The ghats of Varanasi, leading to the River Ganga, are considered the holiest ones because of being venue of several kinds of religious aarti and puja. Though the antiquity & history of ghats can be traced in religious scriptures but their present form took shape through 18th century. As per Puranas and religious scriptures, Adi Keshav Ghat is one of the oldest and most sacred ghats and a pilgrimage centre in Varanasi. Adi Keshav Ghat had been is favourite ghat of the Ghadavala kings. It can be verified by the Ghadavala inscription available there. Later in 1790 AD, the ghat was renovated by stones and concrete by the Divan of the Scindia state. Ghadavala inscription (1100 AD) mentions Adi Keshav Ghat as Vedeshwara Ghat.
The Assi Ghat is placed at the confluence of the Rivers Assi and Ganga and is famous for the large Shiva Lingam installed under a peepal tree. It has immense religious importance and has been mentioned in the Puranas and various legends as well.
Assi Ghat is the heart of Varanasi and the locals, as well as, the tourists flock there to enjoy the amazing view of the sunset and sunrise at the Ganges. It is where tourists and foreigners who travel and stay in Varanasi for a prolonged period live. The Ghat has been a famous spot among the local youths to while away their time in the evening. Recently, the Ghat started having Aarti in the morning which is a must watch if you want to experience the true feel of Varanasi. Also, the tourists generally travel from Assi to Dashaswamedh Ghat in the evening by boat, to see the famous aarti conducted there every evening which is an experience like none other. Assi ghat is near Banaras Hindu University, and hence it is frequented by students.
As the name suggests, it is believed that this is the place where Lord Brahma performed the Dasa Ashwamedha sacrifice. This ghat is a religious spot and many rituals are performed here.
Visit at the time of Kartik Purnima to witness a celestial manifestation in the city of lights - Dev Deepavali. This Ghat is most famous for the Ganga Aarti conducted every evening, and hundreds of people visit it every day. Watching the Ganga Aarti is an experience which cannot be explained in words. When in Varanasi, make sure not to miss this calming experience.
Harish Chandra Ghat is one of the oldest Ghats of Varanasi. Harish Chandra Ghat is name after a mythological King Harish Chandra, who once worked at the cremation ground here for the perseverance of truth and charity. It is believed that the Gods rewarded him for his resolve, charity and truthfulness and restored his lost throne and his dead son to him. Harish Chandra Ghat is one of the two cremation Ghats (the other being Manikarnika Ghat) and is some times referred as Adi Manikarnika (the original creation ground). Hindus from distant places bring the dead bodies of their near and dear ones to the Harish Chandra Ghat for cremation. In Hindu mythology it is believed that if a person is cremated at the Harish Chandra Ghat, that person gets salvation or "moksha". The Harish Chandra Ghat was somewhat modernized in late 1980's, when an electric crematorium was opened here.
Kedar Ghat is the site of Haramapapa Tirtha. At the top of Kedar Ghat exists the temple of Kedareshwar, the patron deity of the southern sacred sect. Maharaja of Vijayanagar had constructed this ghat.
Kedar Ghat is one of the most visited religious ghats of Varanasi, as it adjoins the Branch Math of Kedar Math. Sri Vidyaranya Swami, way back in 14th century (1346 AD) installed a Chandramouleeshwara Shivalinga at the Math in Varanasi. The Kedar Math Varanasi is characterized by an ancient temple that houses shrines of Sri Maha Ganapati, Sri Sharadamba and Sri Adishankaracharya. The temple and its shrines were renovated by Maharani of Burdwan- Radha Rani Devi.
Parvati Kund is also a religious place on Kedar Ghat. This pond has water with high medicinal properties and, hence, has holy aura around it.
Manikarnika Ghat is associated with the two legends. It is believed that the Lord Vishnu dug a pit using his Chakra and at the same time the Lord Shiva was watching Lord Vishnu, the earring (“manikarnika”) had fell into the pit created by the Lord Vishnu. According to the second legend, the Goddess Parvati (consort of Lord Shiva, Goddess Annapurna) hid her earrings, and asked Lord Shiva to find them.
