Varanasi: Prepare to Stroll

Varanasi is the holiest city for the Hindus of the world. Those who disagree with its being called the holiest will still not object to its being called one of the holiest cities. The city, tell the Hindu scriptures, has been central to the Hindu sacred geography since time immemorial. Its location by the holiest and divine river “Ganga” makes it very special: not only for the religious but also for the aesthetic purposes.  The religious, and not so religious, people from all over the world come to Varanasi to wash their sins away. They believe that one dip in the holy Ganges will make them pure. It is also believed that dying in Varanasi frees one from the continuous cycle of deaths and rebirths. So, they come, throughout the year, in all seasons, to the ghats of Varanasi.  dsc03804

Aesthetically speaking, the ghats of Varanasi that stretch for around four kilometers along the western banks of the river provide a spectacular view under the sun and the moon both. People believe that the name of the city originates from its being situated between the confluences of the Ganges with two rivers: Varuna and Assi. Between the three rivers, then, is situated Varanasi. Although there are three rivers around the city, an unbroken series of stone ghats can be seen only by the Ganges.

Adi Keshav Ghat is right at the confluence of Ganga with Varuna. It’s one of the most ancient ghats of Varanasi and has the once very important but now forgotten by all but few, Adi Keshav Temple. Coming south wards, one reaches Raj Ghat upon which stands the famous road and railways bridge across the river: the Dufferin Bridge that’s now called Malviya Bridge. There are no pukka ghats between Adi Keshav and Raj Ghat. One has to walk over the dry alluvium and dense dots of human excreta. This zone is exceptional as it does not have crowds that generally occupy the pukka ghats of Kasi.

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Near Raj Ghat is Rani Ghat, where one may see one of the most beautiful buildings on the riverfront: the white coloured house with a temple and many tenants. A narrow gali runs by the house and the stairs of various entrances of the house open into the gali. The ghats after Rani Ghat also have some beautiful buildings that speak about the period in which they were constructed. There are no significant ghats from there till Trilochan Ghat with its temple of Lord Shiva: the reigning deity of the city. Gai Ghat and Panchganga Ghat are the other well known ghats in these quarters.

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Panchganga Ghat has been mentioned in various accounts of the travellers who came to Varanasi (that was called Benares then) during the Mughal period too because of its Bindu Madhav Temple where stands the Mosque of Aurangzebe now. It’s also known as Beni Madho ka Dharhara. It’s not just a coincidence that the old temple was popularly known as Beni Madho Temple and the mosque is known by a hybrid name that can be translated to “Beni Madho’s Steeple”. Now, steeples in a temple are not very common, and the mosque had been famous for its original steeple that had to be shortened because of its structural faults. The pre-Aurangzebe era temple equalled that of Vishweshwar in importance. Tavernier gives its detailed description:

I come to the pagoda of Benares, which, after that 
of Jagannàth, is the most famous in all India, with 
which it is even, as it were, on a par, being also built 
on the margin of the Ganges, and in the town of which 
it bears the name. The most remarkable thing about 
it is that from the door of the pagoda to the river there 
is a descent by stone steps, where there are at intervals 
platforms and small, rather dark, chambers, some of 
which serve as dwellings for the Brahmins and others 
as kitchens where they prepare their food.... The build- 
ing is in the figure of a cross, like all the other pagodas, 
having its four arms equal. In the middle a lofty 
dome rises like a kind of tower with many sides, which 
terminates in a point, and at the end of each arm of the 
cross another tower rises, which can be ascended from 
outside. Before reaching the top you meet several 
balconies and many niches, which project to intercept 
the fresh air ; and all over the tower there are figures 
in relief of various kinds of animals, which are rudely 
executed. Under this great dome, and exactly in the 
middle of the pagoda, there is an altar like a kind of 
table, of 7 to 8 feet in length, and 5 to 6 wide, 
with two steps in front, which serve as a footstool, 
and this footstool is covered by a beautiful tapestry, 
sometimes of silk and sometimes of gold and silk, 
according to the solemnity of the ceremony which is 
being celebrated. The altar is covered with gold or 
silver brocade, or some beautiful painted cloth. From 
outside the pagoda this altar faces you with the idols 
which are upon it ; for the women and girls must salute 
it from the outside, as they are not allowed to enter 
the pagoda, save only those of a certain tribe. Among 
the idols on the great altar there is one standing which 
is 5 or 6 feet in height ; neither the arms, legs, nor 
trunk are seen, the head and neck only being visible ; 
all the remainder of the body, down to the altar, is 
covered by a robe which increases in width below. 
Sometimes on its neck there is to be seen a rich chain 
of gold, rubies, pearls, or emeralds. This idol has been 
made in honour and after the likeness of Bainmadou, 1 
who was formerly a great and holy personage among 
them, whose name they often have on their lips. On 
the right side of the altar there is also to be seen the 
figure of an animal, or rather of a chimera, seeing that 
it represents in part an elephant, in part a horse, and in 
part a mule. It is of massive gold, and is called 
Garou, 1 no person being allowed to approach it but the 
Brahmins. It is said to be the resemblance of the 
animal which this holy personage rode upon when he 
was in the world, and that he made long journeys on it, 
going about to see if the people were doing their duty 
and not injuring any one. At the entrance of the 
pagoda, between the principal door and the great altar, 
there is to the left a small altar, upon which an idol 
made of black marble is to be seen, seated, with the legs 
crossed, and about two feet high. When I was there 
it had near it, on the left, a small boy, who was son of 
the chief priest, and all the people who came there 
threw him pieces of taffeta, or brocaded cloth like 
handkerchiefs, with which he wiped the idol and then 
returned them to their owners. Others threw him 
chains made of beads like small nuts, which have a 
naturally sweet scent, which these idolaters wear on 
their necks and use to repeat their prayers over each 
bead. Others also throw chains of coral, others of 
yellow amber, others fruits and flowers. Finally, with 
everything which is thrown to the chief Brahmins 
child he wipes the idol and makes him kiss it, and after- 
wards, as I have just said, returns it to the people. 
This idol is called Morli Ram, 2 that is to say, the God 
Morli, brother of the idol on the great altar. 

Under the principal entrance of the pagoda one of 
the chief Brahmins is to be seen seated, close to whom 
is a large dish full of yellow pigment mixed with water. 

(JEAN BAPTISTE TAVERNIER's TRAVELS IN INDIA, 230-233)

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 Moving towards south, one crosses Scindia Ghat to reach the famous cremation ghat: Manikarnika. From there Dashshwamedh Ghat, the most famous ghat of Varanasi, is not very far. Some other important ghats are Kedar Ghat, Harishchandra Ghat, Hanuman Ghat, Shivalal Ghat, Tulsi Ghat and Assi Ghat.

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