Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Varanasi is a city of tens of thousands of temples, but it is religiously defined more than anything by its fabled ghats. These giant, wide stone stairways which descend from the city to the banks of the Ganges River provide access for millions of pilgrims to pay homage to and bathe in the holy river every year. While ghats can be found in many cities throughout India, especially along the Ganges, nowhere is it a bigger part of ritualistic life than in Varanasi. At latest count, there are almost ninety of the magnificent sacred structures.
Before there was the city of Varanasi, there was the ancient Ganges River. Stretching across the entire subcontinent from the Himalayas in the northwest to the Bay of Bengal in the east, it is India’s definitive geographic feature. It is quite possible that the earliest tribes of humans to cross eastward across Asia followed the Ganges. As far as is known, the river has been considered sacred since the dim mists of antiquity.
The city of Varanasi grew up close to the midpoint of the river’s long route from the mountains to the sea. Closely associated with the legends of Shiva, the Ganges River here has been a pilgrimage destination for perhaps as many as four thousand years. Throughout that time, pilgrims have come to the Ganges River here. At some point, the tradition grew up that to die at this point along the Ganges would guaranty release from the eternal cycle of life.
Because of this, Varanasi has become a sacred city of the dying and the dead, and many Hindus travel here towards the end of their lives in order to die. In order to accommodate the countless numbers of deathseekers and their loved ones, giant structures known as ghats grew up along the river. These ghats are now busy year-round, filled with the dying, the dead, funerary processions and cremation ceremonies.
Visiting the ghats has since become one of the world’s great pilgrimages, and most Hindus endeavor to travel there at least once in their lives. To descend a ghat and bathe in the river here is considered by many Hindus to be the penultimate religious experience. With all of the many amazing ghats lining the riverbank, the most important and popular ones are the Dasashwamedh Ghat, the Man Mandir Ghat, the Lalita Ghat and the Manikarnika Ghat.
Pilgrims to Varanasi visit many different ghats for many different reasons, but almost all of them come to Dashashwamedh Ghat. Also known as the ‘main’ ghat, Dashashwamedh swarms with visitors at all times of the day. Closely associated with two legendary connected to the deity Brahma, this massive staircase hosts daily worship services every evening. There are two important shrines at this ghat: the Brahmeshwar, dedicated to Brahma; and the Shitala Temple, dedicated to the Goddes Shitala.
The three next most important and popular ghats, Manikarnika, Mana-Mandir and Lalita are clustered relatively close together towards the center of the long riverfront. The Manikarnika Ghat is considered the holiest ghat in Varanasi, and is the site of many cremations. A footprint attributed to Vishnu can be found here. The Lalita Ghat and Mana-Mandir Ghat are home to a number of important temples, notably the Vishalakshi Temple.
All of Varanasi’s ghats are located along the Ganges River. The Dasashwamedh Ghat is located close to the apex of the bend in the river near the city center. The Manikarnika, Mana-Mandir and Lalita Ghats are located about a mile to the north. All ghats are open sites. Web: www.up-tourism.com/varanasi (official tourism website of Varanasi).
There are eighty-seven recognized ghats in Varanasi. In addition to the above four, some of the other major and more popular ghats include the Assi Ghat, the Chowki Ghat, the Harischandra Ghat, the Kedar Ghat, Sankata Ghat, Scindia Ghat and Tulsi Ghat.