Every evening, as dusk descends, the Ganga Aarti is performed at the three holy cities of Haridwar, Rishikesh, and Varanasi in India. It’s a very powerful and uplifting spiritual ritual. But what’s the meaning of Ganga Aarti and how one can see it?
An Aarti is a devotional ritual that uses fire as an offering. It’s usually made in the form of a lit lamp, and in the case of the Ganges River, a small Diya (Oil Lamp) or a candle and flowers are floated 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. The Aarti takes on special significance on the auspicious occasion of Ganga Dussehra (in May or June each year), the day Maa Ganga is believed to have descended upon earth from heaven.
Overview of the Ganga Aarti :
The Aarti is conducted facing the holy river. The lamps are lit and rotated around by the Pandits (Hindu priests) in a clockwise manner, accompanied by songs in praise of Mother Ganga. The idea is that the lamps acquire the power of the deity through this sacred ritual. After the ritual is complete, devotees will cup their hands over the flame and raise their palms to their forehead in order to get the Goddess’s purifying touch and blessings.
Where all is the Sacred Ganga Aarti Performed? :
As mentioned above, the Ganga Aarti is organised every evening (rain, hail, or shine!) on the banks of the Ganges River in Haridwar, Rishikesh, and Varanasi. However, the ceremony is very different in each of these places.
Haridwar Ganga Aarti :
The Haridwar Ganga Aarti is held at Har-ki-Pauri Ghat. The name of this famous Ghat literally means ‘Feet of the Lord’. A footprint on a stone wall in the Ghat is said to belong to Lord Vishnu. In terms of spiritual importance, Har-ki-Pauri is considered to be equivalent to Dashashwamedh Ghat of Holy Varanasi, where the Aarti in Varanasi takes place. Legend has it that some nectar (Amrit) spill there after falling from a pot carried by the celestial bird Garuda.
The Ganga Aarti at Haridwar is possibly the most interactive of the three main Ganga Aartis in India and has the deepest appeal to the pilgrims, particularly the Indian pilgrims. It is as spiritually significant as the Ganga Aarti of Varanasi, but it isn’t as flamboyant as Varanasi Aarti. Yet, it’s spiritually very elevating.
Crowd of devotees, Pandits, Babas, idols of various Hindu gods, loudspeakers, ringing of bells, singing of Bhajans, fragrance of incense, colourful flowers, and the beautiful flames! All these combine to create a very marvellous experience to the onlookers.
How to Attend Haridwar Ganga Aarti :
There are a couple of options for attending the Aarti, depending upon how you want to see it and how much you are prepared to pay for it. It’s possible just to sit on the steps of the Ghat and watch it from a distance like most people do.
However, if you’re staying in one of the decent hotels like Haveli Hari Ganga etc, a guide will most probably be available to take you to the evening Aarti. This way you’ll be able to get in and participate in the Aarti. You’ll be blessed by a Pandit, and ushered to the front steps of the Ghat, right where the lamps are rotated and waved to Mother Ganga. If you’re fortunate, you’ll even be able to hold one of the lamps.
The soul-elevating chants coupled with the billowing flames, and the holy Ganga water lapping at your feet, makes it an unforgettable experience. You can really immerse yourself deep into this ancient ritual of the sacred land of Kashi.
Rishikesh Ganga Aarti :
The most well known Ganga Aarti in Rishikesh is held on the banks of Holy Ganga at Parmarth Niketan Ashram. It’s a much more intimate and relaxing ritual than the Aartis at Haridwar and Varanasi. The Bhajans sung during the Aarti are extremely soul-elevating.
Instead of being performed by Pandits, the Ganga Aarti at Parmarth Niketan is organized and performed by the Ashram residents, particularly by the young children who are studying the Vedas in the Ashram. The ceremony commences with the singing of Bhajans (Devotional Songs), prayers, and a Hawan (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 is 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.
How to Attend Rishikesh Ganga Aarti :
Everyone is welcome to attend the Ganga Aarti at Parmarth Niketan. Do arrive early if you want to get a seat on the steps close to the Aarti venue. It would be difficult to see otherwise. Shoes must be removed before entering the Aarti site, but one can securely store them for free at the entrance.
Varanasi Ganga Aarti :
The Varanasi Ganga Aarti takes place at sunset everyday at the holy Dasaswamedh Ghat, near Kashi Vishwanath Temple. It differs from the Aartis at Haridwar and Rishikesh in that it’s a highly choreographed ceremony. It’s a spectacular event of this sacred land of Bharatavarsha, and one must see it at least once in a lifetime.
The Aarti is performed on a stage by a group of young Pandits, all draped in saffron-colored robes with their Puja plates spread out before them. It commences with the blowing of conch shells, and continues with the waving of incense sticks in elaborate patterns and rotation of large oil-lamp flames that create a bright hue against the dark sky of the evening.
The movement of the lamps in the hands of Pandits synchronizes with the rhythmic chants of hymns and clang of cymbals. The heavenly fragrance of sandalwood thickly permeates the atmosphere around the place.
How to Attend the Varanasi Ganga Aarti :
People start arriving very early (as early as 5 p.m.) in order to get a comfortable place for viewing the Aarti. A novel and effective way of seeing it is by boat from the river. Alternatively, many shops in the vicinity hire their balconies out to tourists. A Maha Aarti (Great Aarti) takes place on a very big scale in Varanasi near the end of each year on the sacred day of Kartik Purnima, also known as Dev Diwali.
There’s also an early morning sunrise Ganga Aarti in Varanasi, organized by Subah-e-Banaras.