As used in many parts of Northern South Asia, the term ghat refers to a series of steps leading down to a body of water, particularly a holy river. In Bengali-speaking regions, this set of stairs can lead down to something as small as a pond or as large as a major river.
The word Ghat is explained by numerous Dravidian etymons such as Telugu katta and gattu (dam, embankment) Tamil kattu (side of a mountain, dam, ridge, causeway) and Kannada gatta (mountain range), . This etymology was proposed by Burrow and endorsed by Mayrhofer and Asko Parpola.
The numerous significant ghats along the Ganges are known generally as the 'Varanasi ghats' and the 'ghats of the Ganges'. In Madhya Pradesh in western India there are further significant ghats along the Narmada River. People who live on the steps are also called ghats.
The word is also used in some places outside of the Indian subcontinent where there are Indian communities. For example, in George Town, Penang in Malaysia, the label "Ghaut" is used to identify the extensions of those streets which formerly ended in ghats before reclamation of the quayside (e.g., Church St Ghaut - in Malay Gat Lebuh Gereja - is the name of the extension of Church St beyond where the street used to descend to the water via a ghat). In both Penang and Singapore, there are areas named Dhoby Ghaut (dhobi meaning "launderer" or "laundry", depending on whether it refers to a person or a business).
Ghats such as these are useful for both mundane purposes (such as cleaning) and religious rites (i.e. ritual bathing or ablutions); there are also specific "shmashana" or "cremation" ghats where bodies are cremated waterside, allowing ashes to be washed away by rivers; notable ones are Nigambodh Ghat and Raj Ghat in Delhi on the Yamuna, that latter of which was the cremation area for Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and numerous political leaders after him, and the Manikarnika Ghat at Varanasi on the Ganges.
In Marathi, Hindi , Gujarati and Karnataka, ghat is a term used to identify a difficult passage over a mountain. One such passage is the Bhor Ghat that connects the towns Khopoli and Khandala, on NH 4 about 80 kilometres (50 mi) north of Mumbai. Charmadi Ghat of Karnataka is also notable.
Ganga Dashahara in 2005 bathers to the riverfront in Haridwar.
Manikarnika Ghat, Varanasi.
People performing Hindu ceremony at one of the ghats of Varanasi
Har-ki-Pauri at Haridwar
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