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The Ghats The Temples Other Universities Excursions

The Ghats...

The ghats on the east bank of the River Ganga are the goal of most pilgrims to the holy city. Ghats are stepped embankments leading to the edge of a river. Fifty-two ghats crowd the east bank of Ganga for a distance of nearly 5 km. Most of the ghats date from the 18th century and were built under royal patronage, but there are no records showing when the first ghat was built.

Sunrise is the best time to view the ghats; by the time the first rays of the sun slowly pick out the ghats, Varanasi is already throbbing with life. Thousands have gathered at the ghats for their early morning dip and many more are moving towards the holy river. The ghatias (priests), bathed, dressed, and adorned with vibuthi (ash) marks on their foreheads, have already put up their straw umbrellas and are all set to earn their living - by blessing the bathers for a fee. Hundreds of pilgrims are practicing yoga, standing in the middle of the water and worshipping the rising sun, or meditating. The barges and boats are afloat on the river and, from the Malviya Bridge, which provides the best view of Subah-e-Banaras (dawn at Varanasi), it seems as though the world is painted in gold. And, in spite of all the activity going on in and around the ghats, an unruffled serenity prevails.

Lingams (the phallic symbol of Siva - the third of the Hindu Trinity, and the Destroyer) mark each ghat, while buildings and temples around the ghat tilt precariously into the river.

There are burning ghats as well as bathing ghats and a visit to five of them ­Asi, Dasashwamedh, Harishchandra, Panchganga and Manikaranika - in that sequence, and on the same day, is believed to confer on tile pilgrim great spiritual merit.

This, the Pancha-thirtha route, is the most popular with the pilgrims. The other, less-traversed route follows the Panchakroshi Road. This is a circular route, which begins at Manikaranika Ghat, goes southward up to Asi Ghat, then turns westwards and moves in the same direction up to Bhimchandi, whe[e the road takes a turn and moves north up to Rameshwar. At Rameshwar, the road turns once again, this time to the east, to complete the pilgrim-circle at Varuna Ghat at the confluence of the Ganga and the River Varuna. This pilgrimage is to be made on foot and completed in five days, with night halts at Kardameshwar, Bhimchandi, Rameshwar and Kapildhara. 108 traditional places of worship should be visited enroute. Many of these temples are no more than rock formations, or, at best, wayside shrines. But their antiquity renders them beautiful, and they have been sanctified by the millions who have worshipped and revered the deities they house from ancient times.

 

Though not as popular as the Pancha-thlrtha route, hundreds of devout Hindus every year undertake this 80 km pilgrimage too, with staunch belief in its power to ensure them their places in heaven.

Those desiring to visit all the ghats, simply as tourists, may begin at the Nagwa Ghat which is the farthest upstream. Asi Ghat, situated at the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Asi, which marks the south-eastern boundary of the holy city, is near the campus of the Banaras Hindu University. Near Asi Ghat is a channel known as Durga Kund. Legend has it that this curved channel was formed when Goddess Durga dropped her sword here after she had slain the demons Shumba and Nishumba with it. The Lala Misr Ghat, which comes next, belonged to the Maharaja of Rewa.

Tulsidas Ghat, the next in the line of ghats, is named after the great Hindi poet of the 16th century, Tulsidas, to commemorate the years he spent here, composing his outstanding literary work, Ramacharitamanas, the story of Lord Rama, in Avadhi, a dialect of Hindi. The original manuscript, wrapped in sacred yellow cloth, is preserved in the ghat precincts. The house in which Tulsidas died in 1623 is situated on the ghat. His wooden padhukas (slippers), pillow, the idol of Lord Hanuman which he worshipped and a piece of wood from the boat used by him to cross the Ganga is also prized possessions of this ghat. They are all carefully preserved in Tulsidas' house.

Near Tulsidas Ghat is Anandamayi Ghat, named after the saint,  Anandamayi Ma. Her ashram, a small cluster of buildings scattered around a pretty, well­ kept garden, is situated beside the ghat. Behind the ashram is one of the best hospitals in Varanasi.

The new Janaki Ghat has four Siva temples. At the foot of this ghat, is the pumping station of the Varanasi water-works. Bachhraj Ghat, which comes next, is Jain and has three temples. Shivala, or Kali Ghat is of historical significance. Chet Singh, whom the British appointed as Raja of Banaras in 1776, lived in the fort that stands by the ghat. The fort was called 'Shivala', giving the ghat its name. But Chet Singh was no subservient Raja and by refusing to comply with Warren Hastings' demand for a 1500-strong troop to help him in battle against Hyder AIi, Chet Singh earned the Governor-General's ire. Subsequently, his fort was besieged and his title taken away from him. Chet Singh retired to Gwalior where he died in 1810. A portion of this ghat is assigned to a religious sect called the Gossains.

The next ghat is Dandi Ghat, the abode of a group of ascetics known as Dandi Panths. Nearby is the Hanuman Ghat, named after the popular monkey-god of the Hindu pantheon. At the top of the ghat is a temple of Hanuman.

Harishchandra, or Samashan, Ghat, which is a little distance beyond, is one of the burning ghats and the second most important cremation ghat after Manikaranika, which is much farther on. The ghat is named after the legendary king Harishchandra, whose unflinching devotion to truth amazed even the gods who decided to challenge his honesty by putting him through severe trials. Harishchandra was made to lose his wealth, his kingdom, his wife and finally, his son, who was brought here to be cremated. But Harishchandra bore all his sufferings, stoically, never deviating from the path of truth. Eventually, the gods gave up their game and restored to Harishchandra all that they had taken from him.

