Ghats Of Varanasi – A Cultural Landscape 

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Introduction

Varanasi also known as Benaras or kashi is a City on the banks of river Ganga in the Uttarpradesh state of North India. Varanasi grew as an important industrial centre, famous for its muslin and silk fabrics, perfumes, ivory works, and sculpture. Buddha is believed to have founded Buddhism here around 528 BCE when he gave his first sermon. Religious importance of Varanasi grew in the 8th century, when Adi Shankaracharya established the worship of shiva as an official sect of Varanasi.

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Varanasi experienced a cultural revival in the 16th century under Mughal Emperor Akbar who patronized the city and built two large temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu. Much of Varanasi was built during the 18th century by Maratha and Brahmin kings. 

Varanasi has been a cultural centre of North India for several thousand years and is closely associated with the Ganges. Hindus believe that death in the city will bring salvation, making it a major centre for pilgrimage. The city is known worldwide for its many ghats, embankments made in steps of stone slabs along the river bank where pilgrims perform ritual ablutions. Of particular note are the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the Panchganga Ghat, the Manikarnika Ghat and the Harishchandra Ghat, the last two being where Hindus cremate their dead and the Hindu genealogy registers at Varanasi are kept here.

Ghats of Benaras

The Ghats are a thin sliver of public space, ranging in width from 50’-500’ on the Ganga between its confluence with Assi Nala and Varuna River. The open spaces mediate between the city and the river; temples, historic palaces and mansions, and new residential and commercial buildings stretch out creating an impressive skyline .The design language consists of prototypical forms — bastions, balconies, aedicules, portals, pavilions and platforms — in different sizes and materials, and in many combinations. The historic architecture responds to the changing water levels of the Ganga -the upper floors are porous with windows, balconies, and galleries for viewing the river while the lower floors of palaces are built solidly without openings, and with octagonal or circular towers to resist the thrust of rising waters when the Ganga floods. The formal grammar unites the vertical historic facades of riverfront buildings with the horizontal surfaces of steps and landings. The towers are aligned with square, rectangular, octagonal, and circular platforms built over well foundations that divide the steps to the river into bays. Octagonal platforms (marhi) built to strengthen the steps can be hollow or solid. Trees also have circular and rectangular platforms built at their base for shrines, and landings are dotted with movable wooden platforms used for a variety of activities.

The flat surfaces of steps and landings are articulated into volumes through niches and aedicules whose forms are shared with temple architecture. For example, the walls of Panchkroshi Temple consists of hundreds of niches that represent shrines visited by pilgrims on the panchkroshi yatra circumambulatory journey around Varanasi Besides receding niches, temple walls are also articulated by projecting aedicules; the ghats similarly have freestanding shrines, occasionally embedded in walls. Make shift places are created from lean-tos built from bamboo and jute/canvas housing lingas, aghoris (holy men), or snacks sellers. Thus a volume is created with the use of found materials on the planar surface of steps and landings.

Main ghats of Varanasi and their functions

Assi ghat – Ganga meets the river Assi located at the extreme southern end of the city. Assi ghat is an important ghat for the Hindu, hindus bathe there before worshipping lord Shiva in the form of huge lingam under pipal tree.

Chet Singh ghat is of historical importance, site of 18th century battle between Maharaja Chet Singh who ruled Varanasi and British. Darbangha ghat is a photogenic favourite and most visually appealing and architecturally impressive ghats, built in early 1900 by royal family of Bihar. Dashwmedha ghat is the heart of action, top attraction in Varanasi, oldest and holiest of Varanasi ghats, it is the ghat where famous ganga aarti is performed every evening. According to Hindu mythology, lord Brahma created the ghat to welcome lord Shiva. Man mandir ghat, very old Varanasi ghat, is notable for its exquisite Rajput Architecture. Scindia ghat picturesque and peaceful place,with none of the grimness of nearby Manikarnika ghat (the burning ghat). Bhonsle ghat distinctive looking Bhonsle ghat built in 1780 by Maratha king Bhonsle of Nagpur. Substantial stone building with small artistic windows. Manikarnika ghat most confronting manikarnika ghat also known as burning ghats the place where majority of dead bodies are cremated in Varanasi. Hindus believe it will hibernate them from the cycle of death and rebirth.

The ghats are an urban mise-en-scene where not only the drama of everyday life but also death and celebration of life plays out. Aarti, i.e. daily felicitation to the Ganga and cremation occur on the riverfront, most spectacularly at Dashashwamedh and Manikarnika Ghats, attracting large crowds.

In life and death processes considered to be polluting in Hinduism, fire and water are purifying agents, and they are part of both events. Ganga is venerated with fire (as are other gods and goddesses) and on the ghats, the faithful worship at dawn the rising sun. On ancient water bodies such as Lolarka Kund on Assi Ghat, it is believed that life symbolically begins when sunrays strike water. Fire is the agent of destruction — mortal remains of a Hindu are cremated on the riverbank, in the belief that Ganga will purify the pollution associated with death.

Death and Manikarnika ghat

Manikarnika Ghat is instantly recognizable by its smoking fires, soot-covered buildings, and stacks of wood piled on boats and landings As the center of the three-mile long sweep of the ghat stretch, it has the sacred kund (tank) believed to have been dug by Lord Vishnu and the cremation ground, symbolic of the universe burning at the end of time. It is the abode of Lord Shiva who presides over mahashamshan, the great cremation ground. Here Shiva is known as Tarakeshwar, the one who whispers the tarak mantra in the ears of the dying. Although Shiva is the reigning deity of this ghat, Vishnu shares the place as attested by his footprints and Manikarnika Kund, the site of his austerities. The myth describing the co-existence of both gods is allegorical of the Hindu belief that creation is preceded by destruction. Manikarnika Ghat distills all of Varanasi’s sacred energies in its waters of creation and fires of destruction. It is the place where people surrender their bodies and become one with Shiva.

