Feb 23, 2015

Kashi Yatra- Experiencing the GHATS!


Varanasi Ghats

Well, what are ghats? In simple terms, they are just very wide flights of steps to go down to the river for a holy dip or bath! Many things happen here. In fact, the whole city (not Varanasi, but ancient city of Kashi) was built around these ghats and the Kashi Vishwanath temple. There are innumerable temples at every step. Submerged, mutilated, destroyed, rebuilt and non-existant ... there are many states to assign! The whole stretch of ghats from confluence of river Ganga with rivulets Asi to Varuna is of about 4KM. Dashashwamedha Ghat is the main and much happening ghat. As you walk away from here in either directions the ghats get less crowded, less expensive and less clean. Every step you walk there is a Shiva temple. The functioning temples are closed in the afternoon. Some temples have huge lingams.


Kashi has been a sacred place since ancient times. We see its existence in ancients scripts of Puranas, great epics Ramayana and Mahabharatha, For about four thousand years, this undying city has been the victim of all possible constructions, expansions during Hindu Raj and destruction, disasters during muslim invasions. Though existence of several temples date back to several centuries but, the buildings now we see are much newer. Even in this modern age, seems like the old city is stuck somewhere in the dark! The time has lost its course in the narrow dark lanes now occupied more by cows, cow-dung, dogs and garbage. But, legends and myths linger around even in the passing wind.


On the ghats, the day starts very early in the morning at about 4:30AM. Faithfuls cleanse themselves of sins with a holy dip. In the month of December, the bone biting cold didn't seem to stop any of them from taking this holy bath. On these steps you will see austere clad monks who will bless you in exchange for few coins. People who come for some rituals sit with the brahmans under the umbrella after the holy dip. The temple artis are loud with the sound of bells and drums. The westerners go on the boat ride watching the happenings on ghats. As the sun rises the light turns from neon to natural-golden and then sun seems to burn the skin. Afternoons are lazy. Boatmen and brahmans under the umbrella take a nap with them join the beggars, sadhus, dogs and buffaloes.

Early morning rush, long before sunrise!

I went walking along these ghats like any other tourist! I was in Kashi for seven days and every morning and every evening I went walking for about 7KM. On the very first day, I was taken aback! I was totally bewildered. I didn't take out my camera. I couldn't have supper that night. Disillusioned I was, even wondered what am I doing here! That night in that December cold I sat on the steps of Dashashwamedha Ghat contemplating ... what was my purpose of coming here? I didn't arrive at Kashi to judge, or to photograph. I visited Kashi because I had known so much about it spiritually. I had so much information gained from my parents, books and much more since my childhood days. The things I saw with my eyes and the smell couldn't just wash away that knowledge. Sure I was disappointed to realize the Kashi of my thoughts was much different in reality. I thought may be if I survive another day ... Well, I did ... for seven days! You know? Acceptance is the name of the game!! The first two days in Kashi were a lifetime experience for me. I will definitely go back again.

From the opposite bank,at dawn- Manikarnika Ghat with burning pyre in the background

Every day I went walking the whole stretch, trying to find the hidden temples. It takes patience. Because the temples I was looking for were either not existing anymore or the local people called them with totally different names, or it was a part of somebody's residence. I found some and didn't find many of them. Asked people about the temples and for directions. Some were very helpful, some asked me money for directions, some offered to help in return I had to stay in their guest house and some called me mad. The guides show the usual popular temples and say whatever we read in the internet and old books is all rubbish!

Varanasi Sunrise

Within 3-4 days most of the residents of Ghats knew me. Beggers and sadhus didn't ask me for alms because they didn't want to waste their time. Brahmins didn't ask if I wanted to perform rituals anymore instead they just chatted about Kashi, papa-punya (good and bad karma), the other world, River Ganga, banarasi sarees, me, my family, my caste, gati-gotra and many more things. Being a brahman gets you a lot of respect whether you want it or not! boatmen stopped bothering me for the boat rides. One boatman who was about 25years old, introduced himself to me. His name was Chotu! He was ready to take me around not only in Kashi even Nepal as well. Tea vendors invited me for a cup of tea. They were generous enough to say ... Oh! if you don't have change then pay t'row, you are always around here! Sometimes, some sellers asked if I wanted the top quality 'grass'! Really? Do I look like a 'user'?

