There are almost 100 ghats—places with steps leading down to the water—along the holy Ganges River in Varanasi. The main group contains around 25 of them, and it extends from Assi Ghat north to Raj Ghat. The ghats date back to the 14th century but most were rebuilt, along with Varanasi, in the 18th century by Maratha rulers. They are either privately owned or have special significance in Hindu mythology, and are primarily used for bathing and Hindu religious rituals. However, there are two ghats (Manikarnika and Harishchandra) where cremations are solely performed.
A highly recommended, albeit touristy, thing to do is take a dawn boat ride along the river from Dashashwamedh Ghat (the main ghat). A walk along the Varanasi ghats is also a fascinating experience, although do be prepared for some filth and to be hassled by vendors. If you're feeling a bit daunted and would prefer to be accompanied by a guide, go on this riverside walking tour offered by Varanasi Magic.
You'll find Assi Ghat where the Ganges River meets the Assi River at the extreme southern end of the city. This spacious and easily accessible ghat isn't as crowded as some of the other ghats. However, it is a pilgrimage place for Hindus, who bathe there before worshiping Lord Shiva in the form of a huge lingam under a pipal tree. The area has some trendy boutiques and cafes (head to Vaatika Cafe for great pasta and pizza with a bonus outlook), making it a popular spot for long-staying travelers. A Ganga aarti ceremony is also held at the ghat. Dashashwamedh Ghat is a 30-minute walk north along the ghats.
Chet Singh Ghat
Chet Singh Ghat has quite a bit of historical importance. It was the site of the 18th century battle between Maharaja Chet Singh (who ruled Varanasi) and the British. Chet Singh had constructed a small fort at the ghat but unfortunately the British defeated him. They captured the fort and imprisoned him in it. It's said he managed to escape using a rope made of turbans!
Darbhanga Ghat is a photogenic favorite! This visually appealing and architecturally impressive ghat features the luxury BrijRama Palace hotel. The hotel was originally a fort built by Shridhara Narayana Munshi (adjacent Munshi Ghat is named after him), who was the minister for the estate of Nagpur. King Rameshwar Singh Bahadur of Darbhanga (in modern-day Bihar) acquired the structure in 1915 and turned it into his palace. Its current owner, Indian hospitality company 1589 Hotels, spent almost 18 years restoring it and converting it into the hotel.
Dashashwamedh Ghat is the heart of the action and the top attraction in Varanasi. One of the oldest and holiest Varanasi ghats, it's where the famous Ganga aarti takes place every evening. According to Hindu mythology, Lord Brahma created the ghat to welcome Lord Shiva. Lord Brahma is also believed to have performed a special horse sacrifice ritual there in front of a sacred fire. The carnival of goings-on is captivating, with a constant flow of pilgrims, Hindu priests, flower sellers and beggars from dawn til dusk. It's possible to sit and watch for hours, and not get bored. There's also a hectic marketplace around the ghat.
Man Mandir Ghat
Another very old Varanasi ghat, Man Mandir Ghat is notable for its ornate Rajput architecture. Rajput king Man Singh of Jaipur built his palace there in 1600. An additional attraction, the observatory, was added in the 1730s by Sawai Jai Singh II. The astronomical instruments are still in good condition and it's possible to take a look at them. Head up to the spacious terrace for fabulous views across the Ganges River.
The most confronting ghat, Manikarnika (also known simply as the burning ghat) is the place where the majority of dead bodies are cremated in Varanasi -- approximately 28,000 every year! Hindus believe it will liberate them from the cycle of death and rebirth. Indeed, you'll openly come face to face with death at Manikarnika Ghat. Piles of firewood line the shore and the fires continually burn with the stream of dead bodies, each wrapped in cloth and carried through the lanes on makeshift stretchers by the doms (a caste of untouchables that handles the corpses and supervises the burning ghat). If you're curious and feeling bold, it is possible to watch the cremations take place for a fee. There are plenty of priests or guides around who will lead you to one of the upper floors of a nearby building. Make sure you negotiate and don't give in to demands for outrageously high sums of money. You can also find out more about the cremations on this insightful Learning and Burning walking tour offered by Heritage Walk Varanasi and Death and Rebirth in Banaras walking tour offered by Varanasi Walks.
Scindia Ghat is quite a picturesque and peaceful place, with none of the grimness of nearby Manikarnika Ghat (the burning ghat). Of particular interest is the partially submerged Shiva temple at the water's edge. It sunk during the construction of the ghat in 1830. The narrow maze of alleyways above the ghat hides a number of Varanasi's important temples. This area is called Siddha Kshetra and it attracts plenty of pilgrims.
Distinctive looking Bhonsale Ghat was built in 1780 by Maratha king Bhonsale of Nagpur. It's a substantial stone building with small artistic windows at the top, and three heritage temples—Lakshminarayan temple, Yameshwar temple and Yamaditya temple. Quite a bit of controversy surrounds this ghat, with the royal family being embroiled in a fraud case over the sale of the ghat in 2013.
At the far northern end of the ghats, Panchganga Ghat gets its name from the merging of five rivers (the Ganges, Yamuna, Saraswati, Kirana and Dhutpapa). It's a relatively serene ghat that requires some effort to reach and has significant religious importance. The samadhi temple commemmorating great Hindu yogi Trailinga Swami is situated there. Above the ghat is also the 17th century Alamgir mosque, which Mughal ruler Aurangzeb built over a Vishnu temple. The mosque is functional but only Muslims are allowed inside. If you visit the ghat during the holy Hindu month of Kartik (about 15 days before and after Diwali), you'll be able to see it beautifully illuminated by candle-filled baskets hanging from poles to honor ancestors. This culminates with Dev Deepavali on Kartik Purnima (full moon night).