Since childhood, I have seen Ganga Aarti many times from the paved steps of Dashaswamedh Ghat near famous Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi and watching this event was one of the my favourite pass-time during my stay in Varanasi. Varanasi is just 30 kms away from my village and I already visited this place many times. But, it was the first time when I wanted to explore my own city as a backpacker. Exploring Banaras (Varansi) as a backpacker…I looked crazy to everyone. But, I knew that it was going to be a thrilling experience for me.
With a sheer joy and unknown excitement, I boarded an evening flight of Spice Jet from New Delhi to Varanasi. The flight took-off on scheduled time and reached Varanasi Airport in 50 minutes. Varanasi Airport is situated at the distance of 22 kms from the City Center on Varanasi-Lucknow National Highway 56. It is served by major domestic airlines like Air India, Jet Airways etc. There are direct flights from Varanasi to Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Kathmandu.
I wanted to watch the Ganga Aarti on that evening itself. So, I walked down to the highway (500 mtrs) and boarded a Uttar Pradesh Roadways bus to Varanasi. Ganga Aarti starts around 6 PM in the winter and 7 PM in the summer, say right after the sunset. But, people start arriving very early in order to get a good place for watching this spectacular ceremony.
The roadways bus left me at the Varanasi Main Bus Station outside the railway junction. Location of Ganga Aarti, Dashashwamedh Ghat, is still 5 kms from there. So, I walked ahead towards the auto stand for 1 km and got a shared auto to Godaulia, the last place where we could reach by an auto. From there, Dashashwamedh Ghat is just 800 mtrs away. I walked though a over-crowded market and reached at the ghat before the scheduled time of Aarti Ceremony.
There was already a huge crowd gathered to watch the Ganga Aarti. Some were standing on the ghat-steps, some got places on the roof-tops of nearby shops and some were negotiating with the boat owners on the riverbank. There is no particular place for the best view of Ganga Aarti. You can enjoy it from the steps, from the boats, from the roof-top of nearby shops or from the roof-top of the Ganga Sewa Nidhi office, which is the organizer of this ceremony.
I stood on the steps, from where the view was pretty good. The Aarti was about to begin in next 10 minutes and preparation was going on. The Aarti ceremony takes place on seven wooden platforms placed on the edge of the steps of the ghat. On each wooden platform, there are small tables covered with saffron colour silk clothes with Pooja (prayer) items, that include a conch shell, incense sticks, praying bells, handkerchiefs, large brass lamps with snake hood, flowers, water pot, yak-tail fan, peacock’s feather etc. Each of these item is considered very sacred in Hindu Mythology.
As this preparation was going on, everybody was eagerly watching and waiting on their seats from the ghat-steps or from the boats. A huge assembly was gathered by the beginning of Ganga Aarti. It included different people from diverse backgrounds..Some were from Southern India, some were from the streets of Varanasi, Some flew down to all the way from Americas and Europe, some were from Bengal and Bihar..different states, different countries, different religions, different castes, different colours…from Sarees to Jeans, from Dhoti to Suit. It was a confluence of faith, cultures and traditions with attention-cum-curiosity…spectacular, mesmerizing and wonderful.
As wait came to an end, seven young priests appeared in similar silken cream colour clothes, that also used to be saffron colour sometimes..These young, good looking priests are the students of Vedas and Upanishads and they perform the whole Aarti ritual in a well choreographed manner with a great synchronization. The priests need not to be same everyday. They keep changing, but at a particular day, they all wear the identical clothes, mainly dhotis and kurtas of cream colour or saffron colour with dark-red sweaters in the winter.
The Aarti starts with the chanting of hymns and prayers in the praise of the Holy River. The Ganges is considered as a goddess in Hindu mythology and people call it Mother Ganges. It is the most sacred river of Hindu religion.
After that, they blow a conch shell at their respective platforms and everybody folds his hands in devotion.
Next step is the burning of incense sticks and waving them in an elaborate synchronized manner in all the directions with their right hand, while ringing the prayer bell with the left hand.
After this, some people appear with the big multi-tiered lamps containing hundreds of small lamps and keep them near the priests. They wave these burning lamps in clockwise directions, to and fro in a synchronized manner, while facing themselves in all the directions. These big brass lamps weigh around four and half kilos and small flames look amazing under the night sky.
It is followed by the waving of large brass lamps with snake hood, full of camphor or kapoor. The burning of kapoor generates big flames out from the lamps and when the priests wave and circle them identically, it mesmerizes everyone.
After that they wave the Peacock’s feather and Yak-tail fan in similar choreographed manner and the ceremony approaches towards an end.
As the Aarti ceremony approaches towards the end, a person appears with a big plate full of flowers to collect the donations and offerings from the crowd.
Another person appears with a big lamp, so that people can wave their hands on the flame to seek the blessings.
At the end of the ceremony these priests go to the riverbank and pour the water in the river while chanting the ritual hymns. This mark the end of the closing ceremony.
There were many small flower pots and small lamps lies on the bank of the river, which is offered by people to seek the blessings of the Mother Ganga. This crazy devotional offering makes this river very polluted each day and whole scene looks very dirty. I understand that the religion and devotion is an integral part of our life in India, but can’t we think of that river a little bit, which we call The Mother?
And when the Aarti ceremony finishes in nearly 45 minutes after the start, everyone starts dispersing. Pandas and their assistants collect the items from the wooden platforms and bring them back to the office. People walk towards the market, photographers pack their kits and boatmen return to the riverbank.
It always remain an extraordinary experience for me. This is not the devotion, but a visual beauty that always drives me towards this ceremony. I just visited this Aarti ceremony again two days ago, while I was in Banaras and hope to visit it very soon. Banaras is a place, where I wanted to be again and again. For me, there is no better place in the world to celebrate my life with the multitude of people, colours and cultures.