Ghats are embankments made in steps of stone slabs along the river bank where pilgrims perform ritual ablutions. Ghats in Varanasi are an integral compliment to the concept of divinity represented in physical, metaphysical and supernatural elements. Varanasi has at least 84 ghats. Steps in the ghats lead to the banks of the River Ganges, including the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the Manikarnika Ghat, the Panchganga Ghat and the Harishchandra Ghat (where Hindus cremate their dead). Many ghats are associated with legends, and several are now privately owned. Many of the ghats were built when the city was under Maratha control. Marathas, Shindes (Scindias), Holkars, Bhonsles, and Peshwas stand out as patrons of present-day Varanasi. Most of the ghats are bathing ghats, while others are used as cremation sites. Morning boat ride on the Ganges across the ghats is a popular visitor attraction. The extensive stretches of ghats enhance the riverfront with a multitude of shrines, temples and palaces built “tier on tier above the water’s edge”.
Varanasi has nearly 100 ghats, steps leading to the banks of the River Ganges. Many of the ghats were built when the city was under Maratha control. Marathas, Shindes (Scindias), Holkars, Bhonsles, and Peshwes (Peshwas) stand out as patrons of present-day Varanasi. Most of the ghats are bathing ghats, while others are used as cremation sites. Many ghats are associated with legends or mythologies while many ghats are privately owned. The former Kashi Naresh owns Shivala or Kali ghat. Morning boat ride on the Ganges across the ghats is a popular visitors attraction.
The Dashashwamedh Ghat is the main and probably the oldest ghat of Varanasi located on the Ganges, close to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. It is believed that Brahma created it to welcome Shiva and sacrificed ten horses during the Dasa -Ashwamedha Yajna performed here. Above the ghat and close to it, there are also temples dedicated to Sulatankesvara, Brahmesvara, Varahesvara, Abhaya Vinayaka, Ganga (the Ganges), and Bandi Devi which are part of important pilgrimage journeys. A group of priests performs “Agni Pooja” (Worship of Fire) daily in the evening at this ghat as a dedication to Shiva, Ganga, Surya (Sun), Agni (Fire), and the whole universe. Special aartis are held on Tuesdays and religious festivals.
The Manikarnika Ghat is the Mahasmasana (meaning: “great cremation ground”) and is
the primary site for cremation in the city. Adjoining the ghat, there are raised platforms that are used for death anniversary rituals. According to the legend an ear-ring (Manikarnika) of Shiva or his wife Sati fell here. According to a myth related to the Tarakesvara Temple, a Shiva temple at the ghat, Shiva whispers the Taraka mantra (“Prayer of the crossing”) in the ear of the dead. Fourth-century Gupta period inscriptions mention this ghat. However, the current ghat as a permanent riverside embankment was built in 1302 and has been since renovated at least three times.
Historians have now ascertained that the Aryans first settled in the middle Ganges valley and by the second millennium BC, Varanasi became the nucleus of Aryan religion and philosophy. The city also flourished as a commercial and industrial centre famous for its muslin and silk fabrics, ivory works, perfumery and sculptures.
In the 6th century BC, Varanasi became the capital of the kingdom of Kashi. During this time, Lord Buddha delivered his first sermon at Sarnath, just 10 km away from Varanasi. Being the center of religious, educational, cultural and artistic activities, Kashi drew many learned men from around the world; the celebrated Chinese traveler Hsuan Tsang, is one of them, who visited India around AD 635.
The 18th century again brought back the lost glory to Varanasi. It became an independent kingdom, with Ramnagar as its capital, when the British declared it a new Indian state in 1910. After India’s independence in 1947, Varanasi became part of the state of Uttar Pradesh.