Our first introduction to the ritual is from a boat on the river in Varanasi.
Looking towards the “stage” we see the seven platforms for the priests, each topped with a canopy of brightly coloured fairy lights.
We move in closer and the ceremony begins with priests chanting the age-old Vedic Sanskrit chants, or bhajans, that bless the river, symbolically bowing to this supreme source of life.
The river is the Ganges, regarded throughout India as a goddess, and an important deity in the Hindu pantheon. The ceremony is Ganga Aarti, a nightly ritual to honour, pray to, and give thanks to this holiest of rivers, Maa Ganga, the Divine Mother who gives life to all.
The Aarti, a ritual to dispel darkness, is more than 2000 years old, and every evening at sunset Ganga Aarti takes place in four towns along the Ganges – Varanasi, Allahabad, Haridwar, and Rishikesh. The ceremony is so beautiful, and so compelling that Don and I go three times in Varanasi (once from the boat, and twice on shore), once in Haridwar, and three times in Rishikesh.
Come with me and see the magic of it:
In Varanasi the crowds gather and we are welcomed like family.
Assistants light the candles
while the priests prepare their platforms
and then wait in position.
It begins with a loud blast on a conch shell, followed by live music that continues throughout the entire ceremony: harmonium, flutes, drums and cymbals, chanting and singing, all played over loudspeakers so the whole crowd can hear. And the bells! Always the bells! It’s a joyous harmonious cacophony loud enough for even the gods to hear.
The priests move in stylised choreographed movements closely matched to the rhythmic chants of the hymns and the clanging of the cymbals. First they raise sticks of incense and with great deliberation wave them in clockwise and then in counter-clockwise circles as they face each direction in turn, all the while ringing hand-held bells. Strings are held by congregation members who pull on them to ring the bells that are attached to the canopies.
The sticks of incense are followed by bowls of smoking camphor to purify the soul.
A bowl in one hand and a bell in the other, the bowls are held high and waved in circles, again facing all four directions.
This same ritual continues. A bowl of burning camphor, then a candelabrum of burning candles to bring light to the darkness,
a feathery yak tail, followed by a peacock feather fan. The priests are earnest and focused.
With practiced movements and deep reverence they wave each object in the air in circles to the joyous and insistent soundscape of chanting, singing, music and bell ringing. Randomly, and with great authority, the conch shell sounds to help set you free from your sins. The aroma of sandalwood fills the air.
The evening Ganga Aarti is somewhat equivalent to the Muslim call to prayer, except the Aarti lasts for about 40 minutes. Just as the Muslim call to prayer can come from multiple sources, in Rishikesh the Aarti comes from three separate places – Triveni ghat, Shatrughna Temple Ghat, and Parmarth Niketan Ashram. We are in Rishikesh for a month in February 2019, and again in 2020. Both times our hotel faces the river and the music of the Aarti comes from all directions but the loudest and clearest by far is that which soars to us directly across the river from Parmarth Niketan.
Every evening at sunset we are serenaded by the bells and singing of Sanskrit devotional prayers.
We don’t go to Rishikesh’s Triveni Ghat where the major Aarti takes place. Instead we go across the river to Parmarth Niketan, the biggest ashram in the town. Each evening hundreds come to this uplifting transcendent ritual. We join the crowd and find a seat on the steps close to the water as the Brahmin students of the ashram, in their red sweaters and saffron robes, begin their preparations.
“Aarti at Parmarth Niketan is organized and performed by ashram residents, particularly the children who are studying the Vedas there. The ceremony commences with the singing of bhajans, prayers, and a purifying and sacred ritual that takes place around a fire, with the offerings made to Agni, the fire god.
The lamps are lit and the Aarti takes place as the final part of the ceremony. The children sing along with the spiritual head of the ashram, in sweet, haunting voices.
A huge statue of Lord Shiva overlooks the proceedings.”
The ceremony at Varanasi is a highly stylised and choreographed ritual. At Parmarth Niketan it is more inclusive and many bowls of burning camphor are handed out for people in the crowd to hold them as the chanting continues.
Towards the end we all rise and sway to the soaring music. There is a palpable sense of the divine, and, regardless of the ability to understand the chants, the power of the ritual is universal, transcending boundaries of language and culture. It goes straight to the heart. The music and colour alone are enough to lift your spirits. There is a sense of joy and unity as people move down to offer their flower pujas to the river.
I find it by following the sound. From our balcony I can hear that there is a Ganga Aarti ceremony somewhere close to our hotel, and sure enough I find it a five-minute walk away on Shatrughna Temple Ghat.
We get there early, almost before anyone else has arrived.
The platforms are ready, the speaker system is set up, and the priests and officials are doing their final preparations. We are asked to remove our shoes before entering the area.
This Aarti is similar to Varanasi, where the priests enact the same choreographed ritual, each on their own platform facing the river. There is a good crowd but not huge like Varanasi and Parmarth Niketan, and there’s an informal friendly ambience.
The holy ritual begins, echoing the same movements as the dance in Varanasi. The flaming bowls and candelabra are raised high as the sunset-sky fills with colour and then gradually darkens.
Every object is symbolic, and every movement. The music and singing resound throughout it all, a 40-minute Hindu hallelujah. As the night descends it is believed that the Goddess Ganga showers her blessings on all present, and all present give their thanks and devotion to Maa Ganga.
The end comes when the priests empty their bowls of Ganga water back into the river.
When all is finally over what could possibly be more Indian than a cow wandering into the scene?
Ganga Aarti in Haridwar couldn’t be more different and yet it is just as captivating. We do a day trip from Rishikesh in March of 2019 and stay for the Aarti, finding a place to sit with the crowd on a small island in the river.
Performed on Har Ki Pauri Ghat, the Haridwar Aarti is a spiritual pageant where thousands of people, priests, and idols are sandwich into a relatively small space. As with the other ceremonies there are loudspeakers, clanging bells, singing, incense, flowers, and fire, and I can only imagine how compelling it would have been to be part of that crowd.
Watching from across the water we see the priests gather as the idol of the River Ganga is brought from a nearby temple to a platform on the ghat. There is chanting, and call and response from the congregation as they raise their hands.
Although there is not the stylised choreography of Varanasi or Shatrughna Temple Ghat in Rishikesh, the devotion is the same, the music is the same, the bhajans and prayers are the same.
In 2020 we return to Ganga Aarti at Shatrughna Ghat in Rishikesh. The priests have new robes, but the energy, the beauty, and the music are eternal. And in the background the lights of Ram Jhula dance on the water.
According to the Hindu religion God gives us light all day – the light of the sun, the light of life. Ganga Aarti, held when darkness descends, is when we give that light back in the form of love and devotion. It is a time to forget the stresses of the day and gather together in joy, reverence, and harmony.
The Ganga Aarti song in Haridwar: (6 minutes)
Varanasi (7 minutes)
Shatrughna Ghat, Rishikesh (6 minutes)
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.