A lazy afternoon

The city is also known as Avimukta- never forsaken by Shiva. The Manikarnika Ghat or Maha Smashana (the great cremation ground) is the place of importance. The ancient city was built around this ghat. The ghat is believed to be the favorite place of Lord Shiva where he guided the dead to reach the other world. From morning till evening, day and night dead are cremated here. The workers, usually called Chandals, here are too busy. The several pyres are set, cremated, cleaned up and then again ... I was taken aback when I saw the routine. There were many watching the scene. Relatives of the dead were most of them. Nearby tea stall had sheltered many of the western tourists, accompanying guides were narrating the cremation process, karma etc and whatever they knew. Per my Hindu knowledge, chandals are supposed to be the lowest in the caste hierarchy but, they are the only ones should be working in that holiest place! Well, FYI- I do not support any caste system.

There is a lot floating on the Ganges 

Most of the people living in the Kashi ghats are not really beggars. They are the people who came here to die to attain moksha, some of them are abandoned here in their old age by their own loved ones. Some are left here because they are suffering with diseases, like leprosy and Tuberculosis. For the livelihood they beg. And hence when they die they are reduced to bones and skin. Clicking pictures of the cremation ground is prohibited just to respect the dead. Another cremation ground is Harishchandra Ghat on the southern side named after King Harishchandra who worked as a chandal here in Kashi. This place is not as busy as Manikarnika ghat.

One fine evening on the ghats

There are few palaces built along the ghats most of them are in dilapidated state. Man Mandir Palace is restored by ASI because it houses one of the four Jantar Mantars of India. The instruments are built on its roof. The views of River Ganga, boats and ghats are very impressive from the top. Few other palaces are restored for converting them to be high end hotels. Another noticeable structure on Panchaganga ghat is Alamgir mosque believed to be built over the site of Bindu Madhava temple which was then a greatest and grandest Vishnu shrine in the city destroyed by Aurangzeb. The watchman opens the door of the mosque only after promising Rs 10 donation.

It is good to know what you really want to see before you start. Otherwise it is very easy to get lost with so much happening around you. There is tons of information on ghats on the net. I have mentioned few of my experiences on The Great Kashi Tat!

Had you been to Kashi? What was your experience?
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Related articles-
Seven days of my Kashi Yatra
Amarkantak- the birth place of holy River Narmada
Backpacking India III- Classic Pilgrimage!
Backpacking India Part II- A Parallel Journey
Stories from Backpacking India

If you want pictures please ask me :)
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Scrapbook- A Travel Blog by Kusum Sanu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

13 comments:

  1. Kashi, the luring town! Love its ghats and alleys. Your post re-kindled memories of my visit 2 years ago. Like you, I too used to walk the ghats from one end to the other observing people, visiting temples and chatting with friendly strangers. I would love to go back. Such a lovely post, Kusum.

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    1. Thanks Niranjan! Yes, Kashi is very special place!

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  2. This post reminded me of one time I took a boat trip on ariver like this adn saw the gnats etc

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    1. The morning boat ride is something one shouldn't miss in Kashi.

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  3. It looks like this was an experience like no other. It was nice reading about a part of it here. I can see you were deeply affected by this place. Sometimes a change in attitude can change the whole picture, right?
    What? There were people who wanted to be paid for giving you directions? :-/

    Looking forward to hearing more about this epic journey of yours, Kusum. :)

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    1. Tourism is the economy here. Locals try to get most of it. Yes, some people offer their service as a guide or money when you ask for directions. Epic journey huh? :)

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  4. I could feel the assalt on the senses as you describe what you saw and experience. I'm glad you were able to visit.

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  5. What an interesting place! So much to see and I love to people watch.. Wonderful collection of photos, thanks for sharing your visit..

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    1. Yes, Kashi is special place indeed in many ways! Thanks!

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