The ancient, the famous, the holy, the busy and the popular city of Varanasi is a destination of a different taste – photographer’s paradise, holy men’s den, the utopia of faith and religion. Every individual have their own liking and disliking yet a definite reason to visit Varanasi, as I had my own. Varanasi makes an everlasting impression on the visitors and captivates them with her own mystic charm.
I was captivated in its charm and Varanasi made a place in my heart. The overcrowded, not so clean, old city may have a different overview to many but even in the chaos and the filth of the city, you can find a life of a different kind, a vibe that entices and engages you to be a part of Varanasi.
So let me give the same old introduction of the same old city that people has read, heard and known from ages. Varanasi, previously and religiously known as Kashi is the ancient city that lies on the confluence of two rivers Varuna and Assi with the Ganges… and thus the name Varanasi. This is a religious city especially attached to Hindu religion and customs but the other religions have their equal presence and importance too.
To talk about Varanasi as a whole my post would become extra long so I decided to write it in parts. To me who is not much religiously inclined, Varanasi is all about the Ghats and ‘Banaras ki Gallian’ (narrow lanes) and these two places are the most happening in the city. Everything that happens here happens either on the Ghats or in the Gallis.
Other than the two ‘G’s (Ghat and Galli) of Varanasi the Banarasi Pan, Banarasi Silk, Banarasi Lassi, Banaras ki Kachori are equally famous. I will keep this first part of my post on Varanasi dedicated to the Ghats. The paved steps on the riverfront are known as Ghats. There are 88 ghats in the city that stretches from the North to South of the course of the river Ganges. The river is the lifeline of the city the ghats are the hub of all activities here.
Starting from birth to death every occasion is associated with the ghats. Primarily all ghats here are open for any occasion except the Manikarnika Ghat and the Harishchandra Ghat which are only used as cremation ghats. Although these ghats are much highlighted, photographed and talked about by many but I would not like to stay away from this remorse part of the city and rather focus on the other flavours of Varanasi.
Among all the ghats in Varanasi, the Dasaswamedh ghat is the holiest, most famous and happening. As per the legend, Lord Brahma created this ghat to welcome Lord Shiva on Earth while the other story says that Lord Brahma sacrificed ten horses in this place while performing the Dasa-Ashwamedha yajna. This being the holy ghat, all sorts of religious rituals are mostly held here.
This ghat is also famous for the evening Ganga Aarti. (To know more about and see the pictures of Ganga Aarti in Dasaswamedh Ghat read my post.) Religion is no bar in this ghat, people from all religion are seen to enjoy and participate in the ghat life. You can find people of all age, region and various nationality in these ghats engaged in different acts.
Our stay here was just by the Chousatti Ghat and so any Ghat was easily accessible and the ghat life was more visible. Morning, afternoon and evening time I could easily make my way to the ghats without worrying much about the correct route through the Gallis and thus it became one of my favourite pastimes during my stay in Varanasi.
Where there are ghats there will be boats and here you find numerous boats of all size and shape, some anchored some afloat some being made and some dismantled. These boats are mostly engaged for boating which is the most popular activity by the ghats. Boating on the Ganges can be done at any time of the day but early morning boating and the evening boating has another purpose too.
Early morning boating can be clubbed with watching the Ganga aarti in Assi ghat and the sunrise while evening boating can be bundled with the evening aarti in Dasaswamedh ghat and the Rajendra Prasad ghat. There is no fixed rate for the boating and the boatman generally tries to make a quick money by asking for a huge amount.
It is always preferable to book the boat through the hotels you stay so as to escape from the hassle of bargaining and overpaying. The hotels may charge little more than the actual amount but it is a more reliable way to get the best price and a good boat.
Before visiting Varanasi I had a plan to do the boating twice, once in the morning and then in the evening. I thought of watching the aarti once from the boat and once from the ghats. After my first day in Varanasi, watching the aarti from the ghats I decided to drop the idea of the evening boating to see the evening aarti.
With numerous boats lining up the ghat and the distance of the aarti stage from the boats I found a good reason to change my plan. Although I dropped my idea of watching the evening aarti from the boat but kept my morning plan intact.
It was still dark and at the wee hours of four in the morning accompanied by the hotel employee I reached the ghats. What a sleepy scene it was then. I was wondering how these sleepy ghats turn into a hub of the city during the daytime.
All the boats that sail on the river were resting anchored by the ghats and the boatmen were peacefully sleeping on their floating home. A calm and a different scene altogether – the empty ghats some bright others dimly lit, the sleeping boatmen, the cool air and the placid waters were creating a surreal environment.
