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If there was ever a word to describe the concept and layout of Bharat Mata Mandir, it is INIMITABLE. This one isn't an ode to the legacies of Laxmi, Shiva, Ganesha, Hanuman or Ram; it is the ultimate tribute to Mother India (Bharat Mata). Upon entering, one is stunned into silence with the sunken-level three-dimensional relief map of undivided India, carved from marble and with every proportion in place. The range of Himalayas protruding upwards particularly catches the eye, so do the smaller mountain ranges and oceans along the west coast. Brainchild of the artistic duo of Babu Shiv Prashad Gupta and Shri Durga Prashad Khatri, this matchless work of art was built in 1936 and inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi.
Ahilyabai Ghat has the distinction of being the first ghat named in honor of a person, namely, the warrior queen Ahilyabhai Holkar of Indore who actually built it in 1778 along with a number of temples and spiritual residences throughout the city of Varanasi. The best time to come here is in the morning when Indian worshipers take a holy dip in the river to cleanse themselves of sins in hope of attaining moksha.
Wooden carvings adorn the walls of this small beautiful temple, built by the King of Nepal, at the Lalitha Ghat. Reminiscent of a rich tradition of craftsmanship, the temple creates awe in the eyes of every visitor. The setting is peaceful and calm with a natural silence lingering around the place. Inside the shrine is the Pasupathi Nath Shiva Linga, which is worshiped by devotees. There is a nominal entry fee to visit the Nepali temple, which goes to the welfare trust of the temple.
Pointing to a time when horse sacrifice was common, the translation of the name Dasashwamedh says 'the place where ten horses were sacrificed'. Hindu mythology says the creator Brahma did a sacrifice here to let Lord Shiva get back to Varanasi; and thus it is one of the most auspicious sites for Hindus all over the world. This is the site of the stunning Ganga Aarti, which is performed daily on the raised platforms on the ghat with seven priests doing choreographed ritualistic offerings to mother Ganga. Considered as the most important ghat along the banks of Ganga, a large number of guesthouses and restaurants are located around the area. The main burning ghat, Manikarnika is towards the north. One of the most ancient sites in the city, Dasaswamedh Ghat is a legendary sight filled with tourists and pilgrims.
According to Hindu tradition, people cremated at the Manikarnika Ghat after death will be freed from the chain of life and death. That explains the chaos, mystery, indifference, noise and everything surrounding this area which is said to be the abode of Lord Shiva. The name Manikarnika goes back to the story where Shiva dropped his earrings at the well here during his transcendental dance and it came to know as Manikarnika Kund. The cremations take place without break and fills the air with the smell of burning flesh which is surprisingly not repulsive. Foreigners from all around the globe watch the activities here with much intrigue and the locals take it with compassion though not without a fragment of disdain. The apparent indifferent face of death is reinforced with the underlying philosophy of material transition and is something that has to be experienced.
The exalted Kashi Vishwanath Temple finds itself mentioned in ancient Hindu scriptures, and was actually built in 490 CE but fell prey to successive demolitions by the Mughal invaders all through the centuries. The present temple was built in 1790 by the warrior queen Ahilyabhai Holkar who was aggrieved by the wanton destruction of age-old sacred structures. Hindus believe that a dip in the river Ganges and a visit to this temple serves to break free from the cycle of rebirth. Also referred to as Golden Temple because of the spire which was made from pure gold donated by Maharaja Ranjith Singh, this temple is a must-visit. The main deity here is a black lingam upon which devotees pour blessed water. Foreigners have to register their passports to enter the premises as security has been beefed up in recent years due to the looming terrorist threat. Mobile phones, cameras and bags of all visitors have to be deposited at any of the shops that line the entrance, while police urge crowds to hurry and keep moving. The experience is most intense, intriguing and divine.
A quaint site of active spirituality, the Scindhia Ghat charms with the orchestrated flight of steps to the holy river Ganges. Previously known as Vireswara ghat, this spiritual abode was renovated in the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries by different rulers. Being in the proximity of the cremation site, Manikarnika Ghat, this ghat sees a lot of pilgrims coming here for a holy dip in the river. There are platforms specifically made for religious rituals. Local wrestlers exercising in the platforms is an interesting early morning sight here. The Sinking Temple, Vireswara Mandir , Dattatreya Paduka Mandir and Siddh Hanumanji Nyas are the major religious attractions which have this ghat as their base. Another conspicuous presence here is the popular Scindhia Guest House, which offers budget accommodation with impressive river views.
