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The Riverfront Ghats: Cultural Landscapes

Rana P.B. Singh & Pravin S. Rana

The Ganga River’s Ghatscapes

In Varanasi the riverfront Ganga­ provides a site-series of 84 ghats (stairways to the bank) as the special sacred chain of places (Fig. 3.1). Before we may think of preserving our cultural heritage resource, understanding and their documentation are prerequisite. From its source in the Himalaya to its mouth in the Bay of Bengal, covering a course of about 2525km, only in Varanasi does the Ganga river flow in a crescent shape from south to north. The 6.5km (4 miles) long riverfront of the river Ganga, forming the eastern edge of the city, possesses a unique history, and presents a specific vision of a magnificent architectural row of lofty buildings and holy sites. The history of ghats goes back to 8th-9th century, however the stone stair ghats started construction since 14th century, and as late as 2003 a few of the ghats finally built into stones. The Puranic mythologies refer to 96 sacred water spots (jala tirthas) along the Ganga bank, which is also considered to be a cosmic symbol, i.e. a product of 12 zodiacs and 8 directions (cf. Table 1). However, by the turn of 16th century the 96 jala tirthas get concentrated around the 84 ghats (Table 2).

The peculiar shape of the Ganga river, “crescent-shape like half-moon”, evolved as result of the fluvial process through which the coarser sediments deposited on its western bank between Raj Ghat in the north and Samne Ghat in the south also represents ‘natural heritage’. The portion between these two points a hillock-like geologic feature, called natural levée, consists of nearly 60m bed of clay with coarse-grained sand, limestone concretion (kankar) and gravel. Another similar ridge like formation exits other side at Ramanagar where exists the fort. This peculiar geological formation changes the flow of the Ganga in a half-circular shape. This sharp-bend meander is perhaps the only observed in Varanasi throughout its course. This unique geologic formation has provided base for the growth of the city in a crescent shape, symbolically described as crescent moon on the forehead of Lord Shiva. In terms of river ecology this characteristic is also considered as the unique aspect of energy quantum and direction of the energy flow. In fact, this whole bed of the Ganga river is an example of natural heritage.

The Ganga riverfront catches up the historically developed socio-religious ideals, values, place consciousness of pilgrims and their faith ― altogether help to form a unique faithscape. This provides the hope for belonging, the firm belief among the residents; and pilgrims, or visitors’ thought and feeling to realise the cultural milieu of Hinduism. The Ganga does have a deep sense of place because it has a history of divine attachment since ancient past as eulogised in mythological literature. In Varanasi the riverfront Ganga provides a site-series of 84 ghats (stairways to the bank) as the special chain of sacred places. The first rays of sunrise reaching upon the water current of the Ganga and their reflection on the magnificent buildings along the ghats compel to remind the Hymn to the Dawn of the Rig Veda (1.113): “Arise; the breath of life hath back to us, the darkness is gone, the light approacheth”.

Among the 84 ghats the 5 described as the most merit-giving and sacred, called Panchatirthis, are Asi, Dashashvamedha, Manikarnika, Panchaganga, and Adi Keshava. Taking a sacred bath at these five ghats provides the same merit as bathing at all the ghats. These five ghats symbolise the microcosmic body of Vishnu, respectively as the head, chest, navel, thighs, and the feet (cf. Eck 1982: 233). That’s how the area along the ghat is eulogised as Vishnu’s body.

Table 1. Varanasi: 96 Jala Tirtha Yatra (‘pilgrimage to riverfront sacred spots’).

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* The Ghats without any Jala Tirtha are not mentioned; for the list of Ghats, see Table 2.
Sources: Kkh, Kashi Khanda of the Skanda Purana; KR, Kashi Rahasya of the Brahmavaivarta Purana; KKT, Krityakalpataru of the Lakshmidhara’s Tirthavivechanakandam, TvK; MtP, Matsya Purana (for details see, Singh, Rana P.B. 2009, p. 230).