We were the only person walking down the stairs. The hotel employee took me to the designated boat and woke up an elderly boatman sleeping on his boat. He immediately jumped into action and started rowing his oars sailing the boat keeping it close to ghats.
We sailed by the ghats bending with the course of the flow. Manmandir Ghat, Narad Ghar, Kedar Ghat, thus, ghats with different names came one after the other and as they appeared in front of me I found no life moving only the flames of death burning in the Harishchandra Ghat and the near ones of the departed in heavy heart waiting to finish the last rites. These grave scenes made me thoughtful and various thoughts kept pondering on my mind.
Beautiful Havelis, some in a dilapidated state some well maintained stood tall and firm narrating their glorious past. I wondered how life would have been in those times, how the residents of these Havelis and the houses lived and how their daily life was. I heard many stories of the haunted Havelis of Benaras and these age battered building standing precariously by the ghats in these dark dimly lit time immediately reminded me of such stories and a chill ran down my spine.
No, I am not in the category of those who believe in these haunted stories but the light and shadow of the present scene definitely played the trick to shake my faith. I tried to shift my focus on other things when people were gradually seen in the ghats getting ready for their daily chores.
On the other side, the sky was getting lighter and the dawn was breaking in. The boatman ‘chacha’ was still yawning and with his sleepy eyes, he was looking for the best spot to watch the sunrise. But there was still some time for the sunrise and we reached the Assi ghat to watch the morning aarti.
Chacha advised me to get down and close to the aarti stage to watch and capture the aarti. Watching the morning aarti in this serene ambience was yet another wonderful experience to remember forever. (Read more about the aarti from my previous post.) I got back to the boat after the aarti.
The painted sky was gradually changing shape and the orange circle quietly showed up in the sky turning the surrounding bright in its glowing aura. Many boats were seen on the river, some carrying tourists others busy in wrapping their nets laid the previous night.
All the haunted stories vanished in a moment and now it was all bright and golden with the morning rays falling on the pale withered walls of these ancient structures. Even in their shabby state, they looked glorious speaking aloud of their vibrant past.
With the passing of time, these ghats get busier and all activities are seen here. Washermen line up the dhobi ghats battering the clothes on the stones to get the perfect white. The reminiscent of the age-old famous Akharas now lies in a handful of men practising the moves in the ghats.
The pandits were seen setting up their business with huge, iconic thatched umbrellas by the ghats. These umbrellas are synonymous to Varanasi scene and you find it everywhere in the ghats mostly in the Dasaswamedh Ghat where people come from all over India and abroad to perform the holy rites from the pandits in the ghat.
People gather for various purpose some to take a holy bath to start their day in a sacred way while some to perform yoga and meditation, thus, the activities keep going on. Newness and modernity have also made a place among these old businesses. There is a small skating floor made for the enthusiast to practise the sport. Youths are seen balancing themselves in between the barriers.
At any time of the day, you can hear some holy music being played from one or the other temple in the ghats. Vendors make good business and the pandits too, make the good use of the holy ghats to earn their bread.
While the life of the boatmen revolves around the river and the ghats. Their business starts early even before the dawn and lasts till late. They cook, eat and sleep in their boats. It is their home. Walking on the ghats you get to experience the constant call of these boatmen to take a ride. Try to be polite in refusing this constant nagging call as this is their mode of earning the livelihood.
As the evening approaches, the Ghats get ready for the aarti. Previously the aarti was only held in the Dasaswamedh Ghat but these days Ganga Aarti is held in many ghats of Varanasi. Still, the aarti in Dasaswamedh Ghat remains the most popular.
People gather much before to get the best possible seat to watch the aarti. As visitors gather, business thrives too depending on the need of the people. Some sell flowers Diyas, some sell snacks while some sell toys to keep the kids entertained. The roving photographers capture the photos of the visitors in different poses and sell the instant prints to make them happy.
As they do business other photographers patiently wait for the aarti to start and meanwhile they capture the crowd and the preparatory phase of the aarti. Watching the crowd and capturing them is yet another fun. You get to see interesting people engaged in different activities and you have the opportunity to capture them in your camera and caption them as you like.
The Rajendra Prasad Ghat, beside the Dasaswamedh Ghat is equally famed for the aarti and the cultural functions held here every Wednesday. Performers dressed as their character are seen walking past the crowd inducing the awe among them.
From life to death, life revolves around the ghats and the Gallis of Banaras. Walking from the Galli to the Ghat, Banaras is a story, a feeling, an ancient scene wrapped in a new package. Banaras and its Ghats became one of my favourites. My next post will be on the ‘Gallis’ of Benaras. So stay tuned to feel the complete vibe of Banaras starting from the Ghats and getting lost in the Gallis of Varanasi.