confluence of river Ganga and river Assi (Also known as Asi). According to the mythological belief, this is the place where goddess Durga threw her sword after destroying the demon Shumbha-Nishumbha. Assi ghat is renovated in last few years and now one of the main ghats for people coming from all over the world. Every morning Ganga Aarti is performed here and approximately 200-300 people attend it. The morning Ganga Aarti is not grand as the evening aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat.
Ganga Mahal Ghat
This ghat was constructed as an extension of Assi Ghat. The stone steps separate Assi Ghat from Ganga Mahal Ghat. This ghat is popular among scholars because Ganga palace house a design studio and Indo Swedish study centers.
This ghat was built by Sridhara Narayana Munshi, who was the finance minister of Nagpur estate. The ghat was named Munshi after his name. Munshi ghat is one of the grandest ghats of Varanasi with a palatial palace. The palace is made of sandstone with beautiful porches, balconies, and pillars. In 1915 Munshi Ghat was bought by the king of the Darbhanga. He further developed the ghat and named it Darbhanga Ghat.
In 1994 the palace was bought by the Clarks group of Hotel Group and named it as Brijrama Palace. They demolished a part of the palace to convert it into the new modern hotel but further demolition of the palace was stopped after some organization protested and went to the Indian court. Now, this is developed as a heritage hotel on the banks of Ganga river.
The Jain ghat was earlier the part of Vaccharaja Ghat, in early 20th century Babu Shekhar Chanda had separated a part of Ghat and given it to Jain monks. The 7th Jain Tirthankara Suparshvanatha was born near this ghat and hence it was named Jain Ghat. A temple of Surapshvanath was built here in 1885.
Jain ghat renovated and reconstructed in 1988 by Uttar Pradesh government’s irrigation department. Most of the boatsman live on or near this ghat. Jain ghat can be identified from distance due to a huge red swastika painted on its stairs.
This ghat is considered as auspicious as Kedarnath dham. The water of Gauri Kund at the ghat is believed to have healing properties. This is one of the most popular bathing ghats of Varanasi.
There is a temple of Sringeri Sharada Peetham at the top of the steps and it is very popular among the people from south of India.
Harish Chandra Ghat
This ghat is considered the oldest among the Ghats of Varanasi. The Ghat was named after the King Harish Chandra, who some consider a real character and some believe he was a mythological character.
The story is that Harish Chander was a very charitable king. It is believed that he donated his kingdom to God who visited him in disguise of a sadhu to check his charities. He left penniless and worked as a slave performing cremation on this ghat. He remained true and kept his word of charity even when his small son died in a difficult situation. Finally, God returned him his kingdom and reanimated his son as he sticks to the truth.
Harish Chandra Ghat is considered as original creation Ghat. Even today it is used for cremation though only a few cremations take place here. It is also referred as Adi Manikarnika means the original creation ground. The government had made an electric crematorium on this ghat but due to religious believes very few people use it for last rites.
According to Hindu mythology, a person will get “Moksha” (Salvation) if his/her last rites performed here.
Chet Singh Ghat
It was the fortified Ghat of Varanasi. The ghat was named after Chet Singh who fought here with English troops of Warren Hasting in 1781. The ghat remained in British control for many years and king Prabhu Narayan Singh took the fort and ghat from British in 19th-century.
The original Chet Singh ghat is now divided into 4 parts and known as Cheta Singh Ghat, Niranjani Ghat, Nirvani Ghat and Shivala Ghat. The famous Budhwa Mangal festival is celebrated here for seven days.
Dhobi Ghat or Babua Panday Ghat
This ghat is where most washermen wash and dry the clothes on banks of river Ganga. (Dhobi means washerman, hence the name Dhobi Ghat)
It is also known as Babua Panday Ghat after the wrestling place opened by Babua Pande at this Ghat. There is always someone washing the clothes on this ghat of river Ganga and can be easily identified by the clothes drying on Ghat.
It is is the most popular and spectacular ghat of Varanasi. It is located close to Kashi Vishwanath Temple and that is why it important religiously.
According to Hindu mythology, Lord Brahma sacrificed ten horses on this ghat during “Ashwamedha Yajna”. “Das” means ten and sacrifice were done for Ashwamedha Yajna hence the name Dashashwamedh Ghat.
Every evening a group of priests performs a special pooja known as evening aarti. This aarti ritual is dedicated to Lord Shiva and river Ganga. This elaborate ceremonious aarti like many other Hindu “poojas” is also dedicated to Prithvi (Land), Jal (Water) and Aakash (Whole universe). The aarti is the most viewed activity in Varanasi. People come much before the aarti starts and sit on Ghat. There is a proper sitting arrangement for people. This Aarti is a 45 minutes ritual and must watch when in Varanasi. I went for the aarti twice and once I saw it from the boat, other time I saw at the ghat.
