"The great river banks at Varanasi have high pavilions, palaces, temples and terraces and are lined with an endless chain of stone steps progressing along the whole of the waterfront."
These ghats alter in appearance with the dramatic seasonal fluctuations of the river level. Each of the hundred ghats, big and small, is marked by a lingam, and occupies its own special place in the religious geography of the city. Some have crumbled over the years while others continue to thrive.
The ghats have a regular stream of pilgrims and visitors – early-morning bathers, priests offering puja, people practicing meditation and yoga. Hindus regard the Ganga as amrita (nectar) the elixir of life, which brings purity to the living and salvation to the dead. The ghats also depict the high esteem in which dying and being cremated at Varanasi is taken by Hindus. Cremations take place at the ghats almost round the clock.
For centuries, pilgrims have traced the perimeter of the city by a ritual parikrama (circumambulation) paying homage to shrines on the way. Among the most popular routes is the Panchatirthi Yatra, which takes in the Pancha (five) Trithi (crossing) of Assi, Dashashwamedha, Adi Keshva, Panchganga and finally Manikarnika. The devotee, accompanied by a priest, recites a sankalpa (statement of intent) and performs a ritual at each stage of the journey. Many visitors also see the city through a boat ride.