It was the first embankment to be clad in stone in the thirteenth century although its temples were built in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. At the river edge are many square platforms, solid and well as hollow with niches where lingas are washed by the Ganga, with poles with canvas strung above them as shade structures. The visual order is layered and complex with temple spires, flat roofed pavilions, aedicular shrines, and platforms built on the sloping embankment. Some people die in hospices on the ghats, others are brought from the city and nearby villages, and their bodies carried on bamboo poles on the shoulders of mourners. After being washed in the Ganga, the cremation ritual commences—the eldest son circumambulates the body five times and puts the fire taken from the doms into the mouth. Midway through the burning, the skull is broken with a wooden pole in the ritual, kapalkriya for the soul to escape. As the fires die down, the son breaks a clay water pot and walks away without turning back. The ashes are gathered from the funeral pyre and immersed into the Ganga.

Life and Dashwamedha ghat

The largest and most popular of celebrations occurs every evening at Dashashwamedh Ghat drawing large crowd of visitors. Aarti to Ganga is a performance for about thirty minutes at dusk by a local organization called Ganga Sewa Nidhi. Fire is the key element here as well but unlike Manikarnika Ghat where it is a conflagration consuming the body, here it is an oblation offered to the Ganga as a visible reminder of how life begins. Dashashwamedh Ghat is a popular ghat–one of the main roads of Varanasi bifurcates on either side of a large produce market and turns into steps leading down to the river’s edge. It is named after the sacrifice of twelve horses performed by the creator of universe, Brahma. The archetypal act was repeated by rulers, most notably by the second century dynasty of Bara Shiva Nagas. It is believed that by bathing at this ghat, one reaps the benefit of this ancient sacrificial act performed by gods and kings. Its design grammar is similar to other ghats–the edge is activated by hollow and solid octagonal platforms, plus there are semi-fixed platforms on landings that are hubs of activities. Niches containing Ganga and Shiva deities activate the vertical plane.

As dusk falls, activities cease and for a brief period the ghat is transformed into a spectacle. Two groups of young male performers prepare the wooden platforms in two stretches for the aarti ceremony. The platforms become stage sets for a choreographed event performed in unison. This involves invoking the presence of Ganga and venerating her prowess by singing her glories. Sounds of conchs, drums, and bells accompany the song sung by accomplished singers and blared over loudspeakers. Peacock feathers and fly whisks sweep the air; incense and camphor in brass pots are waved in circular motions as if the performer is inscribing a mandala is space with his gesture. Lastly fire in tiered brass lamps are offered to the Ganga with uplifted arms. Then the performers prostrate themselves before the iconic (statue) and phenomenal (river) forms of the Ganga, paying her obeisance. Gestures, posture and clothing dramatize their actions.

The cultural landscape

The ghats (steps and landings) on the Ganga River in Varanasi, India are a vernacular landscape defined by situated events, natural — flooding and changing flow of the Ganga – and cultural including ritual activities and performances that sustain public life.

The formal and spatial language of the ghats is activated in everyday spatial practices bringing vitality to the riverfront. The design vocabulary of the ghats is similar everywhere yet the landscapes as constituted by events are different and carry profound meanings about the role of Ganga in sustaining life, removing pollution, and promising liberation from the cycle of death and life.

According to Michel De Certeau, cultural practices are spatial in that they are defined by places; built forms and practices mutually constitute the cultural landscape, each impacting the other. Steps and landings, pavilions, platforms, shrines, and niches become behavior settings, loci of activities that are congruent with formal language of the ghats. Steps to the river facilitate bathing and other rituals centered on the holy waters and washing clothes, while those above the landings are used as sitting spaces to watch public life. The top of marhis seats groups in a circle suggested by the octagonal shape; the interior of hollow ones could be changing rooms or a shop. Movable platforms are used for rituals, massages, selling trinkets and religious paraphernalia.

The patterns of ritual and recreational activities have a diurnal rhythm tied with interaction with the river – bathing and worshipping the sun at dawn and early morning, washing and cleaning in late mornings and afternoons, leisure activities in the evenings, and waving of lamps (aarti) to Ganga at dusk.

Conclusion

It is widely acknowledged that Varanasi Ghats embody cultural heritage but less understood are the various ways in its material and intangible forms are intertwined. Historic monuments built in the last three centuries are the focus of current preservation efforts, although most are in private use, and do not contribute to the public realm. The steps, landings, and their structures as an enacted landscape of a rich and vibrant public life, have been ignored so far. This vernacular landscape is shaped by spatial practices that keep ancient traditions alive and vigorous. It is always in flux, its temporality a function of the Ganga’s seasonal flow and the rhythm of rituals and festivals determined by planetary motion. The kinetic aspect necessitates rethinking the existing monument-centric preservation practice

The scope of conservation should expand to include managing public spaces of the ghats so that they are not encroached by private interests, regulating practices that pollute the Ganga, and promoting arts and crafts. New structures should be based upon the traditional design grammar; instead of being fixed and rigid, they should be deployable so that they can adapt to kinetic urbanism. Local crafts such as bamboo umbrellas, wooden boats, clay pottery, and making candle wick and flower garlands should be promoted and incentivized through subsidies. Cultural events such as Subh-e-Banaras and evening aartis at many ghats should be supplemented with organized exhibitions of arts and crafts, and music and dance festivals celebrating the Banaras Gharana (school). More specifically the historic monuments should be integrated into the public realm; visual aids should be designed for way-finding; narrative surfaces should be designated for folk-art; and deployable structures should be built for vending kiosks and visitor facilities.

16 August 2021

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