Each evening at dusk on the banks of the Ganges the Ganga aarti - a devotional ritual - is performed in three of India's hoilest cities: Varanasi, Rishikesh, & Haridwar. The aarti in Varanasi is performed facing the river from the Dasaswamedh Ghat. Although it seems very touristy and less spiritual (more so than in Haridwar or Rishikesh) it is a must see when in Varanasi.
The aarti is performed by five young pandits/priests on elevated planks. They wear a dhoti and saffron colored kurta, bound with a long towel. The aarti starts with the blowing of a conch shell. Sticks of incense are waved circling large flaming lamps. The rhythmic chants and the smell of incense are almost hypnotizing.
The aarti starts at 6:45-7:00 although people start to arrive much earlier to ensure a good view. Another way to see the aarti is from a boat in the river. Since the aarti is performed facing the river, I thought this was a much better option. Be advised that there are many boats and you will be "stuck in the middle" of them all until the aarti is over and the boats start to clear out. And...look out for the many bats flying above your head.
The most popular Hindu temple in Varanasi is the Shri Kashi Vishwanath Mandir (Vishwanath Temple). The temple is dedicated to lord of the universe, Shiva. Enshrined in the temple is a Jyotirlinga of Shiva (one of only twelve in all of India) where Shiva "is worshipped in the form of a Jyotirlingam. 'Jyothi' means 'Radiance' and Lingam, the Shiva Lingam-'the mark or sign' of The Almighty or the phallus symbol. Jyotir Lingam means the The Radiant sign of The Almighty." (Source: wiki)
Another unique feature of the temple is 800kg of gold plating on the tower and dome. Since Non-Hindus are not allowed inside the temple, a small glance of the gold is all you're likely to get if you go through the security (no cameras, mobile phones, show passport) just to enter the outside secured area - you won't even be able to enter the gates of the temple ground.
For darshan/aarati schedule see website below. Be sure to take a look at the "live" Darhan feed... http://www.shrikashivishwanath.org/en/online/live.aspx.
**Be advised that if you come up on the path from the Dasaswamedh Ghat it's a nasty route strewn with garbage, urine, dead rats, etc.**
Kshameshwar Ghat is located south of Dasashvamedha Ghat. A small faded yellow temple/shrine sits on top of the steps.
Kshameshwar Ghat is another ghat frequented by South Indians. Although it is a wide ghat, is it very overshadowed by neighboring Raja Ghat.
Prayag Ghat is just south of - and next to - Dasaswamedh Ghat, considered the most important section of the ghats in Varanasi. This means that Prayag Ghat is usually crowded with the overflow of people especially during daily early morning and evening pujas.
The ghat was built by Balaji Bajirao in 1778 and replicates the Prayag holy city in Allahabad.
There is a yellow-brown colored Hindu shrine at the ghat. Holy men who sit in front of the shrine under rattan umbrellas provide fortune-telling services to the pilgrims.
Many devotees will bathe in the Ganga from here.
Chet Singh Ghat is located south of Dasashvamedha Ghat. This ghat is easily recognized by the beautiful red fort, Shivala, atop the stairs. Originally known as Khirki Ghat, it is now divided into 4 parts: Chet Singh, Niranjani, Nirrvani and Shivala. The ghat also has 3 Shiva temples.
The fort was once the palace of the Maharajas and is where Chet Singh fought a fierce battle with British troops and was imprisoned by them. He escaped by climbing down to the river and swimming away.
The Ganga's current is very strong here so most people avoid bathing here.
Raja (Raj) Ghat is north of Dasashvamedha Ghat and most likely that last ghat you will see on your boat trip. It was built in the early 1700s, but Gahadavala inscriptions date back to the 10th century.
Raja Ghat was a ferry peir until the late 1800s, when Lord Duffrin built a bridge - for road and rail travel. In 1948 the bridge was named Malaviya Bridge after the founder of Banaras Hindu University, Madan Mohan Malaviya.
There are four teerthams (holy water) - Sankhya, Uddalaka, Hayagriva and Nilagriva - associated with Raja Ghat. Four temples of Amritesvara, Vinayakesvara, Nayanesvara and Gangesvara and four auxiliary shrines are located on top of the ghat.
Ganesh Ghat is north of Dasashvamedha Ghat. It was previously known as Agnisvara Ghat. Built in 1807 , it is the location of Peshwa's Shree Ganesh Mandir (temple).
Two important shrines - Bhadresvara and Nagesa Vinayaka - are at the top.
Panchaganga Ghat is located north of Dasashvamedha Ghat. It is also the location where five rivers - Ganga, Yumana, Saraswati, Kirana, and Dhupapapa - are supposed to meet. There is a temple dedicated to the Goddess Ganga here.