The Ganga Mahal Ghat never fails to capture the imagination of first-time visitors to the holy city of Varanasi. What else can one do other than marvel at the majestic stone brown building that soars into the blue skies while the fortress-like facade looks down benevolently upon the Ganges, it's bathing pilgrims and the dreamy boats! Watch out for the exquisite stone carvings that reflect Rajput architecture.
Ghats are a series of steps that lie along the banks of a river. In the city of Varanasi, life revolves around these sacred steps because here is where pilgrims take a dip in the River Ganges to wash away a lifetime of sins. While some ghats are more subdued than the others which are colorful, prominent and backed by magnificent sandstone buildings, all of them have an equally intriguing story to tell. Tourists mostly tend to traverse between Panchganga Ghat in the north and Assi Ghat in the south, however there are many beyond these. A fascinating kaleidoscope of human activity awaits you here - women washing clothes, pilgrims taking a dip, cattle cooling off, dogs scouring the area for food, young boys playing cricket or diving into the river, funeral pyre flames rising into the skies ceaselessly, dread-locked sadhus meditating, boatmen soliciting customers, vendors selling flowers and Western tourists filming this Carnival of Life that plays out day-after day in this City of Shiva.
Alternately known as Aurangzeb Mosque or Dharahara Mosque, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)- protected Alamgir Mosque enjoys a superb location along the relatively quieter Panchganga Ghat which is sacred to Hindu bathers. A steep climb will lead you up to one of Varanasi's most celebrated landmarks which pretty much defines the skyline with its spectacular brown minarets. Built by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb upon the site of the Bindu Madhava Temple, legend has it that this structure was actually much taller than its present state, and the Emperor enjoyed views all across to Delhi! While there is no way of verifying this, there remains no doubt that this mosque is a must-visit especially for its unusual architecture manifesting both Hindu and Mughal elements. Its proximity to the nearby Shri Laxmi Narayan Mandir and the newer Bindu Mahadev Temple reflects the co-existence of 2 major world religions - Hinduism and Islam.
This is the unofficial yet lionized home of long-term backpackers, researchers and students who have chosen to stay on for extended periods of time in Varanasi. The southernmost ghat on the long stretch of ghats, life at Assi is as indulgent as the water buffaloes who wallow around for hours on end in the Ganges. Despite its distance from the main burning ghats, travelers head here for a break from the intrusive touts, guides, fake holy men, beggars, boat men, masseurs and even children who participate with great fervor in the contrived chaos. Assi has a large Jewish community and this is reflected through the hotels and cafes with names such as Haifa and Yafah which serve up typically Middle Eastern dishes like hummus, falafel, baba ghanoush and kawwah (Arabic Coffee). Assi Ghat has been mentioned in the ancient Indian Vedic texts and commands the respect of Indian pilgrims too who arrive here in boats or on foot for a holy dip.
Mark Twain described Varanasi as 'older than history, older than tradition, older than legend'; this epitomizes the inspirations and experiences this ancient city offers to any visitor that graces its sacred streets. The seat of Hinduism, believed to be directly governed by the supreme deity Lord Shiva Himself, it is also the site where one seeks moksha, or liberation from the endless cycle of life and death. At the holy riverfront of the sacred Manikarnika Ghat, publicly-held cremation ceremonies reinforce this timeless belief. The scenic stretch of steps, also known as the Dashashwamedh Ghat, on the banks of the mythical River Ganges, outlines the deeply iconic legacy of Varanasi. As the sun sets on this holy city, the ghat comes alive with religious rituals that awaken and stir even the most non-religious of souls. The city returns to a state of calm soon after, until the first rays of the sun render it alive again. Several historic monuments that tremble with divinity dot its streets,from the Kashi Vishwanath Temple and the Sankat Mochan Temple, to Bharat Mata Mandir the Buddhist site of Sarnath (a few kilometers away). Varanasi, with its narrow alleyways, saffron-robed Godmen, atmospheric ghats and a cornucopia of smells is a splendid milieu of sought-after chaos.