Varanasi – Waterfront Study

 “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, even older than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

– Mark Twain


By Air

The airport is at Babatpur, 23 km from the city centre and is about 30 km from the ghats. Pre-paid taxis are available outside the airport to transfer you to the city within 45 minutes.

By Rail

Varanasi is linked to all major cities of the country and is the focal point for the Northern and North-Eastern Railways in India. Varanasi Cantt. is the main railway station of the city and is located on the Grand trunk Road. Pre-paid taxi and auto rickshaw service is available at the railway station.

By Road

Varanasi is situated at the junction of three national highways -NH2 from Kolkata to Delhi, NH7 to Kanyakumari and NH29 to Gorakhpur and undoubtedly it is one of the busiest roads of India.

Public Transport

Auto rickshaw and rickshaw are the prime modes of communication in city and you will love to travel through the congested lanes of Varanasi. Mini buses run in the outer region of the city. Small boats and small steamers are also used by the common people to cross the river Ganga.


The city of Varanasi is known to the world over as the “sacred city” of India and it is recognized as the “most ancient continuously living city of the world”. The city is unique in the architectural, artistic and religious expressions of traditional Indian culture and is, even today a living example of this culture. As fast as continuity of cultural tradition is concerned Kashi surpasses all civilization centers.

These zones and circumambulation paths have Ganga River as a distinct edge. The river is an essential component of all the scared ritual practices on the ghat area.

The riverfront of Ganga comprises of a series of 84 Ghats as a special chain of sacred places Ghats bear testimony to the uniqueness of Ghat architecture which is a mosaic of different cultures.

The old city is densely populated and lacks open spaces. The ghat area offers relief to high densities of the old city and serves as a breathing space.

The Ghats which are the focus of all religious and other activities form an integral part of the culture varanasi. All the circumambulation paths include the Ghats and invite millions of devotees along this sacred route.


The city enjoys sub-tropical monsoon climate. The temperature varying between 5c – 45 c in a year. The relative humidity is high during monsoon reaching up to 82-85%. Annual rainfall in varanasi is around 1000 mm.


Among the changes that took place in the later half of the nineteenth century, one of the most significant is the -increase in the pakka mahal which rapidly encroached upon the kachcha houses. Also all vacant spaces in the immediate neighbourhood of the Ganga were filled in by Pakka houses. The two ill-drained areas, formerly occupied by the Godaulia Nala and the Misra Pokhra Jhil (tank) in the south and the Maidagin and Machhodari tank in the north seem to have disappeared.

The site of the Maidagin tank gradually came to be replaced by a park known as the Company garden, north of the present a center of the city. The Machhodari tank was drained into the Ganga though an underground channel and its site was turned into a park with a small tank left in the middle.

The Godaulia Nala and other tanks and depressions were filled in and the Dasaswamedh road became an important landmark in the urban landscape of the city.

A significant development however, was the development of the cantonment and civil lines areas which lay south of the &arria and north of the Grand Trunk road. Although established much before, its major development took place in the later half of the nineteenth century.    To cater to the growing needs, suburban bazaars and a few hotels sprang up.




The river Barna was bridged at two points viz. the Chaukaghat and the Civil coizrts.The cantonment area was extended to the north–east of the civil lines in the vicinity of Pandepur and a small bazaar called Hukulganj began to grow on the eastern margin of the civil lines not far from the river Barna and the Pandepur cantonment. A new jail, many ,missionary establishments, a few churches and missionary service areas were among the notable additions to the white part of the city. The first railway link came into existence towards the closing decade of the last century.

This period thus, is marked in general by the slow growth of the city with no appreciable addition of new areas except by way of building over the gaps and vacant spaces in the outer zones of the city.


Over the years Varanasi has developed a range of urban sequences, witness to seceding dominations which have shaped its urban space by their structuring lines or their built form in accordance with their prevalent ideologies of space. On observation of the architectural form of the city, it can be divided into a number of typologies on the basis of its structuring of its architectural form. These are as follows:

  1. The urban band that developed along the river from Asi in south to Raj ghat in the north and is composed of river facing buildings (mainly palaces) and ghats.
  2. The distinctive urban fabric flanking the river-front urban band and developing westwards from it. Known as the pakka mahal, it consists of a web of mohallas, intricately weaved together.
  3. The gardens and pleasure residences of the rich merchants on the lines of the Mughal gardeiLs, situated on the outskirts of the 18th century city.
  4. The recent plotted development extending from the outskirts of the 18th century city to the cantonment.
  5. The ancient cantonment lying south of the Barna and north of the Grand Trunk road.    Besides the remnants of the British

The pre-urban physical landscape consisted natural forest cover and was carved out by the ganga and its left hand tributary streams. Notably amongst which even today re the varuna in the north and the Asi in the south, forming the limit and the physical terrain of its habitat.

