The Ganga Aarti is a Hindu ceremony, which takes place every evening on the banks of the River Ganges. It’s performed in the three cities of Rishikesh, Hardwar, and Varanasi. Below I’ve described my Ganga Aarti experience in Varanasi (also Banaras).
Varanasi is one of the seven most sacred cities in the Hindu religion! The town is located in the north of India, part of the state of Uttar Pradesh.
Cutting right through Varanasi is the holy River Ganges. As a result of this, you’ll find miles of elaborate shrines and palaces along the water’s edge. Also, you’ll be shocked to find cremation ceremonies taking place, right in front of your eyes!
Ganga Aarti River Tour
On my first evening in this holy city, I booked a boat tour with ToursByLocals. We arranged for my guide Prabu to take me a few kilometres up the River Ganges, to find out a little more about the famous river ritual. Wandering the streets of Varanasi earlier in the day, I had heard about the ongoing ceremonies, and I was intrigued to find out more.
To begin with, we set off around 6:00 pm, which was perfect as we caught a stunning pink sunset creeping upon us. Shortly after, as the sun descended behind the ghats on the riverfront, the sky turned into an incredible purple, creating a remarkable reflection of the murky brown water.
Following on, as we made our way up-stream, my guide pointed out the fires burning in the distance.
I was shocked to find out that each year, thousands of cremations take place in the ghats of 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 which are all temples, decorated in their unique style.
Manikarnika Ghat is considered one of the holiest cremation grounds along the river Ganges, with approximately 28,000 every year. The cremations never stop.
Each year, more than a million pilgrims make their way from all over India to Varanasi – bounded by a road known as Panchakosi – a route taken by devout Hindus. Subsequently, many migrate to Varanasi in hope to pass away and get cremated there along the river bank.
The Ganga Aarti Ceremony
An aarti is a holy ritual that uses fire as an offering. It is offered 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 devotees float 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 most sacred 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 most have spent their lives studying Hinduism. The priests all dress in a dhoti – a traditional Indian cloth that is wrapped around and tightened at the waist. In addition, on their body, they wear a kurta – a loose collarless shirt, along with a gamcha (towel), which is wrapped across from shoulder to waist.
To signal the commencement of the ceremony, a priest will blow through a conch shell. Following on, the priests light up their brass lamps, and in a synchronised manner, begin the service. Finally, the priests move the lamps in a synchronising manner to the rhythmic chants of hymns and chimes of cymbals. A heavy scent of sandalwood thickly fills the air surrounding the ghats as the performance is ongoing.
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!