As the Ganga Flows Through Varanasi’s Ghats…
After trying at few places we managed to find one – Sarin Inn, a boutique hotel with gawdy looking interiors and a shrewd man at the reception. The deal was for Rs 1650 with tax, (the best available at that time) the room was decent, although the bathroom didn’t have a working geyser and the service was below standard. Since we were only there for a night, there was no room for complaints.
After a spicy dinner at the hotel, we called it a night. There was a sense of excitement mixed with feeling of weariness, but the bottom line was we were moving closer to our destination – Nepal – that was sufficient to keep us going. The next day we planned to check out before noon and drive to Gorakhpur, but the shady looking male receptionist managed to convince us to take tour of the Ghats and the popular temples, which makes the city so holy. “How can you go without visiting Kashi Vishwanath temple?” It was Clyde’s first visit to Banaras, and since Gorakhpur was relatively closer, just around 200 km – we took a rickshaw ride from the hotel at Cantonment to the Ghats and back for Rs 300.
The Varanasi Ghats
In ancient times, this place was called Kashi, then it became Varanasi, because of its location between two rivers Varana and Asi. Later it was called Benares, and in 1956 it was re-named Varanasi. Its also the place of pilgrim for Hindus, Jains and Buddhists, and its culture closely related to the River Ganges. The road leading to the ghats and Ganges is through a narrow bylane reminiscent of an old city – temples, food stalls selling local snacks and sweets, houses mushroomed next to each other, sadhus donning their saffron clothing walking by after their daily rituals and devotees rushing to the ghats to bathe. The rickshaw man stopped close to a narrow entrance leading to one of the ghats. There are around 84 ghats (which means steps leading to the banks of River Ganges) in Banaras that are owned by the Kings and royal families.
A walk down one of the ghats and you can see life flow by, from people taking the holy dip in the Ganges (believed to remit their sins, no matter how polluted it is), to dead bodies being cremated and 30 large sewers are continuously discharging into the river, its a potpourri of different rituals, customs and beliefs.
Varanasi releases around 200 million litres of untreated human sewage into the river each day. The river Ganga was ranked among the top five most polluted rivers of the world in 2007, with fecal coliform levels in the river near Varanasi more than hundred times the official Indian government limits. Samples from the river show the water has 1.5 million fecal coliform bacteria per 100ml of water. In water that is safe for bathing this figure should be less than 500! So drinking and bathing in its waters carries a high risk of infection.
In spite of this alarming figures, thousands of devotees bathe in the Ganga, they believe that it prevents diseases. There might be some truth in that because our thoughts affect water and positive frequencies and words directed towards water leads to positive effects. I came across a research that stated – Ganga has special self-purifying properties which allows the river to absorb organic wastes at an extremely high rate. Usually organic material exhausts a river’s available oxygen and starts putrefying. But in the Ganges, an unknown substance referred as “Mysterious X factor” that Indians refer to as a ‘disinfectant,’ acts on the bacteria and kills them, thus, preventing large-scale epidemics. Hmmm…very interesting discovery, what do you think about it?
In the midst of all this exist people who are out to scam the discerning traveler or a pilgrim who is blinded by the sanctity of the place that they fail to see how they are getting cheated. A boat ride taking you across a couple of ghats would cost Rs 2200, thats what they quote. But only on haggling they come down to Rs 1500 for 2, which is expensive because its less than an hour trip and includes a hush hush visit to three of the main temples.
Ride through the Ghats
The boatman who also acts as the guide quickly rants the mythological stories associated with some of the ghats, so its easy to miss out on the finer details, but this is some of it.
Most of the ghats are used for bathing, some ghats are used to cremate the dead, out of these the most popular is Manikarnika Ghat – which is considered the most auspicious place for a Hindu to be cremated.
The process of cremation goes something like this – first the corpse is doused in the Ganges, then its placed on huge piles of firewood stacked along the top of the ghat by the Doms (the caste which has handled cremation for centuries), each log carefully weighed on giant scales so that the price of cremation can be calculated. The price of wood depends on its quality, so sandalwood is the most expensive one. Bodies that don’t burn entirely are dumped in the river and you might find crows feasting on it.
The sinking Vishnu temple near Manikarnika ghat.
Narad and Raja Ghat
Narad ghat was built by Dattatreya Swami, a monastery chief, in 1788. This ghat is related to Sage Narada, who was a divine musician in that time. While Raja ghat was built in the 18th century as well and four Shiva temples are located at the platform of the ghat.
