Ghats on the banks of River Ganga are soul of the holy city Varanasi. Over seven kilometers in length, the steps lead down from a steep bank to the sacred river. Those are the ghats. These stone steps wed the great Hindu metropolis to the Ganges. Like sentinels on each ghat terrace there stand the lingams, emblems of Siva and supposedly of creative energy. Pillarbox-shaped stones, they have nothing of the obscene about them. Here, where the Ganges wavelets lap the last of the stone steps, you may see young men performing vigorous Hatha Yoga (हठ योग) exercises — almost like Swedish drill — while at their side sit older men, legs crossed, eyes closed, immersed in meditation. They may be adepts of Raja Yoga (राज योग) — that strenuous concentration of mind, body and controlled respiration, leading potentially to eternal youth. Just as the mind can help the body, they argue, the body can help the mind. In Raja Yoga we find due attention paid to the subtler powers of that most delicate of machines, the human body. The “lotus seat” of India (पद्मासन) — cross-legged, the spine erect — affords a means by which the intellect is free to function with enhanced perception.
The time to see the ghats is early dawn. Out of the morning mist phantom-like forms descend the steps; from minute to minute their numbers increase. It is as if the entire city were shaking off its sleep and proceeding, from out of some eighty narrow streets, down to the Ganga. A solemn, silent multitude — thousand spots of colour, lit by the sun's first rays — all moving in the same direction, bent on immersion in the holy stream. Sacred cows saunter up and down the terrace steps. Young bulls put up a sideshow, butting each other, egged on by youthful spectators. Holy men repeat some sacred mantra in a guttural singsong.
Women bathe decorously in full dress. The ‘saree’ clings to their figures giving the effect of a Greek frieze. They wash their clothing and themselves adroitly bit by bit, combining thus the daily round with the devotional characteristic of the Hindu slant towards religion which makes no dour distinction between the sacred and the profane: all actions are potential acts of piety. The religious bathers plunge their heads under the stream to rinse their mouths.
The religious Hindus take a holy dip into River Ganga on the ghats of Varanasi before visiting holy shrines. The Hindus who pay their respects to the leading shrines and temples of Banaras and take about a week to do so, are absolved from all their sins and stand a good chance for spiritual salvation. They might even attain the ultimate goal of the devout: not to be reborn at all and eternal unity with Brahma — “sinless, stirless rest that change which never changes”.
A thin blue smoke twists up to the sky from the burning ghat, the Manikamika, the chief cremation centre of Banaras. Corpses wrapped in white silk or linen are borne on bamboo stretchers to the smoking pyres, where they are deposited to await their turn. This ghat is not supposed to be photographed. As a visitor walks down the steps to board a sightseeing craft, on either side beggars sit in serried ranks and further on Brahmins, under sunshades, are waiting to bless the pilgrims for a small donation (दान). About eighty in all, the ghats extend along almost seven kilometers of riverbank. At the western end, washer- women are to be seen and heard as they beat their linen against the stones. The terrace steps are sprinkled with straw umbrellas, not unlike giant mushrooms.
In the 17th century, the fanatical Aurangzeb pulled down one of the most sacred and holy Hindu temples and on its site raised a mosque.
The tallest of its minarets, dominating the skyline of the holy city, collapsed during the great flood of 1949 AD. Near
Manikamika Ghat is the Charanpaduka pedestal where one can see Vishnu’s footprints preserved in marble.
Some high caste people are incinerated here instead of the communal Burning Ghat.
As soon as one turns eyes towards the wide stretch of the River Ganga, one happens to see a wide stretch of Ganga. This right bank of Ganga is deserted
save for the solid pile of the Maharaja’s Palace at Rammagar, also called Ram Nagar Fort, built to resist the floods during the monsoon season.
The floods play havoc with Varanasi city side too: the serrated skyline shows the damage wrought by inundation: conical temples tobogganed towards
the river, houses lopsided.