Varanasi in Art – Exploring Artworks of Dashashwamedh Ghat from the 18th Century to Modern Times


#Didyouknow that Varanasi is believed to be a timeless place? It has been in existence from a time immemorial. It gets its name from the rivers Varuna and Asi, tributaries that flow into the river Ganga at Varanasi. There are many legends surrounding it. There is one legend which says that Goddess Parvati got tired of staying on Mount Kailash and so Lord Shiva founded a city for her which is Varanasi! 

Lord Shiva and Parvati on Mount Kailasa, Jaipur, Rajasthan School, circa 1800, British Museum, London. Source: Wikimedia

Varanasi: A religious and cultural city along the Ganges

Varanasi, also called Benaras, a city in Uttar Pradesh, India is full of temples, on the left bank of the river Ganga, and considered by Hindus as their holiest city. Also known as Kashi and the ‘City of Light’. The city is also believed to be a huge ‘yantra’ as well, with the temples placed strategically. The Ganges in Varanasi is believed to have the power to wash away the sins of mortals, and one who dies on the land of Varanasi attains ‘Mukti’ or salvation and escapes the cycle of birth and re-birth. There are many ghats along the Ganges in Varanasi which lead down to the holy river. Technically a ‘ghat’ is defined as ‘a broad flight of steps leading down to a river’. These are steps built for the devotees who go down for a dip. There are over 80 ghats in Varanasi. Some are the Dashashwamedh Ghat, Shivala Ghat, Assi Ghat, Tulsi Ghat, Hanuman Ghat, Ahilyabai Ghat, Tathagath Ghat, Lalita Ghat and Manikarnika Ghat.

Varanasi has an interesting storyline. Mark Twain has said – “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”. It is shaped like a half crescent, but not much is known about its ancient boundaries but some Buddhist accounts mention it to be twelve ‘yojanas’. Varanasi is mentioned in the epic Mahabharata. Puranas mention different dimensions but it appears to have been a large space. The history of Varanasi prior to the advent of the Aryans is not very clear. In the 8th century, Adi Shankara established the worship of Shiva as an official sect of Varanasi. Tulsidas wrote his Awadhi language epic, the Ramcharitmanas, a Bhakti movement rendition of the original Sanskrit Ramayana, in Varanasi. Sant Kabir and Guru Ravidas, prominent figures of the Bhakti movement were born in Varanasi. 

Varanasi holds significance in Buddhism and Jainism too. Lord Buddha preached his first sermon at Sarnath near Varanasi. Varanasi is believed to be the birthplace of Parsvanatha, the twenty-third Tirthankara. The city is associated with learning, devotion to Gods, arts and crafts, textile tradition for a long time. The Benares Sanskrit College, was founded during East India Company rule in 1791. Later education in Benares was greatly influenced by the rise of Indian nationalism in the late 19th-century. Annie Besant founded the Central Hindu College in 1898. In 1916, she and Madan Mohan Malviya founded the Banaras Hindu University, India’s first modern residential university. Kashi Vidyapith was established in 1921, as a response to Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-cooperation movement. Many exponents of dance and music have come from Varanasi. Indian philosophers, poets, writers, and musicians have been associated with the city. This is where the Benares gharana form of Hindustani classical music was evolved. In the 20th-century the Hindi-Urdu writer Prem Chand, Pandit Ravi Shankar, the renowned Sitar maestro and Ustad Bismillah Khan, the famous Shehnai player who got a Bharat Ratna are all sons of the city. Benares became a princely state in 1911 with Ramnagar as its capital.  The religious head, Kashi Naresh, had his headquarters at the Ramnagar Fort since the 18th century, also a repository of the history of the kings of Varanasi, to the east of Varanasi, across the Ganges. Annie Besant, philanthropist founded the Central Hindu College, which later led to the founding of Banaras Hindu University in 1916. Varanasi became part of the Indian Union in 1947, and part of Uttar Pradesh after Indian independence. Vibhuti Narayan Singh ceded his territory into the United Provinces in 1949. Besides the ghats, Varanasi is also well known for its crafts, fine silks and gold and silver brocades and there is a high demand for the same. In addition, Varanasi has fascinated artists from yore and artworks are constantly being made till the present times in the 21st century. 