In the early Buddhist literature, e.g. the Jataka tales, dated ca 5th century BCE to 3rd century CE, the ghats are described as centre of purification like bathing and spot of transport like ferry points. Worn sculpted images dating from the 12th-13th centuries are still on display at a number of ghats, especially in the lower part, but “it is impossible to re-establish the early architectural layout of the riverfront at this time. Later references indicate that the ghats along the Ganga were delineated and named, but consisted largely of sand and mud embankments not yet firmly set and clad in stone. This lack of early surviving materials at a place with such a long history seems to be due largely to the river itself, which has an extremely changeable and destructive nature” (Hegewald 2005: 67). The Rig Veda (7.45.31), a ca. fifteenth‑century BCE text, eulogizes the Ganga as Gangeya, which means the “giver of all sorts of prosperity and peace”– the liquid spirit of sustainability. Similar sentiments are echoed in the Padma Purana (Shristi 60.64‑65), a ca. thirteenth‑century CE text: “We pray to you O! the Liquid-­energy of the Gangā – the universal form of supreme Lord Vishnu” (Singh 2009a: 268).

During the Gupta period, 3rd to 6th century CE, the ghats became the centre of economic and cultural activities. The Puranic literature describes its glory vividly in various contexts. In the Gahadavala period, 11th-12th century, as much as five ghats were mentioned in several inscriptions, viz. Adi Keshava, Vedeshvara, Kapalamocana, Trilocana and Svapaneshvara (cf. Singh 1993: 67; cf. Niyogi 1959). From the inscriptions it is also clear that on solar and lunar eclipses and on some other family celebrations people were going to the ghats for performances and giving donations to the Brahmins. The Jain text Vividhatirthakalpa (ca 14th century) has elaborated the importance of the ghats.

By 17th century the riverfront landscape (ghats) became prominent in the overall arena of Varanasi. Varadaraja’s Giravana-padamanjari (17th century) gives a full account of the ghats, rituals and festivals associated to them. The palatial buildings along the ghats were built under the patronage of the Marathas during 18th-19th centuries. Even in 19th-20th century many ghats were re-constructed, re-named and reshaped too.  Since 1950 the state government of Uttar Pradesh has been deeply involved in making the ghats stone staired (pucca) and their repairing.

During the period between late 18th and 20th century, many monasteries (ashramas), Sanskrit schools, temples, and pilgrims rest house were built by estates, patronised by the kings and queens, of different parts of India, like Peshvas of Pune (Gujarat), Holkars of Indore, and Scindhias of Gwalior (Madhya Pradesh), Bhonshalas of Nagpur (Maharashtra), Sursand, Bhabhua, and Darbhanga estates of Bihar, Rani Bhavani of Bengal, kings of Nepal, etc.

Many seers, philosophers, novelists and writers came to this city in different periods and expressed their feelings in different ways. The Ganga, the patron deity Shiva, and the sacred territory of Kashi/ Varanasi ― altogether form the Cosmic Trinity in this city, says Kashi Khanda (35.10):

The Ganga, Shiva and Kashi:
Where this Trinity is watchful
No wonder where is found the grace
that leads one on the perfect bliss.

The Riverfront Ganga Ghats

Among the total 84 ghats along the Ganga riverfront the 5 described as the most merit-giving and sacred, called Pañchatirthis, and are symbolise the microcosmic body of Vishnu, viz. Asi is the head, Dashashvamedha is the chest, Manikarnika is the navel, Panchaganga is the thighs, and Adi Keshava is the feet in Varanasi; that is why the area along the Ganga river is Vishnu’s body.  The importance of these five ghats has been first mentioned in the Matsya Purana, ca 6th century. Taking a sacred bath at these five ghats provides the same merit as bathing at all the ghats.  This reminds us that Vishnu first placed his holy feet. The Kashi Khanda (84.114) says that “Having bathed in the five tirthas, a person never again receives a body of five‑elements. Rather, he becomes the five‑faced Shiva in Kashi.” These ancient puranic tales refer to the close interdependency between Vaishnavite and Shaivite traditions; according to myth, Shiva and Vishnu are the one integral identity in Kashi (KKh, 50.144).

  1. Asi Ghat

Marking the southern edge of the sacred city in terms of the confluence of the Asi drain, this ghat was referred to in a seventeenth‑century text. The palatial buildings were made by the King of Varanasi in around 1830. This is one of the famous sites for celebrating the Surya Shashthi (the sixth day of the Sun as mother goddess) festival, which is held on the fifth and sixth waxing fortnight of the Hindu month of Karttika (October/November), when over ten thousand mothers perform this festival for the well‑being of their sons.

  1. Dashashvamedha Ghat

This ghat is presumed to be the first historically recorded site associated with the myth of the ten horse‑sacrifice ritual performed by Bhar Shiva Naga kings in around the second century A.D. This is also the busiest ghat. On the tenth waxing fortnight of the Jyeshtha (May/June) worship of the Ganga is celebrated on a grand scale in the Ganga temple at the top of the ghat. The sacred bath on the occasions of the solar and lunar eclipses and in the month of Magha (December/January) is also important.