The high concave bank of the ganga formed of lime concretions washed by the perennial deep water channel did furnish protective as well as attractive site of human occupancy.

Such a physical landscape induced the origin and growth of a multi-nuclei urban settlement (the pre-urban nucleus referred to earlier) to start with, as clearings amidst the forests which later afforded their names to different mohallas. In fact, the sages and thinkers first established their retreats in the forests and became engaged in their scholastic pursuits along with their  disciples, from sarnath in the north beyond the general precincts to Assi in the south, along water bodies including the sides of the tributary streams.

The city of Varanasi can be divided into different zones based on its sacred geography. The three forms of Lord Vishvanath namely, Omkareshvar, Vishvesvar and Kedareshvar formed the three main nuclei of ancient Varanasi around which the three Khandas of the city evolved in course of time. Starting first from the nucleus of Omkareshvar in the north under the shadow of the Reajghat Plateau, the highest place in the city, being above the flood  limit and subject to minimum erosion. This zone lay between the varuna in the north and the Mandakini in the south. The vishvesvar Khand forms the central One developed around Adi vishveswar established at the highest point in the central zone and in its central most square.

This zone is hemmed in between the Mandakini in the north and the Godavari in the south which met the Ganga at the  Dasasvamedh ghat forming a fan which is the most sacred and spacious bathing place on the river, and even today accessible by a vehicle because of the earlier river-site having been converted into a faintly wide road in the 19th century. Kedar Khand Is the third zone developed around the Kedaresvar temple on the bank of the Ganga with reasonable proximity to the confluence of the Saryu with the Ganga.

The oldest core of the city is definitely in the northern zone which is for the most part practically unhabitated, with an elongated projection along the ganga to a little north of the dasawamedh ghat.

From the nature of the bend of the ganga it is obvious that the minimum river erosion would be in the northern zone of the Dasaswamedh and as such, the first settlement must have been in that area. However, as the settlements grew larger in size and number, the expansion of the city proceeded southwards at first  and then west and south-westwards, taking advantage of tanks and relatively  better drained sites which were above the flood level of the rivers.



The introduction of various branches of the Northern and the North eastern railways along with the construction of the railway bridge near Rajghat, installation of water works and provision of improved sewerage and drainage works widely modified the cultural landscape of Varanasi in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Many educational institutions, various public establishments (such as hospitals, ‘anathalays’, clubs, dharamshalas) besides other institutes catering for public welfare sprang up throughout the city.  The deep devotion of Pt. Madan Mohan Malviya to the cause of learning found expression in the well planned, semi-circular university township in the south­western extremity of the city.

Along the riverside as many as 84 ghats provide magnificent gateways from the river to the interior of the city. The water pumping station at Hhadaini ghat and the Differ in bridge are the other recent additions on the river.

The existing urban form of the city can be studied by dividing it up into three zones on geographical basis viz. The Inner Zone, The Middle Zone and the Outer Zone The Inner zone is the most congested zone of mostly pakka built­up with numerous narrow lanes, the over congestion as a result of the proximity to the river. The middle zone is primarily medieval in growth with comparatively recent. settlements on its outer fringes. This is also for the most part fully built-up but with a few Kachcha houses and open spaces towards its outer fringes. The outer zone is characterized by numerous open spaces in the form of orchards and groves, large patches of cultivated lands, tanks and depressions, together with good residential houses with attached gardens, lined along some of the finest roads of the city. Most of the dwelling houses here are Kachcha indicating the poverty of their inhabitants and standing in .It has been realized that the cultural and natural heritages are increasingly threatened by destruction not only due to the traditional causes of decay, but also by changing social and economic conditions. Varanasi is under similar threats of rapid transformation.

There are an immense pressures from tourism, economic development and population pressures which are now threatening the unity and integrity of the cultural landscape and atmosphere, and the urban skyline of the ghat area. This increasing population is over burdening the carrying capacity of the urban environment and the river ecosystem and unplanned mass tourism could potentially have a hard impact on the cultural carrying capacity of the old city centre. Social hygiene and sanitation methods too are beginning to bend under the pressure of a growing resident population and a constant large floating population.

The ganga river and the riverfront and old city heritage zone of Varanasi being proposed for nomination to the world heritage list of UNESCO. Some work is being carried out for the same propose.