Between the Harishchandra Ghat and Dasashwamedh ghat, two of the most distinguished of Varanasi's many ghats, are a number of minor bathing places: Near Kedar Ghat is a Bengali shrine; Narad Ghat and Chauki Ghat have peepul trees, sacred to Buddhists as the Buddha is said to have attained Enlightenment when seated under a peepul tree; Manasarovar Ghat, built by Raja Man Singh of Amer, is named after the lake at the foot of Mount Kailash, Siva's legendary abode in the Himalayas. This ghat leads to a tank around which are 60 temples, most of them in ruins. A bath in the Someshwar (Lord of the Moon) Ghat is believed to cure all diseases; Raja Ghat, which comes next, has a large serai (inn) for Brahmins; Rana Ghat and Ahilyabai Ghat which were built buy the Maharana of Udaipur and Ahilya Bai Holkar, the Maratha queen of Indore, respectively.

Then comes the celebrated Dasashwamedh Ghat, built by the Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao. It owes its importance as much to its central location in the line of ghats as to the legend associated with it. The devout believe that the ghat gets its name because Brahma, the first of the Hindu Trinity and the Creator, sacrificed (medha) ten (das) horses (aswa) here, thus rendering unto Varanasi as much sanctity as nearby Prayag (Allahabad). Historians accept the theory, which attributes the name of the place to the performance of the sacrifice, but they maintain that the sacrifice was made not by Brahma, but by the Bharashiva kings of the 2nd century A. D. to commemorate their victory over the Kushan kings. Whatever the truth, a bath in the Dasashwamedh Ghat has become the quintessence of any pilgrimage to this holy city.

A wide road leads to the ghat, making it easily accessible to the crowd of pilgrims who throng it every day. During eclipses, the ghat becomes a veritable sea of human heads, for a bath here holds high spiritual merit. Also in the ghat precincts are a few statues and a shrine of Sitala, the goddess of small-pox.

Adjacent to the Dasashwamedh Ghat is Man Mandir Ghat built by Raja Man Singh in 1600. This ghat is in a state of disrepair, but is notable for the Observatory built here by Jai Singh II in 1710. The astronomer-king Sawai Jai Singh, who planned the city of Jaipur, built observatories in Delhi, Jaipur and Ujjain, besides Varanasi. The unusual feature of these observatories are the giant stone instruments used to study the movement of the sun, the stars and other heavenly bodies.

Mir Ghat, which comes next, leads to Dharamkup, a sacred well. The Lalita Ghat, beyond, built by Ran Bahadur, a Nepalese king of the 18th century and which is named after his wife, Lalita Tripura Sundari, leads to a Nepalese temple which has a lot of erotic sculpture. Jalasayin Ghat, adjoining the better ­known Manikaranika Ghat, is a burning ghat like the latter. Jalasayin Ghat, is, in fact, the main cremation ghat ofVaranasi, though Manikaranika is considered more holy because of its association with Siva. According to legend, when Siva was carrying burnt remains of his wife, Sati (Parvati), to his abode in Kailash, her manikaranika (ruby ear-ring) fell into a well close by the ghat. Some Brahmin priests who saw the ear-ring fall, stole the precious stone from it. Enraged, Siva cursed the Brahmins to be born as Chandalas (low castes). Their descendants, it is believed, maintain to this day the crematoria at the burning ghats of Varanasi.

According to another legend, when Parvati's ear-ring fell here and was lost, her brother, Vishnu, the second of the Hindu Trinity and the Protector of the Universe, dug the ground with his discus till he salvaged the ear-ring. In the process, he filled the depression with his sweat. Thus was the well created. And now thousands bathe in the water of the Manikaranika well. Between the well and the ghat is the Charanpaduka, a slab of marble which preserves on its face what are believed to be footprints of Lord Vishnu. There is a temple of Ganesh at the ghat.

The Ganga Mahal Ghat, which comes next, is dominated by the palace of a former Maharaja. The domes and minarets of the Alamgir mosque, built by the last Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, in the 17th century, are visible in the distance.

Dattatreya Ghat is named after a great Brahmin saint and scholar in whom parts of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva are said to have been incarnated. There is a temple dedicated to him near the ghat. Beyond it is Scindia's Ghat built in 1830 by Baija Bai, a queen of the royal family of Gwalior, after the death of her husband, Daulat Rao Scindia. It was built so huge that it collapsed soon afterwards. What remains is now dilapidated, but it still retains a Ivt of its original grandeur and picturesqueness. Ram Ghat, which comes next, was built by a Raja of Jaipur.

Panchganga Ghat, as its name indicates, is the meeting place of five rivers, four of them mythical. Dhootpapa, Kirn, Gyan and Saraswati, all believea-'to flow underground, are said to mingle with the water of the Ganga here, making Panchganga Ghat, a hallowed spot. At the top of the ghat is a stone column which can accommodate a thousand lamps. On festival nights, lamps are lit here and the ghat takes on a festive look. There is also a mosque built by Aurangzeb here.

Gai Ghat, has a sculpted figure of a stone cow, 'gai' in Hindi. Hence its name. At Trilochan Ghat, two turrets stand in the water. The river that flows between these turrets is considered especially sacred. Raj ghat, close to the Malaviya Bridge, is a bathing ghat. But it is important, as excavations here have revealed this to be the heart of ancient Kashi.

The Adi Keshav Ghat, or the Varuna Ghat, at the confluence of the rivers Varuna and the Ganga is the last of the sacred bathings spots on the Ganga, in Varanasi. There are temples of Sangameshwar and Brahmeshwar nearby. The ghat and the temples were constructed in the 18th century by an emissary of the Scindia Kings.