The ghatsA microcosm of India

The following is an extract from the travel book A River of Life: Travels through Modern India.

Varanasi, the most sacred city in India, is also its oldest - indeed it is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, dating from the first Aryan settlement in the middle Ganges valley, a fact which hadn't been lost on Mark Twain on his visit here, prompting the typically epigrammatic remark that the city is "older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together". It has been a seat of religion and philosophy since the 2nd millennium BC, and both Mahavira - the founder of the Jain religion - and the Buddha were drawn here: Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon at Sarnath, only a few miles out of the city. Due to the iconoclastic zeal of the last Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, there are no temples of great antiquity here - in fact this is true of many places in the North, which had suffered at the hands of the Muslim Turks before the Mughals came - and the ghats remain the single greatest attraction. They are the focus of the city. They are the city.

There are over a hundred of them in all, steep water frontages platformed and stepped (the word means literally "landing"), stretching all the way from Raj Ghat in the north to Asi Ghat to the south, a total of three miles of river frontage. They are a microcosm of India. Every aspect of life can be found here, from bathers to lotus-seated saddhus, Brahmin priests offering puja, importuning boatmen, postcard boys, boys playing cricket, chai wallahs with their kettles steaming over open fires, men selling coconuts and flower offerings. At Gai Ghat cow dung cakes, used for fuel, are patted into shape each morning and laid out in the baking sun in neat vertical rows; at Trilochana Ghat there are washerwomen constantly at work, trying to pulverize the stone steps by thrashing them with sodden linen. And this is to say nothing of the animals to be found in the city. Crammed almost to bursting with human life, Varanasi still has room for a great variety of wildlife. There are sacred cows of course - that went without saying - pied kingfishers too, and drongos, and hoopoes probing in the silty cracks at the water's edge. There are packs of puppies fending for themselves along the banks of the Ganges. And there are goats, frisking up and along, casually cropping tufts of grass sprouting from totally inaccessible areas of the ghats.

My guesthouse, the Sri Venkateswar Lodge, is located in Godaulia near Dasaswamedh Ghat, within earshot if not actually within sight of the activity at the waterfront. As with every other place I have stayed at so far, the Sri Venkateswar, at the rock bottom end of the accommodation market, is undesirably located, although here that undesirability stems from the fact that it is stuck away in some mud- and manure- and detritus-strewn backstreet rather than teetering over a thoroughfare congested twenty four hours at a stretch. The buildings of Godaulia, as with much of Varanasi, are tall and precariously built, crowding together claustrophobically to form dark, narrow stone-paved lanes that are barely wide enough for a cow to lumber down, and certainly are too big for anything as large as a cycle- or autorickshaw. My guesthouse is consequently blissfully quiet - discounting, of course, the distant murmur of a thousand far-off voices, and the chanting at dawn from a nearby gurdwara, and the muezzin proclaiming the greatness of Allah at various hours of the day, and the sound of bells from the temple immediately outside my window, clanging at regular hours, waking me up at six in the morning and keeping me from sleep at midnight. The constant din of trucks and cars is replaced by a silence punctuated by beautiful rackets, infinitely more tolerable.

From my room I have a limited view, through wire-meshed windows, of the temple's turrets and spires, a Hindu temple that a pack of baboons have made their home. One of them had broken into the guesthouse earlier and marauded through the floor above my own. While I am looking out of my window a pair of them strut past, proud-arsed.

The temple bells begin to chime, signalling sunset. Beyond the temple lies the heart of Vishwanath Khanda, Old Varanasi, a mess of aerials and telephone wires and a congestion of buildings. The sun has gone down and the cityscape, in twilight shadow, is purple and grey like a new bruise. There is a lone kite rising above the rooftops, suspended in the windless air somehow, like the old rope charmer's trick with kite twine.

I set off for a late meal and to see what activity the early night will bring to the city.

Read on...

Read the next article about evening worship at Varanasi.

According to Hindu mythology, the Ganges was brought into being by the prayers of one of the devout, issuing from the foot of Vishnu and flowing to earth through the locks of Shiva's hair. As I come within sight of the river, I can see how such a myth might have originated; the water, flowing sleekly along, is a mass of darkness, billowing like locks of lustrous black hair.

Go back...

Read the previous article about dawn at the ghats of Varanasi.

I am up and out early, before dawn, staking my claim to a quiet spot on the ghats. A spectacle is in the offing, and I am there to see it. What spectacle? It could have been the day dawning, though isn't, however splendid such a sight may be: the sun edging up over the jagged line of trees on the far bank of the Ganges, its soft cool light pearling the surface of the slow-flowing, deep green waters. What I have come to see, what scores of others have come to see, is the Hindu faithful, gathered where the water laps at the last steps of the ghats, taking their ritual daily baths in these sacred waters.

Available for purchase now

Sheldon's account of his overland travels around India, A River of Life, is available for purchase now. Buy the e-book from or, or the paperback from or (also available in other countries, search Amazon for more information).

The first instalment, A River of Life, Book 1: Travels in the North, is available separately (e-book format only) via or The second instalment, A River of Life, Book 2: A Tour of the South, is available via or


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