The most happening place that I have seen to date isn’t New York or Mumbai or Singapore. Instead, it is Varanasi.
The reason that I have for saying so is simple – The Ghats. Kashi is famous for the 84 ghats that adorn the riverfront. The best part – All the ghats are interconnected, and every single one of them has a fantastic story behind them.
My endeavour to grasp the stories and legends surrounding the ghats started around 5 a.m. at the Assi Ghat. The Ghat is the place where the ‘Subah Banaras’ aarti takes place. ‘Subah Banaras’ is dedicated to the river Ganga that flourishes the city and is a sight to behold. The credit for this fantastic spectacle goes to the brilliant synchronisation of chants, shankhnaad (conch), and flame movements.
It is incredibly challenging to conduct this aarti because one has to lift heavy utensils and play with fire while the chilling pre-sunrise winds from the Ganga engulf you. Soon after the aarti, had my breakfast near the Ghat itself: a modest tea and some samosas.
The sun had risen, and I decided to stroll down a bit further along the Ghat. It is here that I met the sadhu who explained to me as to why are the Ghats of Benaras amongst the holiest places in Hindu Culture. He said that if a person spent their last days at Banaras and was to be cremated here, they could attain Nirvana and end from the cycle of death and rebirth. It was this need to break free from the sequence that brings thousands of pilgrims every year to Banars to spend their final days. It is home to one of the 12 Jyotirlingas, making it a must-visit for all Shiva devotees. He also told me that any royal families in India considered it a status and pride symbol to have a palace facing the river in Banaras. Thus there are many spectacular royal palaces lined along the Ganges.
Just a little ahead of Assi lie the Ganga Mahal and tulsi ghat. Tulsi ghat is the place where Tulsidas composed the epic we now know as Ram Charit Manas. The Ghat is a place of worship with devotees often dropping by to visit the temple nearby or have a bath. Ganga Mahal, as the name suggests, is a palace on Ganga, which is now abandoned. It is stunning and deserves a visit.
I came back to Assi and hired a boat to view the ghats from the river. The Mallah, my boatman, had been rowing in the river for as long as he could remember. As our boat tugged into the Ganga, I started to see how big the city of Varanasi is.
This is amongst the numerous stories that the Mallah would tell me during the length of the journey. As we rode towards the north, we came across the Jain Ghat, Raja Chet Singh ghat, amongst many others. One thing that almost all ghats have in common is the presence of a temple and bathing sections. A bath in the Ganges is holy and an ages-long tradition for those around the ghats and devotees. A dip here is recommended to all visitors to try out once as it is a unique experience.
The ride led us to the Harishchandra Ghat. It is one of the two Burning ghats, and bathing isn’t allowed here. Remember me saying about being cremated on the riverside, this and Manikarnika ghat are the place where this takes place. The Harischndra ghat is named in honour of the truthful King Harishchnadra of Qannauj.
The legend surrounding the area goes that after being giving up his kingdom, Harishchandra and his family came to Banaras. The former king was forced to work as a tax collector at the burning Ghat. Not long after, his son died, and his wife brought the body to the Ghat for cremation. Harishchandra, being dutiful, asked his wife to pay tax despite knowing they didn’t have any money. As a consequence, she gave him a piece of her Saree as tax. On seeing this incident where The former king put his duty before family, the gods granted him an exceptional promise. Harishchandra, his family and their hose owner, all were awarded the entrance to heaven – alive. Thus the event and the truthfulness of Harishchnadra are the reason the Ghat is named after him.
I will not be adding any photos of the Harishchandra or the Manikarnika ghat as a mark of respect to the departed souls.
A dozen ghats later, we came across the Naarad Ghat. This venue has rather peculiar folklore associated with it.
” यहाँ जो कोई नहाता उस्की ज़िन्दगी में कलेश पक्का होता है |”The Mallah
The Mallah said about the place. The saying means that whoever takes a bath here is subjected to a lifetime of disputes and misery. There is a way to loft the curse tho, he added, A puja done at the adjoining Shiva temple can free the cursed.