The urban area of Varanasi continued to expand along the riverfront through the 19th century. Masonry bridges were built over the Ganga and Varana; ponds like Benia, Maidagin, and Machhodari, and Godaulia Nala were drained and replaced by parks or streets; many houses were demolished so as to permit road widening in the centre of the city. Broad thoroughfares were cut through the city where formerly there had been narrow lanes. The Dashvamedh-luxa raod was built running west from the river toward Cantonment Railway Station. The north-south artery called Chauk was cleared though the business district. Slowly the city came to have its present shape. James Prishep, British Assay Master of the Banaras Mint from 1819 to 1830, published the first reliable census of the city and prepared the first map of the city in 1822.


A general study of the table of the Ghats prepared in different period by different persons gives some idea about the evolution of the Ghats of Varanasi.

This list reveals that only 14 Ghats are more than 350 years old.
Kedar, dasashwamedh, manas sarovar, chaushatti yogini, agnishwar, mangala gauri, bindu madhav, durga, brahma, trilochan, ram and adi keshav.

Except for few all the Ghats were named on Deities.


Due to high concentration of pilgrims and tourists the ghat area is a highly active and dynamic area. One can see lot of religious, traditional and commercial activities on the ghats.

A market in Varanasi (India)

Sunset in Ganga River

Bathing and performing rituals

A Yougurt’s Shop

A barber’s shop near Dasaswamedh Ghat

There are presently 84 ghats along the edge of the river, but there are five ghat (panchtirth)which are considered most sacred among all the ghats. These include:

  • Assi Ghat
  • Dasashwamedh ghat
  • Manikarnika ghat
  • Panchganga ghat
  • Adikeshav ghat


Darbhanga to manikarnika forms the central portion of the 7 km stretch along the ghat area. This area has the highest concentration of tourists and pilgrims. This stretch also forms part of the internal circumambulation path antagriha which finally culminates at the vishwanath temple near dasashwamedh ghat. This stretch has twelve ghats including the two main ghats, dasashwamedh and manikarnika ghat, which are among the five main ghats on the river famous for the panchtirtha.




Godavari stream was filled up and now acts as the main approach road to dasashwamedh ghat, which is one of the reasons of popularity of the ghat. The triangulated open space a the bifurcation of the two roads of dasashwamedh ghat was earlier the are where godavari stream used to flow.

Dasaswamedh provides a beautiful and colorful riverfront view. A large number of Sadhus can be seen performing religious rites on this Ghat. Devotees must not miss the opportunity of visiting the Dasaswamedh Ghat in the evening when after Aarti, thousands of earthen lamps are immersed in the waters of the holy Ganges and the floating lamps give a divine look to the river at dusk.

Today in that area there lies an incomplete commercial complex and the area is used for parking of bicycles. The vegetable market is still there and it has now taken the place on the road which is creating more congestion. at one point of time the area supported the ghat activities during monsoon.

Hotels and lodge sand not the dharamshalas occupy the front of the river stretch.

The skyline of the ghat area has drastically changes.

Sewerage pumping stations have come up.


Manikarnika Ghat is the main cremation Ghat of Varanasi. Manikarnika Ghat is one of the oldest and most sacred Ghats in Varanasi. According to the Hindu mythology, being burned here provides an instant gateway to liberation from the cycle of births and rebirths. Lying at the center of the five tirthas, Manikarnika Ghat symbolizes both creation and destruction. At Manikarnika Ghat, the mortal remains are consigned to flames with the prayers that the souls rest in eternal peace.



Situated at the confluence of Ganga and Assi rivers, Assi Ghat is  bathe before paying their homage to Lord Shiva in the form of huge lingam situated under a peepal tree. Assi Ghat also constitutes the southern end of conventional city.







We can observe that the built form has increased towards the river, as the river is flooding less.

Initially the ghats which were mainly used were made pucca. Today every ghat is made of stone.

Many properties are in derelict condition. This number has reduced. The historic structures like the palatial building at dharbhanga ghat, historic structure at jalasen ghat are under threat of major transformation and encroachments.

The green spaces are reduced.

The James Princep’s Map of 1822 we can see that the area had many orchards and lot of trees cover for resting and shade on the ghat. These green spaces are reduced considerately because of:

  • New construction over them
  • The trees have fallen due to aging and no new plantation has been done.

Built open spaces.

Due to high economic pressures the city’s open spaces are reduced considerable. The new construction is more at the dasashwamedh and manikarnika ghat.

