My second visit to Banaras was a week back in March, and the old city seemed to be in rumination and it looked like it wasn’t really sure if it wanted to blow off the last bit of chill from the air and brace itself all up for the sweltering heat that is to follow.
The last time I was there was almost half an year back, when the Ganges seemed to be rising and rising. The roads of the city were flooded and the Ghats, for which Banaras is so famous for, had all been under water. Amidst all the misery, was a populace who stringently believed that the Ganges was washing all their sins away.
This time however, with the waters having receded, I could experience the Varanasi Ghats and the life that incessantly goes on around its realms. It doesn’t take much of an exploration to discover that this amazing city is built on the banks of the holy river, and the Ghats, stretching from the Assi Ghat at one end to the Raja Ghat that is a few hours walk away, are what make it the cultural spectacle that it is.
There are plenty of things that you could probably do on the Ghats, and I was stationed at Assi this time around. The city wakes up quite early, and it always is better if you head out towards the Ghats at dawn, just as the sun decides to thrown in some light yet again. If you are at Assi, the Subah-e-Banaras will be on in full swing, and you could join the chorus of singers to sing a couple of Bhajans or just let yourself be lost in a magical morning where music delightfully blends in with nature.
The walk ahead is one that is best taken slow, what with 87 Ghats to follow Assi. The Ghats lie in quick succession to one another, and before long you will have walked past the Tulsi Ghat where the city wrestlers from the local Akhara will be busy with their workout routines. Some of the Ghats wear a deserted look, while some others remains quite busy, like the Kedar Ghat, which is predominantly a bathing Ghat that is renowned for the red and white stripes that are painted all over its steps.
The crowd thickens as you reach Dashashwamedh Ghat, which is where the entire action happens in Varanasi. The Ganga Aarti that takes place at the Ghat every evening witnesses thousands of people from all over the world gathering around to have a glimpse of the colorful Puja. Sitting along the Ghat in a row are scores of priests under leaf umbrellas, and as the day gives way for the night, the entire place lights up in celebration. The idol of the Ganges is adorned, the lamps are lit and bells are rung, and the Ghat reverberates with the chants that worship the river goddess.
Beyond the Dashashwamedh Ghat is the burning Ghat, better known as Manikarnika Ghat, where pyres burn day and night and men and women sit weeping, lamenting their bereavement. As one moves further, the crowds wane away, and you come across Ghats aplenty, where its just you and the river, and a whole lot of sky beyond.
A walk from one end to the other could take somewhere between three to five hours one way, depending on how brisk a walker you are, or how curious an observer you might be. It would always be best to have a couple of extra water bottles in your backpack, and with the sun scorching down on you, make sure that you don’t get burned.
If you have got plenty of days at your disposal, do keep apart a few days for those lovely walks along the Ghats, that let you get to know Varanasi inside out. And if you have got lots of time, do not forget to get a massage on the Ghats, get a new haircut, fly a few kites with the local kids, savor some real hot lemon tea or have an evening chit chat with the boatmen, before you call it a day!