On special occasions & festivals, the ghats get crowded and lots of boats line up in the river in front of Dashashwamedh Ghat.
Rajendra Prasad Ghat
Earlier it was part of the Dashashvamedha Ghat. Later on, in memory of the first president of India a part of it was named Rajendra Prasad ghat. There are shrines of Durga, Rama Pancayatana, and Shiva in the vicinity of this ghat. This ghat is not very popular among tourist or bathers.
Mansarovar Ghat and Manmandir Ghat
This Ghat was built by Raja Man Singh of Amber, Jaipur. He also made a pool near the ghat called Mansarovar Kund. The water of Kund is considered equal to the water of Lake Mansarovar in Tibet and considered auspicious for bathing. This ghat was renovated after several times and due to this now the Kund on ghat become very small and it is like well.
The Kumaraswamy Matt from south of India bought the upper part of Ghat and constructed rest houses for pilgrims.
Manmandir Ghat was also made by Maharaja Man Singh. The palace on the ghat has beautiful carved windows and balconies. In 18th Centuary Raja Sawai Jai Singh made an observatory on the top of the palace, which is popularly known as Jantar Mantar. The instruments used here were used for studying the movement of planets, sun, and moon.
The Ghat was named after Scindias kings who built this ghat. The ghat borders the Manikarnika Ghat. The Shiva temple on this ghat is lying partially submerged in the Ganges River due to the excessive weight of the construction material used to built this ghat. According to Hindu mythology Agni, the God of Fire was born here.
According to the mythology the earing of Goddess Sati fallen on this ghat when Lord Shiva was carrying her burning body. (Mani+Karnika, means earing)
The story is that Sati’s (Lord Shiva’s first wife) father Daksh Prajapati humiliated her husband Lord Shiva in a Yagna. Then Goddess Sati got very annoyed with her father and jumped into the holy fire of Yagna to destroy his Yajna. She sacrificed her life. When Lord Shiva came to know about his wife, he beheaded Daksh in anger and carried the burning body of his wife in sorrow. To see his unending sorrow, Lord Vishnu cut Sati’s body into 51 parts with the help of “Chakra”. A Shaktipeeth is established where ever her body parts fallen. This place is also considered sacred as Sati’s earing fallen here.
The cremation grounds are considered impure in India and are typically located outside of the city. Here, the cremation ground of Manikarnika Ghat is set in the heart of the city. This tells about the special significance given to cremation here.
It is believed that Manikarnika ghat was given boon by Lord Shiva and Vishnu. If a person is cremated here after death then he/she will attain moksha and soul will achieve nirvana.
On an average 80 people are cremated here every day. The cast system is followed very strongly here and people from different castes are cremated in different parts of Manikarnika Ghat.
I also saw 2-3 bodies cremating on the other side of the Ganga river. My boatman told that the cremation at Manikarna Ghat and Harish Chander Ghat is expensive that’s why poor people cremate bodies on another side.
During the boat ride, my boatman told us many stories associated with different ghats.
When I was going to Ramgarh fort by boat, I noticed that 2-3 people immersing a bundle in the middle of the river. It looked little unusual and when I asked my boatman he told me that they are immersing the body of an infant because a small child can’t be cremated like adults.
Later on, when I checked further with the local people about this. I came to know that according to Hindu traditions Infants, people who die due to snake bite, Sadhus (Holyman), people die with skin disease like smallpox/chickenpox, and prostitutes are immersed in water instead of cremation. They usually tie a heavy stone with the body and drop it in the middle of the river. Unfortunately, this is one of the main reasons of pollution in river Ganga in Varanasi. The government has banned the immersion of bodies in the river but still, people do this due to strong religious beliefs.
I went to Ramgarh Fort by boat, one to avoid the noisy traffic on roads and secondly, I enjoy boat rides. I traveled by a small boat which can accommodate only 2 people and boatman rowed it by hand. We started from the Jain ghat and rowed against the current to Ramgarh fort.
The fort is approx 3 km across the river. On the way, I saw birds and small fishes which were jumping on the water in groups. There is a ghat near fort but it is not “Pucca” Ghat like main ghats of Varanasi but on special festive occasions, this ghat also remains busy like all other ghats of Varanasi.
Check my experience of Dev Deepawali in Varanasi
While boating in Ganga river, I saw the wastewater from city dropping in it and polluting it. Devotees take bath in this dirty water due to religious beliefs. I hope and wish that the Ganga river should get clean.
According to me the experience to world’s oldest city Varanasi is incomplete without exploring Ganga and its Ghats.
Do visit Sarnath when in Varanasi. Here is detailed information about Sarnath.