Part of the city of Benaras, William Hodges, drawing, 1781, Yale Center for British Art, U S A
Part of the city of Benaras, William Hodges, drawing, 1781, Yale Center for British Art, U S A. Image: Wikimedia

Ghats of Varanasi – Gift from the gods and royals

The ghats are either mentioned in legend or there is a history in real life wherein we know a royal person has built it. The ethos of the city of Varanasi has physical, metaphysical, spiritual, mythological and even supernatural elements in it. Let us see the origins of a few ghats which will prove the same. Assi Ghat an important ghat of Varanasi whose references are found in Matsya-purana, agni purana, kurma purana, padma purana and kashi khanda. It is believed that Goddess Durga after slaying demon Shumbha- Nishumbha had thrown her sword which resulted in flowing of a big stream known as the Asi River.  Ganga Mahal Ghat is named after a palatial building made by Maharaja of Banaras, which has excellent carvings depicting the Rajput and local architectural grandeur of 16th century. The Tulsi Ghat is named after the great poet Tulsidas (1547-1622 A.D.) who wrote Ramcharitmanas. Earlier it was known as Lolark Ghat. In 1941, Baldeo Das Birala made reinforcements to this Ghat associated with the bath to beget sons and ensure their long life and bath to get rid of leprosy. The Mata Anandamai Ghat was known earlier as ‘lmalia Ghat’. in 1944, Mata Anandamai bought this area from British. She made reinforcements to run a Ashrama which performs religious activities. Jain Ghat: Before 1931 Jain ghat was the part of Vaccharaja Ghat. Later Jain community made reinforcements and named it as Jain Ghat. On the southern end, Jain communities take bath and perform their regular activities. Shivala ghat was an important ghat in early times. In mid 19th century, It was converted into a small ghat. But now, there is a huge building constructed by Nepal’s King Sanjay Vikram Shah (19th century) and a Shiva Temple and one Brahmendra Math established by Kashiraj. Only some pilgrims and local people take bath here. Hanuman ghat – Sant Tulsidas has established a Hanuman Temple here during 18th century. A.D. which made it famous as Hanuman ghat. The ancient name of this ghat was Ramesvaram Ghat which is believed to be established by Lord Ram himself. At present it is inside boundary of ‘Juna Akhada’. Many ascetics live in the temples. Karnataka ghat: This ghat was built by the Princely State of Mysore in circa 1910. There is a shrine of Ruru ( the Dog) Bhairava, one of the 8th Bhairavas protecting the city from 8th direction. Vijayanagaram Ghat: This was improved in circa 1890 by the Vijayanagaram State of South India. At the top of it is Svami Karapatri Ashram. Close by to this building are the shrines of Nilakantha and Nispapesvara. This is the site of Haramapapa Tirtha.  At the top exists the temple of Kedaresvara, the patron deity of the southern sacred segment. Kedar Ghat – The attached shrines and sacred sites include – Tarakesvara, Gauri Kunda and Vitanka Narsimha. In late sixteenth century Kumarasvami, a devotee of Dattatreya had made a monastery attached to the Kedaresvara, temple. Caowki Ghat: This ghat is famous for the huge pipala or peepal (Ficus religiosa) tree at the top of the steps which shelters a great array of stone figures of snakes, the nagas. Near this tree is the shrine of Rukmangesvara, and at some distance lies Naga Kupa  or ‘Snake Well’. On the occasion of Naga Panchami, during month of Shravan (July–August), these shrines are especially worshipped. This ghat was built in circa 1790. Munsi Ghat: The ghat was built by Sridhara Narayana Munsi a finance minister in the State of Darbhanga, in 1912, as an extended part of Darbhanga Ghat. After his death in 1924 this portion of the ghat was named after him. Ahilyabai Ghat : At the place of an old site of Kevelyagiri Ghat, in circa 1778, queen Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore reinforced this as a stronger ghat. She was also responsible for re-building the Visvesvara temle in 1777 as it exists now. There are other ghats like Chausatthi Ghat, Rana mahala Ghat, Sitala Ghat among many others, each one with its own significance.  Let us now look separately at one of the most popular ghats – the Dashashwamedh Ghat.

Dashashwamedh Ghat, Benaras, aquatint by Thomas Daniell, 1796. Image:

Dashashwamedh Ghat is a main ghat in Varanasi. It is located close to the famous Vishwanath Temple. There are two legends associated with the ghat: one says that Lord Brahma created it to welcome Lord Shiva, another believes, Brahma had sacrificed ten horses during Dasa-Ashwamedh yagna. The present ghat was built by Peshwa Balaji Baji Rao in the year 1748. A few decades later, Ahilyabai Holkar, the Queen of Indore, rebuilt it in the year 1774. Presented here are the images of this important ‘ghat’ through the 18th century to the present times; where the Ganga Aarti is done during sunset daily and also the yearly ‘Dev Deepavali’ is celebrated 15 days after Deepavali when hundreds of diyas (earthen lamps) are set afloat on the river. It is believed that the gods come to take a dip in the river during this time. Artworks and images of this ghat are well liked and being made in the modern times as well.

Thomas Daniell RA (1749 – 1840) was an English landscape painter who painted some Orientalist themes. Accompanied by his nephew William Daniell, he spent seven years in India, published series of aquatints of India. His artwork on the Dashwashamedh Ghat is a serene version of the ghat, few people on the steps of the ghat and a budgerow sailing on the river.

