Throughout recorded history, countless cities that formed the backbone of great civilizations have flourished along the river banks, especially in the Indian Sub-continent. And when riverbeds ran dry, or rivers changed their course, many of these cities and sometimes civilizations ceased to exist. The role of rivers, therefore, is crucial in supporting life.
Riverside cities and towns were not only centres of trade and commerce but also art and culture. Riverbanks (or Ghats) therefore became places of cultural gatherings and religious ceremonies. As a result, many Ghats found patronage from the ruling dynasties who beautified them by building temples, forts, palaces and promenades making river Ghats essential religious, strategic and social meeting spots.
Many Ghats in India still dominate the towns they were initially built-in and make for a charming peek into the past.
Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh
The sanctity of rivers in India is the stuff of legends, and the river Narmada is one of the most scared among them. The town of Maheshwar wraps itself around in reverence to this river. Located roughly 90Kms from Indore, Maheshwar finds mention in mythology and ancient history, thus validating its popularity.
The most revered among its former residents is the Queen of Malwa, Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar who ruled from 1765 to 1796 and made Maheshwar her capital. Under her patronage, the town flourished in terms of commerce, arts and culture. Among her many contributions, the Narmada Ghat or Ahilya Ghat has become one of the most iconic images of Maheshwar.
Built-in the 18th century, the Ghat is technically another entrance of the Holkar Fort, the residence of the Queen. The fort, part of which is a luxury hotel now, dominates the banks with its impressive architecture. But what stands out is the façade of the fortress that makes up the Ahilya Ghat with the grand stairs dominating the landscape. Viewed from the Narmada on a boat ride, the whole structure comes into its own.
Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh
Amongst the oldest cities located along the banks of one of the holiest rivers, Varanasi is an experience that can only be felt. It resonates with energy and ethos that transcends the realm of reality.
The city extends along the river banks and is dotted with numerous Ghats which in turn are punctuated with countless small and large temples and a mosque. Stone steps at the Ghats lead to the holy waters of the Ganga where pilgrims perform religious ceremonies and offer obeisance to the river by taking a dip in its sacred waters.
The most prominent among the over 80 Ghats located here are the Dashaashwamesh Ghat, Assi Ghat, Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat. The Ganga aarti performed in the evenings is a sight to behold.
Many Ghats are also cremation sites as people believe that the waters of the Ganga can rid them of their reincarnation cycle. Sailing down the river one can soak in the divine atmosphere along with a picturesque sunrise or sunset.
Higher up in the lap of the Himalaya’s, Rishikesh is a town that is nestled in tranquillity. Owing to its location, it has attracted many rishi’s (Saints), yogis, intrepid travellers, pilgrims and even The Beatles! Among its many draws are boutique riverside properties, but it is the Triveni Ghat that attracts the most numbers.
The Ghat that lies at the confluence of three rivers, namely, Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati, is revered by many. Legend has it that taking a dip here washes away all the sins and purifies the soul. It is also the site where every morning and evening the Maha Aarti dedicated to the river is performed.
While similar aartis are performed in Varanasi and Haridwar, Rishikesh is a world away from the crowds. The quietude of the Ghat is only broken by the soothing sounds of the bells and chants while being illuminated by lamps manifesting into an ethereal experience.
Kolkata, West Bengal
Among the historic ghats of India, Princep/Prinsep Ghat might be considered an anomaly. Based on its current location, it is perhaps more like a garden with a colonial monument at its centre. But in early times, it was a proper Ghat with steps leading to the river Hooghly which has receded with time.
Princep Ghat Memorial, an imposing Palladian-style monument was built in the early 1840s in memory of James Princep, who among other things is credited with deciphering the Bhrami script which brought to light the life and works of the once forgotten, Emperor Asoka.
Today, it is one of Kolkata’s most beautiful sights. A garden surrounds the memorial which holds its own against the iconic Vidyasagar Setu in the background. With a railway station just adjacent and the serenity of the Hooghly river a few steps away, it lends a perfect recreational space for the locals and tourists alike.
A relatively inconspicuous town at the foothills of the Western Ghats, Wai finds references in mythology. With the twin hill stations of Panchgani & Mahabaleshwar within an hour’s drive, Wai remains largely known only with the passerby’s or the pilgrims that visit its revered temples.
Wai is strategically surrounded by many forts. The most prominent among these is Pandavgad, Kamalgad, Vairatgad and Vandan. It also boasts many beautiful temples, the most renowned and architecturally marvellous among which is the Dholya Ganapati Temple built-in 1762.
Like many towns during those times, Wai owes much of its grandeur to the river Krishna. With the meandering river by its side, the Menavali Ghat stands out. It is the rear entrance of the Nana Fadnavis Wada (residence). The Ghat is a peaceful spot which also has the Vishnu and Maneshwar Temples that boast fine craftsmanship.
From being highways for trade to being centres of faith, since the dawn of humanity, rivers have played a significant hand in shaping civilizations. Sadly, given the condition of India’s rivers today, many river Ghats are in a state of neglect and remain only a shadow of their former glory.
Photos – Pixabay and Unsplash