Another famous ghat nearby is the Kedar Ghat. Said to house a well my healing properties, it is one of the ghats with maximum visitors. Sayings go that those who cannot undertake the perilous journey to Kedarnath can find similar bliss here.
Proceeding further, the real beauty of Varanasi uncovered in the form of Darbhanga, Chousatii and many other ghats. I was awestruck by the amount of royalty that had their private ghats, yes you heard that right, private ghats. A little further down, at Ganga Ghat, I deboarded the boat and thanked the Mallah Ji for the fantastic stories he shared with me. After having lunch in the area, I decided to walk towards Dashaswamwdh Ghat to reach in time for the evening aarti.
साधो ये मुरदों का गांव!– Kabir
The first Ghat that came my way was the Manikarnika Ghat, the second Burning Ghat along the Ganga. I had decided not to go on the Ghat but rather give it a pass because well, it is a cremation site. Fate had something else in mind as all the roads that I took had me walking towards the Ghat. After some company from a passerby, I managed to reach Lalita Ghat from where I glimpsed at Manikarnika. The energy surrounding the place is strange and strong. I was in awe and struck by gloom at the same moment. Not long after, I found myself powerless and unable to lift my camera. I guess it was a sign saying, “Walk away, be back when you are stronger”.
The legends surrounding the Manikarnika Ghat are equally mysterious. The Ghat is said to be the place where the last rites of Sati where performed. The name Manikarnika arises from the tale that Shiva lost an earring while taking a bath at well on the Ghat. Hence the name Manikarnika which, when broken down, leads to “Mani” meaning gem and “Karnika” means the ring of the ear. Another legend that surrounds the place is that God Vishnu prayed for thousands of years at this very Ghat. Pleased by the prayers, Shiva granted a boon to of eternal peace to Kashi (Varanasi). He further gave an exceptional promise that whoever has their last rites performed at Manikarnika Ghat, attains moksha. The ominous chanting of “Ram Nam Satya Hai”, The day-night burning pyres, the celebration of death – all these makes Manikarnika Ghat place that the faint of heart must avoid. If it’s one thing that life at this Ghat symbolises, it is that death is the gateway to immortality.
नाम अनाम अनंत रहत है,
दूजा तत्व न होइ,
कहे कबीर सुनो भाई साधो
भटक मरो मत कोई।– Kabir
The ensuing walk had me catch up with a sadhu whose eyes fascinated me. I asked for his permission to take photo oh him. The reply I received was “100 Bucks.” I was confused and almost burst out laughing. He further added, “100 for each photo.” I couldn’t help but reply that for less than 100 bucks, I can become a sadhu and take a selfie. He seemed angry and walked away, but I was already having a stomach ache from all the laughter.
What made me enjoy the moment, even more, was the fact there was a bunch of kids playing gully danda – the cricket before cricket. The feeling of joy on their faces and the enthusiasm they had, it balanced everything that Manikarnika offered. The kids would then dive into the Ganga after getting all exhausted and start another match. After a few clicks and well, a few minutes of playing, I proceeded towards my last stop of the day.
Dashaswamedh Ghat is one of the most renowned ghats of Banaras. The name is a result of the ten Ashwamedh Yagnas (Horse Sacrifices) performed here by Brahma to honour Shiva. The current Ghat is a reconstruction dating back to the early 18th century.
The one thing that makes the place famous is the superb Ganga Aarti every evening. The aarti starts around 7 in winters and 630 in summers. As the aarti proceeds, the chants become more energetic, and the fire display is spectacular. It is a sight that everyone going to Banaras must check out. It is best to reach 30 to 45 minutes early so that you get the best seat on the Ghat. The 45-minute long spectacle is enough to fill one with faith and spirituality as well as an appreciation for the priests who conduct it. Right from the synchronisation to the flawless movement of the puja vessels, they do a really commendable job.
I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that the Ghats have had an impact on me like no other place. From the childhood joys to the struggles of adulthood to the truth of death – The ghats show you all in one place. Its as if they tell you, “Enjoy the moment and let go.” I cannot emphasise more that this is an experience we all need. The ghats haven’t just given me some of my best photos, they have also given me a new perspective and well, tons of mesmerising stories.
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