  1. Manikarnika Ghat

Known in myth as the “great cremation ground this ghat is mentioned in the Gupta inscriptions of the fourth century CE, this ghat has two parts: one for cremation and the other for bathing and rituals. After cremating corpses, the mourners and attendants take baths at this site. Pilgrims and devotees perform ancestral rites at this ghat, more commonly in the special period of the waning fortnight of Ashvina (September/October). There are many holy spots near this ghat.  Culturally, this site is important in a sense that this had been the meeting point of Shaiva and Vaishnavite traditions. The Vishnu Charanapaduka, a slab of marble representing the footprints of Vishnu, is considered as ‘the holiest spot in the sacred city’. Mythology reveals that Vishnu performed meditation (tapas) here in standing pose for about 500,000 years to please Lord Shiva. Finally, Shiva appeared, and by virtue of Vishnu’s boon, settled here, and as a testimony to that story Vishnu’s footprints are visible nearby. From this area, one can easily identify the Vishnu Kshetra of the north and Shiva Kshetra of the south.

This ghat is described vividly in the Kashi Khnda (26.119, 122; 33.103; 34.17-34), and popularly eulogised as ‘the great cremation ground’ (Mahashmashana). The Manikarnika Ghat is mentioned in the Gupta inscription of 4th century. A myth mentions that Lord Siva gives tāraka mantra (‘prayer of the crossing’) in the ear of the dead, therefore the form of Siva as Tarakeshvara, (the temple is at the ghat), is propitiated whenever a Hindu die. This is the first ghat made stone staired (pucca) by the two king brothers in CE 1302-03; and was rebuilt and repaired in 1730 under the patronage of Bajirao Peshava, and in 1791 Ahilyabai Holkar rebuilt the entire ghāṭ. Again in 1872 repairing and renovations were done (Fig. 3.2). In 1965 the government of Uttar Pradesh has repaired and re-built this ghat.

In the vicinity are the shrines of Manikarnike­shvara (a little far in the upperside of the lane), Maheshvara (open air lingam at the ghat) and Siddha and Manikarna Vinayakas (Fig. 3.3). Located at the top and reached by the steeply ascending lane south of the water pool is the temple of Manikarnikeshvara (Gomath Ashram, Brahmnal, CK 8/ 12), and is approachable from the ghāṭ by taking a steeply ascend­ing lane south of the Kunda. This is the first of the 108 shrines in the Panchakroshi pilgrimage route. It is located two storeys below the courtyard of the monastery. Here, the notion of the golden age becomes manifest as the pilgrim descends into the dark underground, down to the original, the “real” soil of the world. About 40m from the entrance point to the above ascending lane one will meet the shrine of Siddha (“perfection”) Vinayaka/ Ganesha (Brahmnal, Manikarnika Lane, CK 9/ 1) the right. He is the guard of the east and the giver of bliss, success and relief from the curse of Yama (the god of death). He is the 8th among the 56 Vinayakas who protects the city at all the 56 conjunctions made of 7 round spiral layers and 8 cardinal directions.

Maharaja Mangal Singh of Alwar Estate, Rajasthan, built the Manokameshvara Temple in 1895, on the roof of his residential quarter. The sectional parts include half-sanctum, half-pavilion and the rectangular mandapa. The porches are well decorated and represent the mature work of stone carving. There are gates in all the four directions of the inner sanctum. There are beautiful images of Shiva, Ganesha and Parvati. To reach this temple, one has to pass through the residential quarter, which many times are unpleasant.

Close to the bank is the Maheshvara linga in the open air. On the right one can see a temple slowly leaning into the Ganga. Since the early 19th century this temple has been standing in the same way. Close to it is Chakrapuskarini (‘Discus Lotus-Pool’) or Manikarnika Kunda (Fig. 3.3), a sacred water pool. According to puranic mythology Shiva’s crest-jewel (Mani-) and his wife Parvati’s earring (-karnika) fell off into the sacred pool, hence the name Manikarnika. A tale relates that with his disc (Chakra) Vishnu made this pool, which is reflected in the name Chakrapuskarini. According to the 12th century text, the Kashi Khanda (26), Vishnu made this beautiful ‘lotus pond and filled’ it up with water from the sweat of his own limbs, and performed fierce austerities here. Says the Kashi Khanda (60.137-138): “For the benefit of the three worlds King Bhāgiratha brought the Ganga to the place ‘where Manikarnika is — to Shiva’s Forest of Bliss (‘Anandavana’), to Vishnu’s Lotus Pool (Chakrapuska­rini Kunda)’.