Dashashwamedh Ghat, Benaras, aquatint by Thomas Daniell, 1796.
Dashashwamedh Ghat, Benares, lithograph, by James Prinsep, 1834, British Library, London. Image: Wikimedia

James Prinsep, FRS (20 August 1799 – 22 April 1840) was an English scholar, orientalist and antiquary. He was an assay master at the mint in Benares/Varanasi and had an avid interest in architecture of Benares; he painted a series of watercolours of monuments and lithographs on Benares which were sent to London in 1829 and published between 1830 and 1834 as Benares Illustrated – in a series of drawings. The lithograph here captures the hustle-bustle of the ghat given the boats and the people depicted.

Dashashwamedh Ghat, Benares, lithograph, by James Prinsep, 1834, British Library, London
Dashashwamedh Ghat, by Edwin Lord weeks, oil on canvas, 1883-85, Brooklyn Museum, U S A. Image: Wikimedia

Edwin Lord Weeks (1849 – 1903) was an American artist, famous for his vibrant and eye-catching Orientalist works. He travelled to South America (1869), Egypt and Persia (1870), Morocco (between 1872 and 1878), and India (1882–83). The painting here seems to be Dashashwamedh Ghat. The oil painting depicts the Ganges, pilgrims and the temples under a sky with floating clouds busy in the ghat.

Dashashwamedh Ghat, by Edwin Lord weeks, oil on canvas, 1883-85, Brooklyn Museum, U S A
Dashaswamedh Ghat, Benaras, from the book ‘The Land of Temples’ Or ‘Sketches from Our Indian Empire’ by Mary Hield, 1882, British Library, London. Image: Wikimedia

The image from a book shows the temple steeples, buildings, trees and the pilgrims going about the ghat, also a budgerow boat used during the time.

Dashaswamedh Ghat, Benaras, from the book ‘The Land of Temples’ Or ‘Sketches from Our Indian Empire’ by Mary Hield, 1882, British Library, London.

Raphael Tuck & Sons was a business started by Raphael Tuck and his wife in London in October 1866, selling pictures and greeting cards, and later selling postcards, which was a very successful venture. The image here is a postcard of the Dashashwamedh Ghat, Benares from 1905.During the late 1890s and early 1900s. picture postcards were very popular. These are now called as ‘paper jewels’ by some scholars.

Dashashwamedh Ghat, Benares, picture-postcard by Raphael Tuck & Sons, London, 1905
Dashashwamedh Ghat, Benares, picture-postcard by Raphael Tuck & Sons, London, 1905. Image: Wikimedia

At the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the ‘Ganga Aarti’ a ritual of prayer to the Ganga River is held daily at dusk at Varanasi. Ganga is worshipped as a Goddess. Bhajans are sung and the ‘deepams’ or lamps are moved up and down by priests in synchrony. It is a wonderful sight. Special aartis are held on Tuesdays and on religious festivals. The enchanting ‘Ganga Aarti’ starts after sunset and goes on for 45 minutes. It is very popular and is watched by hundreds of devotees and onlookers. The Aarti is done to be grateful to the almighty god for giving us the five elements (water, air, earth, sky/ether and fire) and connecting to divinity with the outgoing smoke. During ‘Dev Deepavali’ when Gods are said to take a dip in the river Ganga, many lamps are floated on the river. This happens on Kartik Purnima every year, a very auspicious day in the Hindu calender, 15 days after Diwali. A painting of the Ganga Aarti by Paramesh Paul, born 1970, a freelance artist from Mumbai, is showcased here. Paramesh Paul was born in West Bengal. He has made artistic images of Durga and other gods and goddesses. He also paints towns in India like Banaras, Haridwar, Rishikesh, Nabadwip Dham and other important religious places. Others artists have also painted on Varanasi including M.F Husain.

Ganga aarti, Dashaswamedha Ghat, painting by Paramesh Paul
Ganga aarti, Dashaswamedha Ghat, painting by Paramesh Paul, 21st century. Image Courtesy:

We can understand how an eternal city is a muse for artists eternally with more and more artworks being created which can be seen online and also acquired to call it one’s own, by purchase either in original or if prints are sold, also taken as a souvenir by tourists who are much fascinated by Varanasi.

References and image attribution

  1. Pandeya, Uma (1980) Varanasi, New Delhi: Macmillan Company of India Ltd. (Hindi book)
  2. (accessed 18.08.2023)
  1. (accessed 19.08.2023)
  2. (accessed 19.08.2023)
  3. (accessed 26.08.2023)
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  7. 26.08.2023)

Image credits: The copyright for the images used in this article belong to their respective owners. Best known credits are given under the image. For changing the image credit or to get the image removed from Caleidoscope, please contact us.


  1. Wow, so beautifully written. I had walked on all the ghats and was mesmerized by the Ganga Aarti there. I relived my awesome Benares trip while reading this lovely article. Thanks for making walk down the memory lane..
    As always, I did learnt couple of new things while reading Soma’s article.


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