The Ghats in Varanasi are a huge tourist attraction, even more so than the river ganges. So here’s all the info for visiting.
What Is A Ghat?
A ‘Ghat’, is a flight of steps leading down to the bank of a river in India.
In fact the official definition reads:
Ghat: a broad flight of steps that is situated on an Indian riverbank and that provides access to the water especially for bathing.
Varanasi has 88 ghats in total.
Most of the ghats are use for bathing and puja ceremonies. However two of the ghats are used exclusively as cremation sites.
After 1700 AD is when most of the Varanasi ghats were rebuilt. At this time the city was part of the Maratha Empire.
Why Is Varanasi So Sacred?
There are many reasons in Hindu religion as to why this specific spot in Varanasi is so sacred.
However most believe the river Ganges was created by the almighty Lord Shiva, releasing the water from his hair and creating the spectacle.
Shiva and Parvati (his wife) were said to have lived in Varanasi at the beginning of time. And all of the locals today will agree that Varanasi has the power to wash away any of the sins of us mortals.
All we know is that the Ghats in Varanasi definitely hold a very huge part of Indian history, and are surrounded by a city full of culture.
Booking A Ghats In Varanasi Tour
For visiting the Ghats in Varanasi you must book onto a river boat tour.
There are two options:
On both tours you will travel by boat along the River Ganges, whilst gathering a deeper insight into the Ghats from a local English speaking guide.
Hotel pick-up and drop-off should be included, as well as water.
We opted for the sunset tour, and were taken up to the Shamshan Ghat (the cremation ground) where we witnessed our first ceremony.
We witness an old man being cremated, which was an eye opening experience.
However we were soon encouraged not to feel sad, as it was supposed to be a happy time for all of those surrounding the man to celebrate his life.
What To Expect At The Cremation Ghats In Varanasi
People travel from all over India to be openly cremated in Varanasi and have their ashes scattered into the river. The corpse is often transported in the boot of a car full of ice to stop it from rotting and smelling before it arrives.
Firstly, the only allow males within the cremation grounds. In Hindu religion they believe that women have softer hearts than men and releasing emotions at the event of a cremation can effect the soul of the burning body.
All in all the cremation normally takes place within a day of the person dying and it’s all up to the family to arrange.
There are different heights of Shamshan Ghat where the deceased are cremated. It all depends on the level of class of the person when they were alive.
Although this doesn’t make the cremation any more expensive, at 16,000 Rupees anyone can be cremated here, and just like everything else in India, even that price is negotiable.
After the death of a family member, the closest male relative will shave his head and take charge of the ceremony.
Hair is seen as a symbolic offering to the gods and shaving it off shows grief for the departed soul and a real sacrifice of beauty – even some women that come to Varanasi will shave their heads as a sign of respect.
What Happens To The Body
The body is brought down to the river wrapped in orange cloth and covered in flowers. This is so it can be blessed by the Ganges one last time before the process of cremation.
After relatives have had their turn in throwing handfuls of water over the body it’s taken to it’s place of cremation. The body is then stripped to a white sheet before being placed on top of the carefully arranged sandalwood and the wood is lit.
Sandalwood is used to avoid any bad smells whilst the body is burning, as well as ghee (purified butter) which is smothered over the body.
On average the cremation takes around 5 hours from start to finish. Sometimes the body may not disintegrate fully and there can be hips or chest bones left over. These are tossed backwards over the workers head and straight into the river.
Once the ceremonies are complete the family waits 13 days before collecting their loved ones ashes.
Between the 1st and 13th day there are many Hindu rituals that take place. It’s seen as the last chance to spend with the soul before it’s taken by god.
On the final day all of the family get together for a meal and sweets before going back to ganges to collect and throw the ashes into the holy river.
There are some exceptions in Varanasi. If you fit into a certain category, you’re not allowed to be cremated.
These people are pregnant women, children under 8, priests or anyone that died from the bite of cobra.
These are all looked upon as very holy in their own way. They are tied to a rock and dropped from a boat into the depths of the Ganges. Sounds crazy we know!
All in all though Varanasi was an amazing experience. It wasn’t half as bad as people made out.
There was no smell, and the streets were no more ‘dirty’ than anywhere else in India.
Also, for the sake of a days travel, we’d definitely recommend the journey out East from Delhi or Agra to visit the famous Ghats in Varanasi.
Where To Stay In Varanasi
Luxury – BrijRama Palace – A Heritage Hotel
Situated on its own ghat, BrijRama Palace – A Heritage Hotel was built in the 18th Century and is considered as one of the oldest structures in Varanasi.
Overlooking the Ganges, the property is a stone’s throw away from the popular Dasashwamedh Ghat.
It offers 2 dining options and a rooftop terrace. Complimentary boat check in/check out is provided.
Every room at this hotel has air conditioning and comes with a flat-screen TV. Every room comes with a private bathroom fitted with a shower.
For your comfort, you will find slippers, free toiletries and a hair dryer. Hi-tea, yoga sessions and bottled water are complimentary.
Mid-Budget – Ramada Plaza JHV
Located in, Ramada Plaza JHV offers 5 dining options and an outdoor pool.
It also boasts a spa, gym and a tennis court. Itsfeature lawn, pool, or Varuna River views.
Offering a modern décor, rooms feature wood panelled walls and carpeted flooring. They come with wired internet access and a TV with cable channels.
Marble bathrooms come with a bathtub and hairdryer. In-room dining is possible.
Ramada Plaza is 3.1 miles from Varanasi City Railway Station and 3.7 miles from Kashi Vishwanath Temple.
Budget – Stops Hostel Varanasi
Located only 0.6 miles away from the popular Assi Ghat, Stops Hostel features dormitories, private rooms and tents with an Indian décor.
It offers a lounge area with a TV. With free Wi-Fi access, dormitories all come with air conditioning. Each shares a bathroom.
Several grocery and convenient stores are located within walking distances from the hostel.
For more places to stay in Varanasi, you can check the latest prices on Booking.com.
More India Blogs
Places To Visit In Rishikesh – Plus Rafting & Yoga
Places To Visit In Dharamshala
India Beginners – First Time India Travel Tips
The Best Of India – A Route & Trip Guide
Monday 17th of July 2017
Beautifully expressed and pictures speaks the rest of the story ?
Monday 17th of July 2017
Thanks Pooja! It was certainly an interesting place for us westerners...we hope we done it justice! :)