The city of Varanasi revolves around its over one hundred Ghats (river landings). They inculcate the ethos of this ancient city, changing faces with the varying light throughout the day. The river Ganga flows from north to south, and the city forms a circular shape from the Asi Ghat in the south up to the confluence of the Varuna river with the Ganga. Thousands of pilgrims come to bathe and worship in the river at the first light of dawn.
Most of the ancient temples and structures along the ghats have been destroyed. What remain are mainly 18th and 19th century buildings. A very important pilgrimage for the devout is the Panchatirtha Yatra, covering the 5 important ghats of Asi, Dashashwamedha, Adi Keshava, Panchganga and Manikarnika. The Panchkosi road, beginning from the Asi ghat and ending at the Manikarnika ghat denotes the sacred area of Kashi. A tour around this 58 kms route takes about 6 days on foot. Each of the important ghats have a lingam (phallic symbol of lord Shiva) which is venerated by the devout.
The Asi River meets the Ganga at Asi Ghat. There is a lingam under a peepal tree and a marble temple of Asisangameshwara (lord of the confluence of Asi). An ancient tank dedicated to sun worship, the Lolarka Kund (pool) lies 15 metres below the ground and is approached by a steep flight of steps. The Tulsi ghat, dedicated to the 16th century poet saint Tulsidas is crumbling. Further north is the Harishchandra ghat, one of the two important cremation grounds in Varanasi. Named after the king Harishchandra, it is considered the most sacred cremation ground.
The Kedar ghat has links with the Kedarnath shrine located in the upper reaches of the Himalayas. The dhobi ghat is a washerman’s area, while the Chausathi (64) ghat has a shrine dedicated to Chausath Yoginis, the multiple manifestations of the female force Durga.
The Dashashwamedha ghat is the busiest bathing ghat in Varanasi. The ancient king Divodasa was said to have performed the Dashashwamedha Yajnya (ten horse sacrifice) here. This pleased Brahma, the creator, so much that he established the Brahmeshwara lingam. Boats can be hired at this ghat for a tour of the riverfront. It is also the most popular site for Hindus to perform ancestor worship rituals, and the entire ghat is lined with umbrella covered stalls where Brahmin priests undertake pujas (worship).
The Man Mandir ghat, built in 1600 by Maharaja Man Singh of Amer, has a very interesting observatory. Built in 1710 by the kings of Jaipur, it is similar to the ones in Jaipur and Delhi. There are numerous instruments used for astronomical calculations and is open to visitors from 09:30 am till 05:30 pm. The Dom Raja’s house is next door, with painted tigers flanking the terrace. Doms are the untouchables, who handle the corpses at cremation grounds. Though the Doms belong to a lower caste, their services are invaluable for the dead to be released from their physical bonds and so the leader of the doms is given the title of `Raja’ or king.
The Mir Ghat has a shrine to Vishalakshi (the wide-eyed goddess). It is one of the 52 pithas (pilgrimages) where the body parts of Shakti landed after a distraught Shiva performed his dance of destruction or tandava. The Lalita Ghat is well known for its Nepali style temple with an idol of Pashupateshwara. This ghat also has a temple dedicated to the river Ganga.
The Manikarnika Ghat is the other cremation ground, which is more popularly used by the people. Since Shiva is said to have resided in Varanasi, the entire holy area is considered Mahashmashana (great cremation ground). It is said that the funeral fires never die at the Manikarnika ghat. The Manikarnika kund (tank) is said to predate the arrival of the Ganga, which came down to earth to purify humans.
The Scindhia Ghat was built in such grand style that parts of it collapsed and went under the river. The Alamgir mosque, popularly known as Beni-madhav-ka-dera dominates the Panchganga Ghat. The mosque stands on the ruins of the Bindu Madhava temple, dedicated to Vishnu, which was destroyed by Aurangzeb. The Adi Keshava ghat on the outskirts of the city is the point where the river Varuna meets the Ganga. The ghat is completely submerged during rains. This is the original site of the city, where Vishnu is believed to have landed as an emissary of lord Shiva.
The old city, from Dashashwamedha Ghat and Godaulia in the south to the Manikarnika Ghat in the North is known as the Vishwanatha Khanda. It is a maze of narrow lanes and by-lanes, the focal point of which is the Vishwanath temple, with one of India’s most important lingams or Shaivite shrines. The original temple is said to have been over 1000 years old. The temple is closed to non-Hindus, but can be viewed from shops across the road. The Gyan Vapi tank enclosed in a hall is said to contain the original shivalingam. Pilgrims offer prayers here before embarking on the Panchatirtha.
Next to the Vishwanath temple is the Annapurna temple, built in the 18th century by Peshwa Baji Rao I. The idol of Annapurna Bhavani (the provider of food), a benevolent form of Shakti, is made in solid gold and carries a cooking pot. There is also a striking silver-faced image of Shani (Saturn) within the temple. Shani is feared for his destructive powers and is propitiated to prevent any ill befalling the devout.
The Bharat Mata temple north-west of Godaulia is a modern shrine, inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi. It has a huge relief map of the Indian sub-continent showing all its rivers, mountains and pilgrimages. The 19th century Durga temple, 4 kms from Godaulia, is also popularly known as the ‘monkey temple’ because of an overwhelming presence of the primates. The idol of Durga, a manifestation of Shakti, is dressed in red and rides a tiger with the trident, the discus and a sword in her hands. The temple courtyard has a forked stake for sacrificing goats, and non-Hindus are allowed only up to this point.
The Tulsi Manas temple, though, is open to all communities. Its white marble walls have the verses of Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas inscribed on them