It is one of the most famous, sacred and oldest ghat in the Varanasi, Manikarnika is the main burning ghat and one of most auspicious places that a Hindu can be cremated. Bodies are bring to the ghat at the bamboo stretcher covered in the red cloth which handled by the doms.
Manikarnika Ghat is also famous by the name of Mahasmasana which is one of two cremation Ghats in the Varanasi. Another famous ghat of cremation is Harishchandra Ghat. Manikarnika Ghat is historically associated with the Hindu God named Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. It is considered that the one who is cremated at this ghat will attain Moksha, the salvation and get directly intermingled into the Lord Shiva.
Manikarnika Ghat is also famous for the temple of the Lord Shiva and Mata Durga which was built around 1850 by the Maharaja of the Awadh. This temple has become the holy shrine of this Ghat. A holy pond named, Cakra-Pushkarini Kund (Manikarnika Kund) is also at this ghat which is believed that dug by the Lord Vishnu. According to the history, this kund existed earlier than the origin of the Ganges.
It is also considered that the Charanapaduka (the footprints) of the Lord Vishnu is here in a circular marble slab, as Lord Vishnu has mediated for many years at this ghat.
The Hindus believe that five pious rivers – Ganga, Dhutapapa, Kiran Nadi, Saraswati & Yamuna- converge here, though only Ganga is visible. Due to being the confluence of five rivers, the place is called Panchganga (Panch means five & Ganga meaning river). The Panchganga Ghat is one of the five chief places of pilgrimage on the banks of the Ganges. People gather here to have holy dip to ensure salvation. Bathing at this place during Kartik (October-November) month is particularly considered to be most auspicious. The ghat is broad and deep, and exceedingly strong. Its stairs and turrets are all of stone, and, from their great number, afford accommodation to a multitude of worshippers and bathers. The turrets are low and hollow, and are employed as temples or shrines. Each one contains several deities, which are, mostly, emblems of Lord Shiva. The turrets are open towards the river and, therefore, very convenient for devotional purposes. The platform above the ghat, along which runs a narrow, though excellent, road, is below the steep bank of the river. From the platform a number of stairs thread their way up the bank, uniting the ghat with this quarter of the city. The same remark is, for the most part, applicable to the other ghats. They are all connected together by a road, which is, in some places, paved, and in the hot weather, is, in parts, covered over with an awning, under which, the people walk. From this road innumerable stairs, chiefly of stone, pass up the banks, and communicate with the alleys and streets leading into the city.
A large building, known as Lakshmanbala, is located at the top of Panchganga Ghat. One of the flights of stairs rises up from the Panchganga Ghat to enter Lakshmanbala. The building, although presenting an extensive frontage towards the river is, in reality, hardly more than a mere casemate to the bank. It is used as a temple, and is dedicated to Lakshmanbala. The principal room is in an upper story, the roof of which is supported on carved wooden pillars of a deep black colour. The walls are embellished with paintings, many of which are representations of green trees, while others are pictures set in frames. Devotees are seated in the room, counting their beads, and muttering to themselves the hymns, shlokas, mantras etc. Music is also performed, the plaintive strains of which fall upon the ear pleasingly. There are three idols in a row at one end of the room. That in the centre is dressed in blue, and has a blue turban on his head, and a garland thrown over his shoulders, hanging down in front. On his left is a gilded disk, let into the wall, displaying nose, eyes, cheeks, and mouth, and a nimbus, and is intended as a representation of the Sun. On his right is a disk, representing the Moon, made of a pale metal, probably silver, and exhibiting the various parts of the face, as in the case of the Sun, but without gilding or glory. A few feet in front of these idols, a small lamp is kept burning. The worshippers pass in and out of this room and perform their devotions as though it were an ordinary temple. It is the only temple in Varanasi in which persons, seating themselves on the floor, engage formally in religious exercises. The temples in Benares, and in Northern India generally, with their courts, porches, and subordinate shrines, though they, in some instances, cover a considerable area, are, for the greater part, of very narrow dimensions, and contain only one small room, in which, besides the presiding deity, several other divinities are frequently placed, leaving no room enough for a dozen persons to present their offerings at one and the same time, and to observe the prescribed ceremonies in an orderly manner.