Permeability to the city has reduced, either the street is closed or the street width has reduced which has led to :

  • Lack of open space
  • Unhygienic condition
  • Improper drainage
  • Increase of pressure on primary routes
  • Increase of risk during festivals


Varanasi has witnessed lot of subdivision of ghats which has been regular phenomenon, but what is actually the result of these subdivisions are:

  • There are too many pilgrims approaching a smaller area which was originally capable of handling the population pressure. The risk factor increases in such cases.
  • More concentration of activities at one place related to pilgrimage.
  • Rapid transformation of the place.


  • The sewerage line is very old and is not able to vary the load of the city. Ultimately all the sewerage and waste generated goes into the river.
  • There is no proper garbage management on the ghat area. The techniques adopted are proving detrimental to the environment.


The steps are laid with chunar sandstone with a special pattern. The stones are just not placed nest to each other, they are bonded with with iron clamps or with a dowel joint between them. This is to secure the positions of the stones when the area is flooded with water during monsoon.


The old technique of the stone binding with the help of joints is not used these days. New stone panels are laid over the existing stone slabs with butt joint in between, bonded with the help of cement mortar. This practice is unnecessary as the old slab is good enough for further use.


The iron clamps wherever used, due to the temperature variation has chipped off the stone.


There is a continuous semi-circular stretch ghats along the river form the Assi in the south to the Rajghat in the north.

These ghats are the interface between the building edge alongside the river and the river, permitting an access to the ganga. The ghat may be pakka that is constructed with stone steps or kachcha that a natural bank.

In each mohalla the most important routes are the ones that lead out to the main vehicular road and to the ghats. The ghats are therefore important factors for the purpose of orientation and thus important governing factors in the development of the mohalla.


The streets have a hierarchy of movement pattern with the ones leading to the ghats and the main vehicular street being the most important ones with the maximum pedestrian traffic. The streets are therefore of varying widths, the most important ones being the widest and straightness and the less important ones being fo lesser width and more zig-zag in nature.

During early period Varanasi was typical of an oriental city. The streets were not wide enough for wheeled carriage particularly in the densely settled residential areas. The streets were also generally at a lower level than the entrance of the houses and shops that lined them, a feature visible even today.

The grand trunk road passed from the northern outskirts of the city and the river ganga was not bridged. The old bridge over the barna, consructed in themughal times was also in ruins. The durga kund-kamachchha road and bhelpura road served the outer zone of the southern protion of the city while the Asi-Madanpura-Godulia road, continuing as far as Rajghat, the inner. The Dalmandhi-Kashipura road occupied, more or less, its present site while the Godaulia-chauk and Godaulia-Luxa roads were non-existent. The Maidagin crossing was occupied by a tank of the same name. the inner zone of the city and the ghats were approached thought the numerous lanes present even today.

About one-third of the houses were pakka either built of chunar stone or bricks. Majority of the pakka houses were lofty with two or three stories and several of them were as high as five or six stories. They were richly embellished with verandahs, galleries, projecting oriel windows and very broad and overhanging eaves supported by carved brackets. The walls of the houses were richly painted in deep red colour with designs of flower-pots, men and women, bulls, elephants, and gods and goddesses in various forms.


The city is also a centre of arts and crafts and of music and dance. Varanasi is famous for its production of silks and brocades with gold and silver threadwork, as well as for wooden toys, bangles made of glass, ivory work, and brass ware.

Varanasi has been city of Hindu learning through the ages. There are innumerable schools and countless Brahman Pandits, responsible for the continuation of traditional learning. There are also three universities, including the large and important – Banaras Hindu University (1915), and more than a dozen colleges and high schools.

Fascinating Boat Ride Along the Ghats

As you take up a boat ride in the Ganges in Varanasi, the exclamatory expressions start to come out of you naturally and effortlessly. People coming to Varanasi make it a point to take up this charming boat ride along the river preferably in the morning. The boat ride starts from Dasashwamedh Ghat and ends at Manikarnika Ghat, which starts at 3 am in the morning. You will be mesmerized to see the morning life at the ghats involving daily routine and religious activities of the devotees. The nature also comes to bedazzle you as it melts golden red into the river when the sun peeps in the East. Enjoy this moment to have an everlasting memory.

From time to time a jeep leaves the village nexus with an enshrouded corpse strapped to the roof atop a bamboo stretcher and mourners chanting Ram nam satya hai (“The name of Ram is truth”) on the long, bouncy trip to the burning ghats of Varanasi. Almost all nexus Hindus transport their dead there, entrusting the cremation to the practiced.