Rana Mahal Ghat
Rana Mahala Ghat was constructed by the ruler of Udaipur (Rajasthan) in 1670. The ghat is used for performing rituals and taking holy dip and is famous for its ancient temple Vakratunda Vinayaka Temple, which is dedicated to Lord Ganapati.
This ghat is used to perform rituals related to the death of loved ones. In olden days when there was no electricity, the front two pillars were used as elevators to pull up Kings and royals.
It was named in the memory of Sridhar Narayan Munshi, the finance minister of Nagpur and is a lovely structure.
Pilgrims bathing at the foot of Ahilya Ghat, built in late 18th century by Maratha Queen Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore.
This ghat is a replica of the pilgrim place known in ancient times as Prayag, now called Allahabad.
Man Mandir Ghat, one of the oldest ghats in Varanasi, has a beautiful palace resembling Rajput architecture, built by Savai Man Singh, King of Amber (Jaipur), in 1585-1605. On the roof of the palace is the Hindu observatory made in the 18th century.
Close to Lalita Ghat is the wooden temple of Nepal that houses a lingam which is a replica of the famous Pasupatisvara (Pashupatinath) at Kathmandu. The guide added that the topmost part of the roof is made of gold.
The boat stopped at Lalita ghat, as we made our way through the tiny alleys leading to the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple that has the holy shrine of Kashi Vishwanath (a manifestation of Lord Shiva), and also one of the twelve revered Jyotirlingas of Lord Shiva.
This temple has been destroyed and rebuilt number of times. The Gyanvapi Mosque, which is adjacent to the temple, is the original site of the temple; the mosque was constructed by Aurangzeb, the Mughal Emperor of India. Currently the temple and mosque still co-exist in the same premises. Its believed that Hindu saints like Adi Sankaracharya, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Swami Vivekananda, Goswami Tulsidas, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Gurunanak have visited this site
A rich history and a holy place, but there always is a little twist when it comes to religious entities. The temple is extremely crowded since thousands of devotees come every day. The boatman said he would take us to the temple, so this is how it works – He called a pujari to take me inside (Clyde was sitting outside with Kayde, since it was ovecrowded), there is heavy security, not letting us enter and the pujari pleads and urges to allow me inside. So I did manage to get in, then inside the temple there is a massive rush and absolutely no place to walk or stand, but the pujari pushes some of the devotees aside and tells me to barge my way in to to offer my prayers.
You might just get two seconds too just catch a glimpse of the idol and you will be pushed out from there by the security in charge of the temple. That’s it, this marks the end of my visit to the temple, the pujari will ask for donation for his overly kind gesture, I gave him Rs 40, but he wanted more, some Rs 500 or something. I refused and he walked away with a grumpy face. The boatman, who was going to take us to Annapurna temple, said it was going to be too crowded and walked back to the boat. We paid Rs 1400 for what, we wondered.
The more interesting part of this short visit was the hand-churned lassi. Situated in a narrow lane, the lassi fellow has the shop right below his old-style house. His daughter was sitting at the small window above the shop looking at all the passer bys. “Did you visit the temple?” he asked. I replied unhappily, “Yes, but very crowded and too much nudging and pushing around.” He quickly defended, “Lots of devotees come here, so its bound to happen.” As the lassi was getting done, we chatted with him, asked about his life etc. He has been staying in Varanasi for a long time and owns a tabela few km away from the ghats and also had one buffalo in a shed below the house.
He served lassi in small earthern pots, used only once, and it was delicious, even Kayde enjoyed it, and it was only for Rs 10. We observed the architecture of his house and how life exists in these ancient alleys, its really intriguing!
We made our way back, and the stoned boatman after pulling a few drags from a chillum with a sadhu gave us a broad smile. The journey back was relatively quiet as we made our way through the polluted Ganges. Little do people realise the amount of the risk involved in drinking the septic river water. Back at the ghat we started from, we paid the boatman Rs 1400 and walked back to the rickshaw.
On our way to the hotel where the car was parked, we made a stop at the birth place of Parshvanatha, the twenty-third Tirthankar where a beautifully carved temple is constructed.
Since Varanasi is also the center of Shiva worship, its the hub of bhang, which is a preparation of marijuana leaves with cold milk, almonds, sugar, dry fruits. You will find bhang prepared at the ghats and its also easily available at the government recognised bhang shops.
This marked the end of our short stay in Varanasi as we made our way to the next stop – Gorakhpur – (around 200 km away) before crossing the Indian border to Nepal.
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