Scindia Ghat in Varanasi, located in Ghasi Tola colony, is near Manikarnika Ghat. It is in the memory of the people due to submerging tilted Shiv temple. The ghat was built in 1830 AD. Scindia Ghat is remarkable not only for the massiveness of its masonry, but also for the circumstance that the entire structure has sunk several feet into the earth since its erection, and is still gradually and slowly sinking. The ghat consists of three rows of low towers or turrets. The uppermost row is of two turrets, one at each extremity, which are the largest of the whole and are exceedingly massive.
The second lower down has six turrets and the third, five. These turrets are called ‘marhis’ by the locals, and are used by them for sitting upon in the cool of the day or for retiring to after bathing in the Ganges. They are of stone and connected together by walls and stairs of the same material. Before the Scindia Ghat could be completed, the masonry began to sink. A temple to the left of the south turret is rent from the summit to the base and the entire building is so dilapidated, that it looks as if it had been shaken by an earthquake. The ghat itself and also the stairs leading up to the top of the huge breastwork uniting the two largest turrets, exhibit an immense rent which is carried down to the very base of the ghat. The breastwork, likewise, together with the turrets, is out of the perpendicular and has a remarkable appearance. In some places the stones are more than two feet apart. The people residing in the neighborhood say that the ghat has sunk some ten or twelve feet in all, and that, inasmuch as stair after stair continually, though slowly, vanishes, they know that the subsidence is still going on. The ghat was built by Baija Bai, the same lady who erected the colonnade round the Gyan Vapi well but it is not yet completed.
The area above the ghat is home to several holy and famous shrines. This area is called as Siddha Kshetra-Field of Fulfillment. This place holds immense importance in Hindu mythology as Agni Dev or Fire God was born here. Hindu devotees gather here and propitiate god Vireshwar (god of heroes) to propitiate to get boon for a son.
Shivala Ghat, an important and large ghat in Varanasi, is historically significant but from touristic point of view- a less frequented one. More than the ghat is famous the colony above it and is also called Shivala. The Shivala colony is markedly inhabited by south Indian Hindus who migrated to Varanasi over last two centuries. Monasteries, temples and ‘ashramas’ dot the whole region. Constructed by a medieval era prominent king Balwant Singh, derives its name from the presiding deity of Kashi, Lord Shiva. Among the three major attractions of Shivala Ghat are a Shiva Temple, Brahmendra Math (a spiritual centre built by Kashiraj or king of Varanasi) and a huge mansion built by 19th century king of Nepal, Sanjay Vikram Shah. Shivala Ghat occupies a long stretch of bank and is surmounted by an equally long row of buildings. These were the city-palace of Chet Singh but were confiscated after the British suppressed the rebellion in which King of Varanasi participated. The Shivala Ghat is by no means popular with bathers and appears deserted in comparison to many other ghats of Varanasi like Dashashwamedha Ghat, Assi Ghat, Dandi Ghat, Panchganga Ghat. The buildings are considerably divided up, and some of the temples disused and in ruins. The houses to the south belong to the descendants of the Delhi princes. Apparently as the families have grown the place has been divided and sub-divided, and the general appearance of the whole place is not vividly suggestive of royalty. The northern part of the building is divided between two sections of the Nagas who profess to be followers of Jagadguru Shankaracharya. There are numerous temples in their court-yards, most of them dedicated to Lord Mahadeva and having his idols in them. Suryauday Haveli, an ancient mansion converted into a luxury up-market heritage hotel, is located on the banks of River Ganga at Shivala Ghat in Varanasi. Most of the boats here are owned and managed by the hotel. The credit of Shivala Ghat’s cleanliness goes to Hotel Suryauday Haveli. After Shivala Ghat is an open space with no steps or buildings.