Varanasi is an ancient city by the banks of the holy river Ganges, often personified as Ganga or Ganga Maiyan by the Hindus. The origin of this perennial, transboundary river is in Uttrakhand where the water from the melted snow of Gangotri, Satopanth and Khatling glacier along with the water from the snowy peaks of Himalaya joins the course to form the Ganges. Ganga then flows south and finally towards the eastern part of India to meet the Bay of Bengal nourishing lives and providing livelihood to many along its course. And Ganga Aarti is an integral part of the worship of Goddess Ganga.
As per the Bhagavata Purana (a holy scripture in Hinduism), river Ganges had its abode in Brahmaloka before descending to Earth. Bhagiratha the king of Sagara dynasty did hard penance to please the lord Bramha to bring goddess Ganga on Earth to free the souls of thousands of his ancestors suffering from the curse of sage Kapil.
Brahma was pleased and agreed to send Ganga on earth to free the souls of his ancestors. This was scornful and derogatory to Ganga to descend down from Brahmaloka. In her wrath, she decided to sweep away every life on Earth while she descends from heaven. To save the world Bhagiratha again performed penance to please lord Shiva to control the flow of Ganga. Shiva was pleased and came in the way of her descent.
In her egotism, Ganga fell on Shiva’s head and got trapped in his locks. Her wrath was calmed and she was further sanctified by the touch of Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva then released the waters of Ganga from his hairs in a controlled way. Ever since Ganga gently flows on Earth as a sacred river for the salvation of all mankind. Ganga is known flow in all three world – Swarga (Heaven), Prithvi (Earth), Patal (Underworld or the Hell).
Since ancient times river Ganga has been considered as the most sacred river in India. Ganga is also known as Bhagirathi to remember the efforts of Bhagiratha to bring her on Earth. In Hinduism, it is a common belief that taking a dip in this holy river can bring respite from all sins and can also lead to the path of Moksha.
Ganga has been washing our sins (and our wastes) since ages flowing through hills, valley, plains and deltas, through cities, towns and villages. And we humans have been using and abusing these holy waters every day. The river has been the source of livelihood for many, it is the lifeline of all residing in the Gangetic plain providing fresh water for every need. River Ganga is a part of life and is thus revered and worshipped throughout India.
Ganga Aarti is a part of the ritual to show reverence to the holy river. Ganga Aarti is performed in cities with religious significance such as Haridwar, Rishikesh, Allahabad, Benaras and many others. This plain old religious tradition gradually earned fame and turned into a glorious event and the cynosure of all eyes.
Today I will share my experience of witnessing this magnificent event of Ganga aarti in the ghats of Varanasi. This famous, ancient, holy city is also famous for its spectacular Ganga aarti. I have been lucky to be there a few days back to witness this divine performance and capture the moment and the atmosphere in my camera.
In Benaras, Ganga Aarti is performed in almost every Ghat with the one in Dasaswamedh Ghat being the oldest and the most popular. I gathered all the information regarding the timing of the aarti and about the best place from where I can manage some good shots of the performance and reached the site almost an hours before the commencement of the aarti.
To my surprise, it was not crowded yet, but my targeted seats were already taken. I settled down on the row behind it and kept waiting for the show to begin. Meanwhile, there were a lot of activities happening around the stages. Some were busy arranging the stage for the aarti performance, boatmen were busy calling passengers for Ganga aarti, vendors were selling ‘Diyas’ and other items.
Gradually the crowd started gathering near the stage. The boats were filling up fast and they took their turn to line up in rows one after the other. The preparations were all done by then and the pandits have also arrived to take the centre stage. They are the main attraction and the models for all the photographers gathered to capture this decorous moment.
The much-awaited Ganga aarti begins with pandits (priests) chanting mantras and singing the holy songs all together on a stage. Then the sequential steps of the aarti follow along with the holy songs playing in the backdrop. The visitors claps and sings along with the music. The cool, Gangetic wind soothes every soul bringing respite from the humid weather and thus, supplementing the pious atmosphere.
It was an engaging activity and all were involved in watching this beautiful performance happening for an hour. Although I did not get my prefered seat I definitely got good views and could also capture the moments in my camera. Still not satisfied I wanted to get some better clicks and decided to come early the next day and grab my desired seat.
Initially, I planned of watching aarti from the ghat sitting by the side of the stage for the first day (this is the best and the nearest position to watch and click the pictures of the aarti, I realised later) and the next day from the boat. But after the first day, I dropped the idea of watching the aarti from the boat. The boats are anchored far from the stage so it is not the closest view you can have and a lot of disturbance comes in the form of other boats lining up to get the best possible position.
So the first day of watching the Ganga aarti was like getting acclimatised with the ghat area during Ganga aarti. After this warm-up session of the previous evening, I was ready to set sail in the Varanasi waters. Next morning we started early at 4 in the morning from Chousatti ghat (where our hotel was) to watch the morning aarti.
This post is for Ganga aarti so I will keep it confined within the scope of aarti and shall talk about the boating experience in my coming posts. Now we were going towards Assi Ghat to watch the morning aarti. It starts along with the first light of the rising sun. The preparation was already done and the stage was all set for the show to begin. A group of ladies from some organisation were singing and reciting religious hymns.
An elderly lady dressed in a pure white saree with a maroon border gracefully assisted in the pre-aarti works. As the light starts spreading beyond the horizon, the aarti begins. The singers and this elderly lady join to light the large ‘Diyas’ (lamps) for the aarti. Assi Ghat is much bigger than Dasaswamedh ghat and can accommodate more people to watch the aarti but the morning aarti usually is not that crowded and everyone gets a good chance to take good pictures.
Again this evening I joined the Ganga aarti in Dasaswamedh ghat and this time I was there much ahead of the time and was successful in grabbing my prefered seat. The aarti begins and I was by then an expert and knew the steps beforehand. I captured a good amount of photos and then went towards the Rajendra Prasad Ghat just beside the Dasaswamedh Ghat. The aarti there was not yet over and I again got an opportunity to click a few pictures of the final stages of the aarti in this ghat.
Finally satisfied after watching many aartis in many ghats I felt content and was happy. But still, I had a strange urge to be on the ghats for rest of the time. As ghats are the most happening place in the city and Ganga the lifeline. To show respect and we worship this river as a deity along with we do pollute its water in every possible way. I become thoughtful and sad at this irony of life – we abuse the one who we worship.