Priers standing together before the Ganga Aarti ceremony
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The Ganga Aarti Ceremony

by Jonathan Kyprianou
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Varanasi

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). 

A epic sunset in Varanasi

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!

 

Purple skies in Varanasi, India

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.

 

Boats making their way to the Ganga Aarti

 

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.

 

Locals making their way to Dasaswamedh Ghat

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.

 

The Manikarnika ghat at night, where 29,000 cremations approximately happen each year

 

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.

 

A cremation taking place outside the Manikarnika ghat in Varanasi

 

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.

 

People gathered outside Dashashwamedh Ghat, in preparation for the Ganga Aarti

 

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.

 

People on boats, floating outside the Dashashwamedh Ghat

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.

 

Many bystanders observing the Ganga Aarti from a boat tour

Bystanders watching the Ganga Aarti Ceremony on boats that are docked by the side of the performance

 

A local lady holding a diya, which she's about to let float down the River Ganges

 

A small diva, floating down the river Ganges in-between boats

A small diya, floating in between boats

 

Hindu Devouts handing out flowers for a small donation

 

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.

 

a priest, rotating a brass lamp over his head for the Ganga Aarti

 

 

Priests performing the Ganga Aarti in Varanasi

 

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.

The Ganga Aarti performance

 

Check out my other post in Varanasi: Exploring Varanasi

 

A typical diya, which is made from flowers and a candle

Sustainable Travel Essentials

 

 

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!

Read more on the importance of using Local Guides, instead of big tour groups

An Indian man sitting outside his house by the River Ganges

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