Alongside the crescent-shaped riverbank of Varanasi, the Ganges, in its azure-green tranquility, cradles the sunrise as the holy city starts to awaken. At daybreak, as the templetown rattles to life, the ghats (riverfront steps leading to the Ganges) transform into a stage for the performance of a slew of spatial rituals. The sandstone steps and landings, lakeshore shrines, marhis (octagonal benches), shade structures, carved stone slabs, and elevated niches located on the river-shores possess a quotidian temporality: these spaces are the platforms for the everyday customs of ceremonial baths, acts of reverence, showcasing folkarts and crafts and delving into discourses; they act as a spiritual gateway for the linen-clad tourists, and most ardently, as a theatre for the revelries of life, death, and rebirth.
A boat-voyage across the Ganges unveils the grandeur of the ghats in its entirety: the silhouette of Varanasi is best observed from the middle of the rivulet. The riverbank, awash with sunlight and replete with its vivid design palette, is embellished with ornately thatched bamboo chhatris (umbrellas), red-bricked pavilions, and parapets that glimmer in their aureate brilliance.
The sun-drenched chhatris gleam as if beckoning the boatmen homewards. The elegance of the ornate chhatris has been eloquently captured in the nineteenth-century lithographs of James Prinsep, Thomas Daniell’s watercolor paintings, Samuel Bourne’s photographic oeuvres, and the vintage Indian tourism posters.
The chhatris, constructed on high, burnt sienna-tinted plinths, exhibit distinct adornments such as protruding ovoid domes, elaborate carvings, and inscriptions. Intricately embellished with spires, the chhatris dot the ghatscapes of the ancient city. Underneath these bamboo parasols, the elaborate chaukis (seats) for the priests are laid out; the chhatris gracefully crown the sanctum designated for ritualistic practices of chanting, praying, accepting offerings, and blessing the devotees after their holy dips in the Ganges. The intangible visual culture of the ghats and the intricacies of its quotidian public life is sustained by the exquisite chhatris, which overlook the activities of the swathes of washermen, masseuses, astrologers, trinket- sellers and barbers who flock to the shade-structures, along with their customers. The sunshades shelter indigenous artworks such as clay figurines of deities, handcrafted wares, and oil paintings.
The ghats are the cardinal regions of commercial, religious, and recreational endeavors in Varanasi, and their architectural grammar is characterized by the chhatris, tangerine-tinted aedicules, beige steps, intricate alcoves, arched doorways, red-hued jharokhas (stone balconies), adobe-walled buildings, and riverfront shrines.
The typical design emblems of the ghats endow them with an overwhelmingly asymmetrical visual texture as the elements such as steep stairways, landings, embankments, and temple steeples occur irregularly at varying heights and depths. With the crevasses and curves of the shorelines, the structural and cultural plotting of the ghats also transition: the landings become progressively narrower, and the shrines develop a smaller orientation as the steps descend closer to the Ganges.
These bedizened chhatris belonging to the iconic landscape of Varanasi are vanishing with time because the generational artisans are now switching to more lucrative occupations. As the rare handicraft disappears from the horizon, the delicate finesse of bamboo chhatris is being replaced with soulless plastic alternatives, some of them even printed with fast food and beverages logos. Instead of using monuments as the focal point, a conservation strategy should aim to preserve this ghatscape with all its elements of artistic and cultural splendor and vitality. Consistent efforts are needed to safeguard this part of Varanasi’s prismatic traditional bounty: these deployable bamboo structures can be utilized by the native artists as mediums to add more hues and motifs to the ghats. The flexibility of this lightweight artform grants it unique indispensability in the ghat workaday. Thus, the creation of these wickerwork sunshades could be promoted and patronized amongst the locals.
The ghats are the liminal thresholds situated between the worldly realm of the cityscapes and the divine, transcendent expanse of the Ganges. The eternal, unchanging vistas of the ghats ought to be shielded from decadence.
Author: Ria Chakraborty[Political Science; Lady Shri Ram College for Women; Literary Reviewer]Illustration: Ria Chakraborty; TDLM Design Team