Varanasi Things to Do

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    Maa Ganga: Life Line of Indian Culture

    by Donna_in_India Updated Sep 1, 2013

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    "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.

    Says it all
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    Munshi Ghat

    by Donna_in_India Updated Aug 31, 2013

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    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.

    Munshi Ghat
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    Dashashwamedh Ghat - Where the Action is

    by Donna_in_India Updated Aug 31, 2013

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    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!

    Dashashwamedh Ghat
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    Darbhanga Ghat

    by Donna_in_India Updated Aug 31, 2013

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    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.

    Darbhanga Ghat
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    Rana Mahal Ghat

    by Donna_in_India Updated Aug 31, 2013

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    Rana Mahal Ghat is located south of Dasaswamedh Ghat next to Darbhanga Ghat. It was built in 1670 by the king of Udaipur and is considered one of Varanasi's important ghats. Nearby is the Vakratunda Vinayaka Temple, which is dedicated to Lord Ganesh.

    I read that Rana Mahal Ghat is the place where ghosts are found at night. It, along with 6 other ghats has been chosen for beautification.

    Rana Mahal Ghat
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    Early Evening Boat Trip on the Ganga

    by Donna_in_India Updated Aug 31, 2013

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    While the dawn boat trip up and down the Ganges is a must do, I think that the dusk trip is almost as nice and I would definitely recommend doing both. The lighting is different - dawn can be a little harsh until the sun appears.

    You can arrange a trip through your hotel/guesthouse before you arrive at the ghats but you won't have any problem finding a waiting boat down at the ghats, at least the busier ones.

    Most trips start at the centrally located Dashashwamedh Ghat, considered one of the most important - and busiest - ghats. This is a good location to go if you have not pre-booked a boat. There are more boats here - more choices - and you'll be able to negotiate a good price. Be sure to negotiate a price before hiring a boat!

    You can time it so that you stay in the boat for the evening aarti (THE must do in Varanasi!). Be aware that there will be a lot of boats surrounding yours so you are "stuck in the middle" until the aarti is well over. Oh...and there will be bats flying above your head, which for me was very distracting!

    Early Evening on the Ganga
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    Make an Offering of Flowers & Fire on the Ganga

    by Donna_in_India Updated Aug 31, 2013

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    Small diyas with a candle and flower are given as offerings to Maa Ganga, goddess of the most holy river in India, at sunrise and sunset. This ceremony is part of an aarti, a devotional ritual that uses fire as an offering. The lamps are floated down the Ganges and thought to acquire the power of the deity. After the ritual is complete, devotees cup their hands over the flame and raise their palms to their forehead to get purification and blessings from Maa Ganga.

    There are boys/men selling the diyas near the water's edge as well as in small boats that will come up to your boat. The diyas are inexpensive and it is a nice gesture to light the candle in memory of a loved one. Wherever I am, no matter what the religion, I always make an offering in honor of my father.

    It is quite pretty to see all of the lit diyas during the evening aarti.

    Flower & Candle Offering
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    Shopping in the Ganges

    by Donna_in_India Updated Aug 31, 2013

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    While you are out in a boat for your early morning or dusk trip down the Ganges, a boat will approach with statues, diyas/flowers, water vials, etc. for you to purchase. We purchased diyas as well as a couple of water vials so I could bring home some Ganga water to my (Hindu) mother-in-law. It was very special to light the diyas and set them afloat as well as bringing the water to my MIL but some of the other items for sale were a little odd to be offered out in the middle of the Ganges!

    Shopping on the Ganges
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    Rituals in the Ganga

    by Donna_in_India Updated Aug 31, 2013

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    The Ganges is the most sacred river to Hindus. It is worshipped as the goddess Ganga, also known as Maa Ganga.

    Hindus from all over India flock to the Ganges. They believe that bathing in its sacred waters not only rids themselves of a lifetime of sins but also bestows heavenly blessings upon them. They pay homage to their ancestors, they offer flowers, and float lit diyas down the river. They carry small vials of Ganges water home with them to use in rituals.

    And in the end, if they cannot come to die by the Ganga, they hope a loved one will bring their ashes to the Ganga. This is considered very auspicious and will lead to salvation of the deceased.

    A Ritual Dip(Dunk)
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    Lalita Ghat

    by Donna_in_India Updated Aug 31, 2013

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    Lalita Ghat is located north of Dasasvamedha Ghat. The ghat got its name from the Goddess Lalita and was built by the king of Nepal in 1841. The Nepalese style temple has a golden roof and wood carvings, including some erotic ones. It also houses an image of Pashupateshvara, a manifestation of Shiva.

    Lalita Ghat also has a Ganga shrine to Vishnu.

    Lalita Ghat
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    Kedar Ghat

    by Donna_in_India Updated Aug 31, 2013

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    Kedar Ghat is located south of Dasashvamedha Ghat. It is easy to spot by its temple with a red and white candy-striped exterior. It was built by the Maharaja of Vijayanagar and is dedicated to Lord Shiv (Kedarnath). The Kedaresvara temple enshrines a lingam.