According to puranic myth long before the Ganga arrived at the heels of Bhagiratha, the Chakrapuskarini Kunda was present. Presently the Kunda surrounded by a cast-iron railing, is some 18.3 sq m (197 sq ft) at the top, nar­rowing to about 6.1 sq m (66 sq ft) at the water’s edge (see Fig. 6.3). The kunda represents the world’s first pool, which was dug out at the dawn of time and filled with the sacred water of Lord Vishnu’s perspiration. Vishnu and Lakshmi images are located in the small shrine inside the Kunda on the western wall; while a series of dozen small niches containing Shiva lin­gams also exit there. Along the sacred route, on the ghat itself, are the symbolic-holy footprints of Vishnu (Charana-Paduka), set in a circular marble slab. Through the centuries millions of devout Hindus have sprinkled it with the holy Ganga water and adorned it with flowers. A plate from Prinsep’s 1831 collection of engravings shows these footprints, which the subtitle calls “The holiest Spot in the sacred City”.

Queen Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore built the temple Tarakeshvara (‘Lord of Crossing’) in 1795, on a rectangular plan. The temple is structured with the base of six pillars. At the entrance is the image of Ganesha. In the inner sanctum, in a vessel is a four-headed Shiva lingam. Like the Banaras style of Panchayatana temple, here also are the images of Surya, Durga, Ganesha and Vishnu in the four corners. This Shiva image, in the forenoon decorated with five-headed mask made of bronze, provides liberation to the departed soul by putting sacred verses in the ears. Tarakeshvara is propitiated after the completion of cremation rites. This temple is assumed to be the replica of the famous shrine, about 62-km north-west of Kolkata. At the three famous sites of Shiva temples there exist the image of Tarakeshvara, i.e. in the Jnanavapi, east to the great Nandi bull, in the Khemaka temple near Vishvanatha (Golden) temple, and at the Kedar Ghat.

This ghat area has ancient reputation as a crema­tion ground; says Lord Siva: “Having become Time it­self, I destroy the world here, O Goddess!” (Padma Purana, 1.33.14). However, it is not clear when this site was fully accepted for cremation. Moreover, the NP (2.48.67), the MP (182.23b-24) and the KKh (30.84-85) describe its glory in terms of cremation and death rituals. The raised platform attached to the Ghāṭ is used for death anniversary rituals. A little over 30,000 corpses are cremated annually in Banaras of which about 28,000 are cremated at Manikarnika cremation Ghat, and the rest at Harishchandra Ghat in the south. Cremating a dead body consumes on average about 5 quintals (500kg) of wood. Every dead body gets registered at the nearby office, followed by the negotiations and bargaining with the funeral priest (Dom) who gives the sacred fire for funeral. Between Jalashayi and Manikarnika Ghats in the stream lies fourteen water ­tirthas, among which important are Vishnu, Bhavani, Skanda, Taraka, Avimukteshvara and Pashupati.

  1. Panchaganga Ghat

This ghat is frequently described in circa eleventh‑century mythologies. This site was famous for the grand temple of Vindu Madhava (Vishnu) which was demolished and converted into a mosque in 1670 by the Mughal king Aurangzeb. That mosque still serves as the landmark along the arc of the river. The Ganga­-arati (offering oil lamps to goddess Ganga) at the time of sunrise and sunset is the most attractive scene at this ghat. In the month of Karttika (October/November), the ritual offering of oil lamps to ancestors, arranged in the sky with bamboo stands, is performed by the ghatiyas (priests at the ghats) on behalf of the devotees who patronize the cost or materials and rewards for service. Sacred baths at this ghat purify the human being in all its five fundamental organic elements of subtle substance, i.e., sky/ether, water, air, fire, and earth.

  1. Adi Keshava Ghat

Since the Gahadavala period (circa eleventh century), this ghat has been famous for the temple of Vishnu Keshava, and it is assumed to be the oldest in the whole region. For Vaishnavites (followers of Vishnu), this is the most attractive site. In practice, most of the pilgrims take baths at the nearby confluence site of the Varena and the Ganga rivers, followed by visit and rituals in the Adi Keshava temple.