The Alamgir mosque, a blend of Hindu and Muslim architecture stands - looms - over the ghat. It was built by Aurangzeb on the site of a large Vishnu temple which was destroyed. The temple was built by Maratha chieftan, Beni Madhav Rao Scindia.
Scindia Ghat (also known as Scindias/Shinde), located south of Dasashvamedha Ghat, was built in 1830. It was so heavy and ornate that it collapsed and fell in the river. It was then rebuilt. Its tilted Shiva temple still lays partially submerged in the Ganga.
The shrines of Vashishta, Vamadeva and Atmavireshvara and Paravata Teerth - some of the city's most important - are located above the ghat in an area known as Siddha Kshetra, which means the field of fulfillment.
Built by the King of Gwalior in the mid 19th century, Jalasen Ghat is north of Dasashvamedha Ghat. Along with Manikarnika Ghat, Jalasen makes up the cremation ghats with Jalasen being the principal burning ghat.
It is also known as Jalasayi Ghat, which means "putting dead body in water", which is part of the ritual before the body is placed on the funeral pyre.
Please do be respectful when taking photos of the ghat and refrain from taking close-up photos of a funeral or mourners.
Manmandir Ghat is just north of Dasashvamedha Ghat. It was built during the 1600s by Raja Man Singh, the Maharaja of Jaipur. An intricate structure of Rajput architecture, it is befitting a maharaja.
Originally known as Somesvara/Someshwara (the Moon's Lord) Ghat, it is one of the oldest ghats in Varanasi and was renovated in the 19th century. A stone balcony and a top floor observatory are two of the highlights here. The observatory is open to visitors but check before you go.
Manmanddir Ghat has a long flight of stairs leading up from the river and seems to change colors depending on the lighting/time of day.
Famous temples such as Sthuladanta Vinayaka, Rameshwara and Somesvara/Someshwara are located here. Somesvara/Someshwar lingam is the replica of Somesvara/Someshwar lingam in Somanath, Gujrat, one of the nine Jyotirlingas in India. Many Hindu devotees visit this Ghat to offer prayers and bathe in the Ganga.
The house of the Dom Rajas with painted tigers on the terrace is located nearby. Considered untouchables, Doms handle the corpses at the cremation grounds.
"The Ganga, especially, is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India's age-long culture and civilization, ever changing, ever flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga."
- Jawaharlal Nehru, First Prime Minister of India
Not only is the Ganga a spiritual and cultural center for the people of India, she is the lifeline for the people who live on her banks. Along the banks of the Ganga are more than 30 cities, seventy towns, and thousands of villages. An astonishing 450 million people - more than 36% of the population of India - depend on the waters of the Ganga for food as well as a source of income.
In the Ganga basin farmers grow rice, lentils, sugarcane, cotton, wheat, etc. In the swamps and lakes along the Ganga, farmers grow legumes, chilies, and jute. The fertile grounds of the plains are where cattle, buffalo, and goats are raised. The Ganga also provides plenty of freshwater fishing. There are over 450 different medicinal plants growing in the Ganga basin, which is referred to as "a treasure house of drugs". And lastly, with millions of tourists coming each year to the banks of the Ganga as part of their pilgrimage, the Ganga provides income through tourism.
Munshi Ghat is located south of Dasaswamedh Ghat next to the imposing palace on Darbhanga Ghat. It was built in 1912 by Sidhara Narayana Munsi who was a finance minister in Darabhanga.
Munshi Ghat is where the city's large Muslim population comes to bath. About 25% of the population is Muslim. The Ganga has no religious significance for them.
Munshi Ghat is considered one of the most beautiful along the river.
Dashashwamedh Ghat is one of the oldest and holiest ghats in Varanasi. It is located close to Vishwanath Temple and is considered the main ghat in Varanasi. Two Hindu mythologies are associated with Dashashwamedh. The first is that it was created by Lord Brahma to welcome Lord Shiva. The other is that Lord Brahma sacrificed 10 horses in a ritual offering at Dashashwamedh.
You will likely find yourself here several times during your stay in Varanasi. Dasaswamedh Ghat is where the Ganga aarti takes place every night. It is also likely to be the ghat from where your boat will leave for the sunrise or dusk trip on the Ganges.
Dasaswamedh Ghat is constantly busy and is a great people-watching spot. Beware of beggars and fake sadus!
Darbhanga Ghat is located south of Dasaswamedh Ghat next to Rana Mahal Ghat. This imposing palace with its towers and turrets was built in the early 1900s by the royal family of Bihar. One of the highlights of this palace is the very early lift that was operated by hand, now said to be out of operation.
Darbhanga Ghat has a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. There is also a building nearby that is used for performing religious rituals.