River Front (Ghats)
The great river banks at Varanasi, built high with eighteenth and nineteenth-century pavilions and palaces, temples and terraces, are lined with an endless chain of stone steps - the ghats - progressing along the whole of the waterfront, altering in appearance with the dramatic seasonal fluctuations of the river level. Each of the hundred ghats, occupies its own special place in the religious geography of the city. Some have crumbled over the years; others continue to thrive, with early-morning bathers, brahmin priests offering puja, and people practicing meditation and yoga. Hindus regard the Ganga as Amrita, the elixir of life, which brings purity to the living and salvation to the dead; skeptical outsiders tend to focus on all-persuasive and extreme lack of hygiene.
Asi Ghat to Kedara Ghat
At the clay-banked Asi Ghat, the southernmost in the sacred city, at the confluence of the Asi and the Ganga, pilgrims bathe prior to worshipping at a huge lingam under a peepal tree. Another lingam visited is that of Asisangameshvara, the "Lord of the Confluence of the Asi", in a small marble temple just off the ghat. Equated with the twelve adityas or divisions of the sun, which predate the great deities of Modern Hinduism, it was attracting bathers in the days of the Buddha. Much of the adjacent Tulsi Ghat - originally Lolarka Ghat, but renamed in the honour of the poet Tulsidas, who lived nearby in the sixteenth century - has crumbled. Continuing north, above Shivala Ghat, hanuman Ghat is the site of a new temple built by the large south Indian community.
Named for the legendary king said to have almost lost everything in a fit of self-abnegation, Harishchandra Ghat, one of the Varanasi's two cremation or burning ghats, is easily recognizable from the smoke of its funeral pyres.
Kendra Ghat Further north, the busy Kendra Ghat is ignored by pilgrims on the Panchatirthi Yatra. Above its steps, a red-and-white-striped temple houses the Kedareshvara lingam, an outcrop of black rock shot through with a vein of white. Mythologically related to Kedarnath in the Himalayas, the ghat becomes a hive of activity during the sacred month of Sravana (July/Aug), the month of the rains.
Chauki Ghat to Chaumsathi Ghat
Northwards along the river, Chauki Ghat is distinguished by an enormous tree that shelters small stones shrines to the nagas, water-snake deities, while at the unmistakable Dhobi (Laundrymen's) Ghat clothes are still rhythmically pulverized in the pursuit of purity. Past smaller ghats such as Mansarovar Ghat, named after the holy lake in Tibet, and Narada Ghat, honouring the divine musician and sage, lies Chaunsathi Ghat, where impressive stone steps lead up to the small temple of the Chaunsathi (64) Yoginis. Images of Kali and Durga in its inner sanctum represent a stage in the emergence of the great goddess as a single representation of a number of female divinities. Overlooking the ghats here is Peshwa Amrit Rao's majestic sandstone haveli (mansion), built in 1807 and currently used for religious ceremonies and occasionally, as an auditorium for concerts.
Dashashwamedha Ghat, the second and business of the five tirthas on the Panchatirthi Yatra, lies past the plain, flat-roofed building that house the shrine of Shitala. Extremely popular, even in the rainy season when devotees have to wade to the temple or take a boat, Shitala represents both both benign and malevolent aspects - ease and succour as well as disease, particularly smallpox.
Dashashwamedha is Varanasi's most popular and accessible bathing ghat, with rows of pandas sitting on wooden platforms under bamboo umbrellas, masseurs plying their trade and boatmen jostling for custom. Its name, "ten horse sacrifices", derives from a complex series of sacrifices performed by Brahma to test King Divodasa: Shiva and Parvati were sure the king's resolve would fail, and he would be compelled to leave Kashi, thereby allowing them to return to their city. However, the sacrifices were so perfect that Brahma established the Brahmeshvara lingam here. Since that time, Dashashwamedha has become one of the most celebrated tirthas on earth, where pilgrims can reap the benefits of the huge sacrifice merely by bathing.
Man Mandir Ghat to Lalita Ghat
Man Mandir Ghat is known primarily for its magnificent eighteenth-century observatory, equipped with ornate window casings, and built for the Maharaja of Jaipur. Pilgrims pay homage to the important lingam of Someshvara, the lord of the moon, alongside, before crossing Tripurabhairavi Ghat to Mir Ghat and the New Vishwanatha Temple, built by conservative Brahmins. Mir Ghat also has a shrine to Vishalakshi, the Wide-Eyed Goddess, on an important pitha - a site marking the place where various parts of the disintegrating body of Shakti fell as it was carried by the grief-stricken Shiva. Also here is the Dharma Kupa, the Well of Dharma.