Vision and Perspectives

In the present era, the Ganga riverfront has certainly changed to a certain degree as ‘unhealthy place’; to put metaphorically ‒ “with the accumulation of human sins since time unmemorable, the mother Ganga herself became ‘a stream of sins”. This can easily be visualized, perceived and ultimately feel sad for all this.

India’s soul lies in its history; the mind in learning and the body in Ganga. If the Ganga would go, Varanasi would lose its very being. It is the body that houses the mind as well as the soul. Unfortunately, the Ganga is on the way to loss its identity as river, whose waters purify the impure. Ganga is the most polluted major river of India and one of the most polluted rivers of the world. It is a sad reflection on Indian urban planning and let-loose industrialization, that the river has been converted into a drain to carry urban and industrial effluents. 

To paraphrase Carl Jung: “The people of India will never find true peace until they can come into a harmonious relationship with and cultivate deeper feelings of reverence for the Ganga River, which is the cradle and identity of India’s culture and civilization since time immemorial” (cited by Swan, as in Singh 1996: 105).  In the words of a devout pilgrim, “The people of Varanasi, nay the world community have to take action against the pollution of Ganga. A movement to bring Ganga back to what it was before it was converted into a sewer drain and to modernize the city while preserving its heritage has to be launched.”

Mahatma Gandhi rightly warned us that “nature has enough for everybody’s need, but not for everybody’s greed”. A mass awakening of awareness in the context of old cultural values would promote a new spirit of sustainability. Such a revival, however, need not turn into fundamentalism nor should it cause any damage to secular life.

The disposal of human wastes and other pollutants in the Ganga has been prohibited since time immemorial. According to the Prayaschitta Tatva (1.535), a ca 9th century text,

“One should not perform fourteen acts near the holy waters of the river Ganga, i.e., excreting in the water, brushing and gargling, removing all clothes from the body, throwing hair or dry garlands in the water, playing in the water, taking donations, performing sex, having sense of attachment to other holy places, praising other holy places, washing clothes, throwing dirty clothes, thumping water, and swimming.”

The Padma Purana (Bhumikhanda, 96.7-8) states that persons who engage in such unsociable activities and in acts of environmental pollution are cursed and will certainly go to hell.

To paraphrase Carl Jung:

“The people of India will never find true peace until they can come into a harmonious relationship with and cultivate deeper feelings of reverence for the Ganga River, which is the cradle and identity of India’s culture and civilization since time immemorial”.

Basic Sources

Eck, Diana L. 1982. Banaras. The City of Light. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

KKh, The Kashi Khanda (of Skanda Purana). 1961. Gurumandala Granthmalaya No. XX, vol. IV, Calcutta.

Prinsep, James 1833. Benares Illustrated in a Series of Drawings. I, II, and III Series. Baptist Mission Press, Calcutta.

RgV, The Rig Veda Samhita. Commentary of Sayanacharya. 1966. Ed. F. Max Müller. Chaukhmbha Sanskrit Series, Varanasi.

Sherring, M. A. 1868. Benares. The Sacred City of the Hindus. London. Reprinted in 1990 by Cheap Publ., New Delhi.

Singh, Rana P.B. (ed.) 1993. BANARAS (Varanasi): Cosmic Order, Sacred City, Hindu Traditions. Tara Book Agency, Varanasi.

Singh, Rana P.B. 1996. The Ganga River and the spirit of sustainability in Hinduism; in, Swan, James & Swans, Roberta (eds.) Dialogues with the Living Earth. Quest Books, Theosophical Publ. House, Wheaton, IL, USA: pp. 86-107.

Singh, Rana P.B.  2004. Cultural Landscapes and the Lifeworld. The Literary Images of Banaras. Pilgrimage and Cosmology Series: 7. Indica Books, Varanasi.

Singh, Rana P.B.  2009. Banaras, Making of India’s Heritage City. Planet Earth and Cultural Understanding, Series: 3. Cambridge Scholars Publishing Newcastle u. Tyne U.K. 

Singh, Rana P.B. 2009. Banaras, India’s Heritage City: Geography, History, & Bibliography.     [including Bibliography of 1276 sources, Hindu Festivals, 2006-15]. Pilgrimage and Cosmology Series: 8. Indica Books, Varanasi.

Singh, Rana P.B. 2013. Hindu Tradition of Pilgrimage: Sacred Space and System. Dev Publishers, New Delhi.

Singh, Rana P.B. and Rana, Pravin S.  2021.  Banaras Region: A Spiritual & Cultural Guide. Pilgrimage & Cosmology Series: 1. Indica Books, Varanasi. 2nd Edition.

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