Varanasi, India. “We need to be there before the ceremony starts,” said my guide Ravi Sahni while we were walking amid the chaotic street of the old part of Varanasi, India, on one late afternoon.
Varanasi, about 797 kilometers southeast of India’s capital New Delhi, is situated on the banks of the Ganges River. For the Hindus, water of the Ganges River is believed to have the powers to purify one's mind and body. Bathing in the Ganges River is also believed to wash away one’s sins. The Hindus believe that those who die and are cremated in Varanasi will get an immediate gateway to liberation from samsara, the cycle of birth and re-birth.
Varanasi is believed to be more than 3,000 years old and has been a pilgrimage city for the Hindus. It is considered the abode of Lord Shiva, one of deities in Hinduism that is regarded as Supreme Being. It has been a spiritual city with thousands of temples dedicated to Lord Shiva, with Kashi Vishwanath Temple or Golden Temple its most famous attractions.
Also known as Banares or Kashi, Varanasi was long ago the city of education, where spiritualism, philosophy and mysticism flourished and produced many great Hindu philosophers and thinkers.
I was very excited to see Ganges Aarti, a ritual ceremony that uses fire as offering to Goddess Ganges, the goddess of the holiest river for the Hindus. It is performed every evening on the banks of Ganges River.
“Pilgrims from all over India and also other parts of the world came to Varanasi for a pilgrimage. This is the holy city for Hindus,” Ravi added.
As we arrived, the river bank was crowded with boats, pilgrims, locals and tourists.
Ravi took me to see the ceremonial site for the Ganges Aarti where there are seven wooden platforms for seven priests. Each has a saffron-colored table holding items for prayer (pooja), including a conch shell, handkerchief, praying bells, a brass pot, a camphor, large brass lamps, incense sticks, multitiered oil lamps, peacock feathers and yak tail fan. Each item serves as a symbol and has sacred meaning in Hinduism.
Vendors were waiting for pilgrims to buy their small diyas (lamps) with candles and flowers that are usually given as an offering. As the sun set and the sky became darker, more people arrivedat Dashashwamedh ghat.
Ravi led me to another ghat called Manmandir, where we boarded a small boat with two young boys as the crew. One was rowing the boat and the other was carrying a small, wooden plate basket with small diyas of flower and candles.
The aarti started at around 6 p.m. A head priest kicked off the ceremony by leading priests in saffron-colored dhoti (traditional garment for men) and kurta (collarless shirt)to face the Ganges. In front of them is the small table with pooja items.
To start the ceremony, a priest blew on the conch shell and incense sticks were placed into a configuration. The priests then circled the flaming lamps, synchronizing their movements with the growing chants and clangs of the cymbal. Then, they moved on to circle the multitiered lamps, peacock feathers and yak tail fans. It was a mystical moment with lamps radiating light into the dark sky and the smoke wafting through the air. The ceremony took up to 45 minutes.
The aarti is performed by waiving the lights before the deities in the spirit of humbleness and gratitude. The items that are used in aarti symbolize the five elements: void, earth, water, fire, and air.
In the end, a diya is placed into the river as an offering for the Goddess Ganges.
“Make your wish when you give the offering,” Ravi told me as I floated the diya ton the river.
It was a heartening experience to witness the ceremony. The performances and rituals gave me a sense of how the people worship the deities with love and how much respect they have for the Goddess Ganga.