Immediately to the north is Lalita Ghat, renowned for its ganga Keshava shrine to Vishnu and the Nepali Temple, a typical Kathmandu-style wooden temple which houses an image of
Manikarnika Ghat- North of Lalitalies Varanasi's pre-eminent cremation ground, Manikarnika Ghat. Such grounds are usually held to be inauspicious, and located on the fringes of cities, but the entire city of Shiva is regarded as Mahashmashana, the Great Cremation Ground for the corpse of the entire universe. The ghat is perpetually crowded with funeral parties, as well as the Doms, its guardians, busy and pre-occupied with facilitating final release for those lucky enough to pass away here. Photography is strictly taboo; even having a camera visible may be constructed as intent, and provoke hostility
Bordering Manikarnika to the north is the picturesque Scindia Ghat, with its tiled Shiva temple lying partially submerged in the river, having fallen in as a result of the sheer weight of the ghat's construction around 150 years ago. Above the ghat, several of Kashi's most influential shrines are hidden within the tight maze of alleyways of the area known as Siddha Kshetra (the field of Fulfilment). Vireshvara, the Lord of all Heroes, is especially propitiated in prayer for a son; the Lord of Fire, Agni, was supposed to have been born here.
Panchganga Ghat to Adi Keshva Ghat
Beyond Lakshmanbala Ghat, with its commanding views of the river. Lies one of the most dramatic and controversial ghats, Panchganga Ghat, dominated by Varanasi's largest riverside building, the great mosque of Alamgir, known locally as Beni Madhav-ka-Darera. Panchganga also bears testimony of the initiation of the medieval saint of the Sufi-Sant tradition, Kabir , the son of a humble Muslim weaver who is venerated by Hindus and Muslims alike. Along the river front lies a curious array of three-sided cells, submerged during the rainy season, some with lingams, others with images of Vishnu, and some empty and used for meditation or yoga. At Adi Keshava Ghat (the "Original Vishnu"), on the outskirts of the city, the Varana flows into the Ganga. Unapproachable during the rainy season, when it is completely submerged, it marks the place where Vishnu first landed as an emissary of Shiva, and stands on the original site of the city before it spread southwards; around AdiKeshva are a number of Ganesha shrine.
The Old City at the heart of Varanasi, between Dashashwamedha Ghat and Godaulia to the south and west and Manikarnika Ghat on the river to the north, lies Vishwanatha Khanda, sometimes referred to as the Old City. The whole area rewards exploration, with numerous shrines and lingams tucked into every corner, and buzzing with the activity of pilgrims, pandas and stalls selling offerings to the faithful. Approached through a maze of narrow alleys and the Vishwanatha Gali (or Lane), the temple complex of Vishwanatha or Vishweshwara, the "Lord of All", is popularly known as the Golden Temple, due to the massive gold plating on its shikhara (spire). Inside the compound - which is hidden behind a wall, and entered through an unassuming doorway - is one of India's most important Shiva lingams, made of smooth black stone and seated in a solid silver plinth, as well as shrines to the wrathful protectors Mahakala and Dandapani, and the lingam of Avimukteshvara, the Lord of the unforsaken, which predates Vishwanatha and once held much greater significance. The current temple was built in 1777 by Queen Ahalya Bai Holkar of Indore, and is closed to non-Hindus, who have to make do with glimpses from adjacent buildings. gold image of Annapurna. Nearby is a stunning image, faced in silver against a black surround, of Shani or Saturn. Anyone whose fortunes fall under his shadow is stricken with bad luck - a fate devotees try to escape by worshipping here on Saturdays.
The Kashi Vishwanath Temple
Also known as the Golden Temple, it is dedicated to Lord Shiva, the presiding deity of the city. Varanasi is said to be the point at which the first jyotirlinga, the fiery pillar of light by which Shiva manifested his supremacy over other gods, broke through the earth's crust and flared towards the heavens. More than the Ghats and even the Ganga, the Shivalinga installed in the temple remains the devotional focus of Varanasi. Entry restricted for non Hindus.