Ghats of India, Part 4

GHAT-HOPPING IN VARANASI

There are an estimated 87 to 100 ghats in Varanasi. Most of these were built after 1700 A.D. when the city was part of the Maratha empire. Even now the patrons of the ghats are Marathas, such as the Shindes (Scindias), Holkars, Bhonsles and Peshwes (Peshwas). Many ghats are associated with mythological legends and many are privately owned.

The best view of all the ghats is from the river. An early morning boat ride on the Ganga across the ghats is a popular attraction for visitors. A highly recommended, although touristy thing to do, is to take a dawn boat-ride from Dashashwamedh Ghat to Harish Chandra Ghat.

Assi Ghat is where the Ganga meets Assi river. Located at the extreme southern end of the main ghats, it is not as crowded as some of the other ghats. It is important as pilgrims bathe there before worshipping the huge lingam of Lord Shiva under a nearby peepal tree. The shops and cafes attract tourists. Hotels at the ghat are popular among long-stay travellers. Dashashwamedh Ghat is a 30-minute walk along the ghats.

Chet Singh Ghat was the site of the 18th century battle between Maharaja Chet Singh and the British. An old fort marks the spot of his defeat.

Darbhanga Ghat has impressive architecture, featuring a palace built in the early 1900s by the royal family of Bihar.  Adjoining it is Munshi Ghat, constructed in 1912 by Sridhara Narayana Munshi, finance minister of the erstwhile Darbhanga State.

Dashashwamedh Ghat is one of the top attractions in Varanasi. Every evening the famed Ganga aarti is held here, one of the oldest and holiest ghats of Varanasi. From dawn till dusk a carnival of pilgrims, priests sheltering under thatched umbrellas, flower sellers hawking wares, goes on. It is so absorbing that one can sit and watch the melee for hours without getting bored.

Man Mandir Ghat is eye-catching and is named after Maharajah Man Singh of Jaipur who built his palace in 1600. Sawai Jai Singh II added an observatory in the 1730s. The astronomical instruments are in good condition.

Bhosale Ghat, a stone building with small artistic windows, was built by the Maratha ruling family of Nagpur.

Scindia Ghat is near Manikarnika Ghat and has a peaceful atmosphere. The partially submerged Shiva temple at the water’s edge had sunk during the ghat’s construction in 1830. Many of Varanasi’s important temples such as Vishwanath temple are located in the narrow maze of galis or alleyways above the ghat.

Manikarnika and Harish Chandra Ghats, also known as the burning ghats, are where the living bring bodies of their dead relatives for cremation as Hindus believe that when this is done in Varanasi the departed soul is liberated from the death-rebirth cycle. These ghats are perpetually covered in smoke and flames emanating from the burning wood. Encashing on the curiosity-quotient of outsiders are priests/guides who, for a charge, take them to the roof of a nearby building to dispassionately view the proceedings.

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