    Most of the ghats have pilgrims from different communities. South Indians and Bengalis frequent Kedar Ghat. It is also considered of the significant pilgrim spots in Varanasi. The waters here are said to have healing properties.

    Kedar Ghat
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    Chousati Ghat

    by Donna_in_India Updated Aug 31, 2013

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    Chousati (Chausatthi) Ghat is located south of Dasaswamedh Ghat next to Digpatiya Ghat. It is named after 64 (chausatha) goddesses. The steep steps lead to the Chausath Yogini Temple. A yogini is an assistant goddess and 60 of the 64 are enshrined in the temple.

    The temple is dedicated to the Goddess Kali, one of the most misunderstood Hindu goddesses, likely due to her wild and fearsome appearance. Kali has been called the goddess of death, destruction, and darkness. She is actually the mother goddess, with whom her devotees share a loving bond.

    Many Hindus come to the temple during the new moon day of the month of chaitra, an auspicious day when they take a dip in the Ganga. Non-Hindus are not permitted to enter the temple at any time.

    Chousati Ghat
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    Digpatiya Ghat

    by Donna_in_India Updated Aug 31, 2013

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    Digpatiya Ghat is located south of Dasaswamedh Ghat. The palace-like structure was built by the Raj of Digpatia and is an excellent example of North Indian architecture.

    The structure goes almost to the river's edge and there are just a few steps (ghats) between the river and structure. It is very steep and narrow. Passing by in the early morning, there were few pilgrims/visitors here.

    Digpatiya Ghat
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    Manikarnika Ghat (Cremation Ghat)

    by Donna_in_India Updated Aug 31, 2013

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    Manikarnika Ghat - also known as the burning ghat - is located south of Dasaswamedh Ghat. The main cremation ghat, it is one of the oldest and most sacred ghats in Varanasi. It is also one of the most auspicious places that a Hindu can be cremated. Hindus believe you are freed from the cycle of births and rebirths if you are cremated here.

    However, most Hindus simply cannot afford the cost of a cremation here. Most likely because of that, there is also an electric cremation center where the cost is about 1/4 of a normal cremation, though even that is considered expensive by Indian standards.

    If you are coming along the river it is likely that you will see and smell the smoke before you reach the ghat. Cremations take place all day and night, and at nightime you'll see the fires burning brightly. High piles of firewood are stacked on top of the ghat. (It takes about 700 pounds of wood to burn a body.)

    After being bathed in the Ganga by family members, the body wrapped in silk or linen shrouds (white for men, orange or red for women) is carried to the pyres for the ritual that precedes the cremation. The bodies are carried by doms who are considered both guardians of the dead and untouchables/outcasts. The oldest son - or closest male relative if there isn't a son - lights the fire.

    There are about 10 pits for cremations at Manikarnika Ghat where there are 200-300 cremations a day. You are able to watch the process from above (something I did not choose to do). Whether you do or whether you pass the ghat on a boat, be respectful and do not take any photos of a cremation or mourners.

    Manikarnika Ghat
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    Morning Boat Trip on the Ganga

    by Donna_in_India Updated Aug 31, 2013

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    A very early morning - dawn - boat trip up and down the Ganges - the river to heaven - is often the highlight of any trip to Varanasi and really is a must do. You can arrange a trip through your hotel/guesthouse before you arrive at the ghats but you won't have any problem finding a waiting boat down at the ghats, at least the busier ones.

    Most trips start at the centrally located Dasaswamedh Ghat, considered one of the most important - and busiest - ghats. This is a good location to go if you have not pre-booked a boat. There are more boats here - more choices - and you'll be able to negotiate a good price. Be sure to negotiate a price before hiring a boat!

    As the sun rises, the boats move quietly and effortlessly to the southern end of the ghats to Asi Ghat before turning to the northern end and Panchaganga Ghat. As your trip progresses, you will see more and more people on the ghats and in the river going about their everyday business: soaping themselves up, brushing their teeth, and taking a ritual dip in the river, washing clothes, offering flowers and incense to the river, even taking swimming lessons! They seem oblivious to the tourists in the boats snapping photographs.

    Up on the ghats you will see people practicing yoga, resting, praying. A passing boat will offer to sell you a small brass container to collect water from the sacred river or flowers to make your own offering (usually in memory of a deceased loved one - a very nice thing to do).

    There are so many ghats, different sizes and styles, and temples along the way - so much to take in. You'll pass Manikarnika Ghat, the cremation ghat but it's likely you'll see and smell the smoke before you see the ghat. Be sure to be respectful especially when taking photos. Don't take photos of a cremation or mourners.

    The whole trip takes about 60-90 minutes.

    Boat Trip at Sunrise on the Ganga
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