Every tourist guide-book (national or international) worth its sales, as well as articles or blog posts on this Varanasi, online discussion fora, and word-of-mouth recommendations mention the Ganga Aarti at the Dashashwamedh Ghat as THE thing to do in the city. I had read and heard so much about the Ganga Aarti that it was on my list of “must do things in life”. So when my Varanasi plans got finalised, it was quite natural that everything revolved around seeing the Ganga Aarti.
On my very first evening in Varanasi, I saw the Ganga Aarti from my hotel room. Well, technically, I did not exactly see the aarti; rather, I witnessed the people participating in the aarti and saw the whole area lit up with a beautiful golden glow from the lamps.
The next evening I went to the Dashashwamedh Ghat to see the aarti in person. Since I had been forewarned that hundreds of people turned up to witness the aarti, I was at the venue half an hour early. That same few hundreds of people also had the same idea and had arrived before I did. See the photograph below:
There was a mela-like atmosphere at the Dashashwamedh Ghat. While there were people sitting on the steps of the Ghat waiting for the Ganga Aarti to begin, there were an equal number of people waiting in boats to view the aarti from the riverside. Then there were vendors selling flowers, tiny oil lamps, and incense sticks as offerings for the aarti. Since it was Dussera or Vijaya Dashami that day, there was also a line of Durga idols waiting to be immersed in the Ganga. Then there were people singing bhajans, photographers setting up their equipment, cows, buffaloes and dogs making themselves comfortable, families getting photographs taken with the Ganga as a backdrop; and dazed-looking foreigners wandering about here and there. In the midst of all this, on five raised platforms, sat five saffron and cream clad pandas (priests) with all the aarti paraphrenalia—an idol of the Goddess Ganga, a multi-tiered oil lamp, flowers, incense sticks, a conch shell, a brass lamp with a snake hood, and many other interesting looking, gleaming brass containers.
At 7.00 pm, an announcement came on in Hindi signalling the beginning of the Ganga Aarti and urging people to participate in this sacred ritual. The pandas stood up, the pre-recorded music came on, and the Ganga Aarti began.
The Ganga Aarti finishes with one final flourish and suddenly there is silence. Not of the deafening kind, but the absence of the loud pre-recorded aarti music. Other sounds rush in to fill the silence. Cameras clicking the last few shots, a sudden wail from a child, oars slapping against the water, a guide telling his foreign “charges” that “This is the Hindu aarti” (Really? There other aartis?). Soon, these sounds merge and within a few minutes there is a steady indistinguishable hum. While the pandas and their assistants pick up the aarti items and make their way up the ghat steps, the assembled people and the boats start dispersing.
As I walk back, I receive a text from a friend asking me about what I thought of the Ganga Aarti. This is the reply I sent:
Take an essential, but simple, everyday Hindu ritual like the aarti. Add a full orchestra and some dhinchak beats to the traditional aarti song. Get young, photogenic, pandas to conduct the aarti. Rope in a choreographer to give the aarti a more… er… contemporary look and feel. Market the
performanceaarti. And voilà, you have the Ganga Aarti in Varanasi.
For me, the Ganga Aarti is a spectacular, Bollywoodesque, choreographed performance, but definitely not an aarti in the simple, beautiful, spiritually enriching ritual it is supposed to mean.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