The Ganga Aarti in Varanasi

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.

People gathered to watch the Ganga Aarti at the Dashashwamedh Ghat from the river side. View from hotel room

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:

Crowds at the Dashashwamedh Ghat waiting for the Ganga Aarti to begin

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.

Waiting to conduct the Ganga Aarti
The lamps, flowers and other paraphernalia for the Ganga Aarti

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 begins with the pandas clapping to the rhythm of the accompanying music
Conch shells are blown loudly invoking the name of the river goddess, Ganga
The Ganga Aarti continues with incense sticks…
… and now for some aarti with dhoop
Concentration
It is now turn for the aarti to be done with the multi-tiered lamps
The final aarti is done with camphor or kapoor
The grand finale of the Ganga Aarti

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 performance aarti. 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.

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28 thoughts on “The Ganga Aarti in Varanasi

    1. Wow ! That must have been really something. I was told that the aarti on Dev Deepawali is quite something and boats and seats are booked in advance to get a good view. I hope to visit Varanasi during Dev Deepawali one year.

      Welcome here, Jatdevta, and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting.

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  1. There is no like button on your posts, but I loved the Varanasi series. I, now have to visit the place myself and compare notes, especially on the aaloo papdi chana chaat 🙂

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    1. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Meera. The aloo papdi chana chaat is actually known as something else, like sohan or sohal chana. But because the chaatwala had so much paan in his mouth, I didn’t understand what he was saying. So I made up the name of aloo papdi chana chaat based on the ingredients.

      And Meera, there is a like button for all WP blogs just below the toolbar.

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        1. Welcome here, Priyam and thank you very much for stopping by and commenting. I’m well aware that there is much more to the ghats and Varanasi than the Ganga Aarti. Thank you for recommending Filo Cafe to me. The next time I’m in Varanasi. I’ll look it up. 🙂

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    1. Yes it was. I was alone and in spite of the crowd, I never felt scared or threatened and the Ganga Arti as well as the visarjan was a once in a lifetime experience that I am glad I was able to see.

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  2. I so agree with the choreographed and perfect rhythm part. The spontaneity of the aarti is missing in the Varanasi arti. Comparitively, the Haridwar Aarti is better but again, it is done to pre-recorded music. I prefer the Rishikesh Aarti which is sung by the devotees led by the math-head. Like other religious rituals, this one has fallen prey to tourism too.

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    1. Zephyr, I was lucky to witness the Ganga Aarti at the Panchganga Ghat, which was really beautiful. There were about 5-6 priests and they sang and prayed an their voices carried over the water to my boat so clearly that I had to ask the boatman to keep the boat stationary so that i could witness the aarti.

      If I do get to visit Haridwar and Rishikesh, I must experience the Ganga Aarti, at least for comparison’s sake. Are you aware that a Ganga Aarti has been started at Patna as well?

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  3. very well put, sudha! i so agree! its a beautifully choreographed performance! and the pics are great! i never went to the dashashwamedh ghat to see it, instead we saw it from the boat, so didnt get any great pics…. but it was a nice experience…. but what i actually love is to float those lamps in the water…. and see them float a long long way down…

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    1. The floating lamps remain in your memory long after the Ganga Aarti is over. I just sat on the steps of the Chausatthi Ghat, where my hotel was, and watched them float by for a long long time. It is only when the hotel manager came to cal me in for dinner that I went in.

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  4. Such wonderful pictures!! Thanks to your narrative style, now, I really want to visit Varanasi to see the Ganga in full flow.. The pandas look so photogenic. Looking forward to being there once..

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  5. I myself read in BHU so had a chance to see ganga aarti several times although few years back..your write up made me nostalgic but i felt one thing mismatching..correct me if I am wrong… i have always seen a man with harmonium singing the songs and not pre recorded music..is that system changed? Coz that attracted me most… n i loved the aarti along with the live songs n participation.

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    1. Hello Madhubanti, a very warm welcome to “My Favourite Things”. I visited Varansai in 2011 doing Dussera and the Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat was conducted to recorded music, complete with dhinchak beats. However, at the Panchganga Ghat the aarti was sung by the priests to a harmonium.

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