Benaras: Sunset and Sunrise on the Ghats

When my sister had to convince me to join them on this trip, all she said to me was – Laaga Chunari Mein Daag. I wasn’t sure why she said that cause it remains the worst movie we’ve watched together. “The Ghats, Di!” she squealed in delight. “Don’t you want to see them?” To be honest, I didn’t because of the overly zealous religious rites that happen to be their main attraction. But a few hours later I was holding an electronic ticket to Varanasi.

In my last post, I talked about my first impressions of Benaras. The ghats are a whole different deal. A ‘ghat’ is a set of steps leading to the banks of a river; in the case of Varanasi, it is the holy river Ganga. There are a total of 87 ghats in Benaras – most of them are for bathing and worship, and a few exclusively for cremation rites. While some are privately owned, there are others owned by Marathas, Holkars, Scindias, and the likes. If you take a boat ride, you can see all their names painted on the walls at the top of the steps.

Dashashwamedh Ghat which is next to Meer Ghat (where we stayed) is closest to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Every evening at about 6:30, the pandits offer a prayer to Lord Shiva, the river Ganga, and the Universe. It is a spectacular sight to behold. Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat are the two cremation sites. Many Hindus believe that the soul will obtain salvation if they are cremated here. As many as 80 bodies are cremated here every day. As per Hindu code, sadhus (holy men) are neither buried nor cremated. Their bodies are usually let into the river. This is why you may occasionally see floating corpses in the river Ganga.

Don’t be alarmed by all this information. I was bit overwhelmed too. But once you get there, you’ll see that it is not all bad. It is totally worthwhile to take a boat ride at sunrise or sunset for beautiful photo opportunities. It costs about Rs.150 per person. There were five of us and the hotel arranged an exclusive motorboat for us at Rs. 600. The boatman will give you sparse information about the ghats. It doesn’t take very long to cover them all. An hour should be plenty of time for a round and a half. Be sure to catch the evening Ganga Arati from the boats to avoid the crowd on the ghat. In the morning, the ghats are empty and you can most definitely take a walk (if not a boat ride). The chai (tea) at Dashashwamedh ghat is quite delicious.

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