The Ganga Aarti
The city of Varanasi (also Banaras) is situated in the north of India, on the south-eastern part of the state of Uttar Pradesh. Cutting right through the bustling, colourful, narrow streets of the Varanasi town is the almighty Ganges River.
Varanasi is regarded as one of the seven most sacred cities in the Hindu religion. So along the miles of elaborate shrines and palaces that are positioned on the water’s edge, you may or may not be surprised to witness Hindu style cremations taking place, right in front of your eyes.
On my first evening in this holy city, I arranged a boat tour which took me a few kilometres up the River Ganges, to find out a little more about the famous river ritual. I’d heard about the ongoing ceremonies wondering the streets earlier in the day, and I was intrigued to find out more.
We set off around 6:00 pm, which was perfect as we caught a stunning pink sunset. Shortly after as the sun descended further behind the ghats on the riverfront, the sky turned into lavender, creating an awesome reflection off the gloomy brown water.
As I was making my way up-stream, my guide pointed out the fires burning in the distance. I stared into the distance bewildered, as he proceeded to tell me that these are cremations that take place here in Varanasi.
Varanasi Cremations & Ghats
Families save for years in hope to be cremated, which would typically happen in a ghat. In Varanasi, you’ll find over 80 ghats, they’re all unique temples, decorated in their own style. Manikarnika Ghat is considered one of the holiest cremation grounds along the river Ganges, with approximately 28,000 every year!
Each year, more than a million pilgrims make their way from all over India to Varanasi, which is bounded by a road known as Panchakosi. This road is for devout Hindus, who wish once in their lifetime to visit the city. Many migrate to the city at an elderly age, in hope to pass away and get cremated here.
The Ganga Aarti Ceremony
Every evening on the banks of the River Ganges, in the three cities of Rishikesh, Hardwar, and Varanasi, the Ganga Aarti is performed. An aarti is a devotional ritual that uses fire as an offering. It’s usually made in the form of a lit brass lamp, and in the case of the Ganges River, a small diya with a candle and flowers that are floated down the river. The offering is made to the Goddess Ganga, also affectionately referred to as Maa Ganga, goddess of the holiest river in India.
Where does the Ganga Aarti take place
The Ganga Aarti in Varanasi takes place at every sunset at the holy Dashashwamedh Ghat, one of the oldest and holiest ghats in Varanasi. According to Hindu mythology, the Dashashwamedh Ghat was made by Lord Brahma to welcome Lord Shiva.
The ceremony is performed by Pandit priests, who have heavily studied Hinduism all their lives. The priests all dress in a dhoti, which is traditional Indian cloth that is wrapped around and tightened at the waist. On their body, they wear a kurta – a loose collarless shirt, as well as a gamcha (towel), which is wrapped across their body from shoulder to waist.
To signal the commencement of the ceremony, a priest will blow through a conch shell. Shortly after, the priests light up their brass lamps, and in a synchronised manner begin the ceremony.The movement of the lamps, held in the priests‘ hands, is tightly synchronizing to the rhythmic chants of hymns and chimes of cymbals. The heady scent of sandalwood thickly permeates the air as the performance is carried out.
Getting a tour to watch the Ganga Aarti
The best way to get a ‘local’ feel to this city full of culture using a tour company is by checking out ToursByLocals. They have a number of different tours available for Varanasi, starting at very good prices!