The great riverbanks at Varanasi, built high with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pavilions and palaces, temples and terraces, are lined by stone steps – the ghats – which stretch along the whole waterfront, changing dramatically in appearance with the seasonal fluctuations of the river level. Each of the hundred ghats, big and small, is marked by a lingam, and occupies its own special place in the religious geography of the city. Some have crumbled over the years while others continue to thrive, visited by early-morning bathers, brahmin priests offering puja, and people practising meditation and yoga. Hindus regard the Ganges as amrita, the elixir of life, which brings purity to the living and salvation to the dead, but in reality the river is scummy with effluent, so don’t be tempted to join the bathers; never mind the chemicals and human body parts, it’s the level of heavy metals, dumped by factories upstream, that are the real cause for concern. Whether Ganga water still has the power to absolve sin if sterilized is a contentious point among the faithful; current thinking has it that boiling is acceptable but chemical treatment ruins it.
For centuries, pilgrims have traced the perimeter of the city by a ritual circumambulation, paying homage to shrines on the way. Among the most popular routes is the Panchatirthi Yatra, which takes in the pancha (five) tirthi (crossings) of Asi, Dash, Manikarnaka, Panchganga, and finally Adi Kesh. To gain merit or appease the gods, the devotee, accompanied by a panda (priest), recites a sankalpa (statement of intent) and performs a ritual at each stage of the journey. For the casual visitor, however, the easiest way to see the ghats is to follow a south–north sequence either by boat or on foot.
Boat trips on the Ganges
Boat trips on the Ganges
All along the ghats, and especially at the main ones such as Dashaswamedh, the prices of boat (bajra) rental are highly inflated, with local boatmen under pressure from touts to fleece tourists and pilgrims. There’s a police counter at the top of Dashaswamedh, but the lack of government tourist assistance means that renting a boat to catch the dawn can be a bit of a free-for-all, and haggling is essential. There is an official rate, determined by UP Tourism, of Rs50 per hour for a small (one- to four-person) boat, Rs75 for a larger (five- to ten-person) one, but you won’t find a boatman who’ll agree to it.