Spiritually enlightening and fantastically photogenic, Varanasi is at its brilliant best by the ghats, the long stretch of steps leading down to the water on the western bank of the Ganges. Most are used for bathing but there are also several ‘burning ghats’ where bodies are cremated in public. The main one is Manikarnika: you’ll often see funeral processions threading their way through the backstreets to this ghat. The best time to visit the ghats is at dawn when the river is bathed in a mellow light as pilgrims come to perform puja to the rising sun, and at sunset when the main ganga aarti (river worship ceremony) takes place at Dashashwamedh Ghat.
About 80 ghats border the river, but the main group extends from Assi Ghat, near the university, northwards to Raj Ghat, near the road and rail bridge.
A boat trip along the river provides the perfect introduction, although for most of the year the water level is low enough for you to walk freely along the whole length of the ghats. It’s a world-class ‘people-watching’ stroll as you mingle with the fascinating mixture of people who come to the Ganges not only for a ritual bath but also to wash clothes, do yoga, offer blessings, sell flowers, get a massage, play cricket, wash their buffaloes, improve their karma by giving to beggars or simply hang around.
Assi Ghat , the furthest south of the main ghats, and one of the biggest, is particularly important as the River Assi meets the Ganges near here and pilgrims come to worship a Shiva lingam (phallic image of Shiva) beneath a peepul tree. Evenings are particularly lively, as the ghat’s vast concreted area fills up with hawkers and entertainers. It’s a popular starting point for boat trips and there are some excellent hotels here.
Nearby Tulsi Ghat , named after a 16th-century Hindu poet, has fallen down towards the river but in the month of Kartika (October/November) a festival devoted to Krishna is celebrated here. Next along, Bachraj Ghat has three Jain temples. A small Shiva temple and a 19th-century mansion built by Nepali royalty sit back from Shivala Ghat , built by the local maharaja of Benares. The Dandi Ghat is used by ascetics known as Dandi Panths, and nearby is the very popular Hanuman Ghat .
Harishchandra Ghat is a cremation ghat – smaller and secondary in importance to Manikarnika, but one of the oldest ghats in Varanasi. Above it, Kedar Ghat has a shrine popular with Bengalis and South Indians.
Old City Stretch
Varanasi’s liveliest and most colourful ghat is Dashashwamedh Ghat , easily reached at the end of the main road from Godaulia Crossing . The name indicates that Brahma sacrificed (medh) 10 (das) horses (aswa) here. In spite of the oppressive boat owners, flower sellers and touts trying to drag you off to a silk shop, it’s a wonderful place to linger and people-watch while soaking up the atmosphere. Every evening at 7pm an elaborate ganga aarti ceremony with puja , fire and dance is staged here.
Just south of here is Someswar Ghat (Lord of the Moon Ghat), said to be able to heal diseases. The Munshi Ghat is very photogenic, while Ahalya Bai’s Ghat is named after the female Maratha ruler of Indore.
Just north of Dashashwamedh Ghat, Raja Man Singh’s Man Mandir Ghat was built in 1600, but was poorly restored in the 19th century. The northern corner of the ghat has a fine stone balcony.
Manikarnika Ghat , the main burning ghat, is the most auspicious place for a Hindu to be cremated. Dead bodies are handled by outcasts known as doms , and are carried through the alleyways of the old city to the holy Ganges on a bamboo stretcher swathed in cloth. The corpse is doused in the Ganges prior to cremation. Huge piles of firewood are stacked along the top of the ghat; every log is carefully weighed on giant scales so that the price of cremation can be calculated. Each type of wood has its own price, sandalwood being the most expensive. There is an art to using just enough wood to completely incinerate a corpse. You can watch cremations but always show reverence by behaving respectfully. Photography is strictly prohibited.
You’re almost guaranteed to be led by a priest, or more likely a guide, to the upper floor of a nearby building from where you can watch cremations taking place, and then asked for a donation (in dollars) towards the cost of wood. If you don’t want to make a donation, don’t follow them.
Above the steps here is a tank known as the Manikarnika Well . Parvati is said to have dropped her earring here and Shiva dug the tank to recover it, filling the depression with his sweat. The Charanpaduka , a slab of stone between the well and the ghat, bears footprints made by Vishnu. Privileged VIPs are cremated at the Charanpaduka, which also has a temple dedicated to Ganesh.
Dattatreya Ghat bears the footprint of the Brahmin saint of that name in a small temple nearby. Scindhia Ghat was originally built in 1830, but was so huge and magnificent that it collapsed into the river and had to be rebuilt.
Continuing north from Scindhia Ghat, you soon reach Ram Ghat , which was built by a maharaja of Jaipur. Just beyond it Panchganga Ghat , as its name indicates, is where five rivers are supposed to meet. Dominating the ghat is Aurangzeb’s smaller mosque, also known as the Alamgir Mosque , which he built on the site of a large Vishnu temple. Gai Ghat has a figure of a cow made of stone. Trilochan Ghat has two turrets emerging from the river, and the water between them is especially holy.