These few lines by Mark Twain says it all: “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”.
This is the first of many ‘Picture Stories’ (as I would like to call it) of my Kashi expedition – a spiritual love affair that will last a lifetime!
With a reputation of being the oldest living city in the world, Kashi also known as Benaras and Varanasi is a must visit destination for seekers of every nature. No wonder, google search throws up ~ 3.7 million results in under 2 seconds.
Part 1: Ganga Aarti, a tribute to Maa Ganga
Of the many spiritual connections I made here, Ganga Aarti was one the most beautiful experiences. As the name suggests, this is a ceremony in the honour of River Goddess Ganga. As this is a spiritually uplifting experience, it is vital to understand the significance for one to experience the ceremony inside out.
Ganga (river Ganges) is personified as Goddess Ganga in Hinduism. It is believed that bathing in the river causes the remission of sins and enables Moksha. Further, pilgrims also believe immersing ashes of their kin in the Ganges would bring moksha to their spirits. Intrigued by the legend of Ganga? Read on to know more here in this link.
Aarti is a Hindu ritual of worship. The ceremony includes fire, songs, flowers, music etc.; as an offering to show humility and gratitude to the Divine. Ganga, affectionately referred to as Maa Ganga (Mother Ganges), is offered aarti everyday. In addition to Varanasi, this ceremony performed at Haridwar and Rishikesh are also very popular amongst devotees. However, surprisingly the ceremony itself is very different in each of these places.
I am told the Varanasi Ganga Aarti is one of the most beautiful ceremonies and I can’t agree more.
Is this the Varanasi Ganga Aarti I have been talking about? Yes and No!
Similar to the other two places, Ganga Aarti at Varanasi takes place every sunset. Here, it is performed at the holy Dashaswamedh Ghat, near Kashi Vishwanath Temple. But the images that you see here were photographed at dawn! Yes, in the twilight hour of the morning and at Assi Ghat.
Surprised? Let me explain..
Mahesh Anna (Anna means elder brother) planted this thought in me initially, of covering this holy ceremony through photography and I was all geared up. We two were paying a visit to Gaya (not to be mistaken for Bodh Gaya) in Bihar and then traveling to Kashi, so why not carry the camera along and bring back some memories through images as well, was the thought. While the main agenda was to experience the spiritual side, we definitely didn’t want to miss being part of Ganga Aarti ritual and cover this highly choreographed event through images.
Ganga Aarti takes place every day at sunset and lasts for about 45 minutes. In spite of some miraculous change in plan and arriving at Kashi from Gaya ahead of schedule, we missed making it by the evening Aarti time. Three reliable sources – cab driver, hotel reception desk and the temple guide confirmed that we would be late for the given day’s Aarti schedule. The best bet was next day’s evening Aarti but we were hard pressed for time due to the evening flight schedule. Disheartened, we concluded this is a good enough reason to visit Kashi again.
Next morning, we had completed our Kashi Vishwantha temple visit by about 5 AM and were taking a stroll on the banks of Assi Ghat. Why Assi Ghat? May be because we liked the lassi vendor there, the street food and tea stall we visited previous evening or may be it was the comfort of known and the fear of the unknown or something beyond our ability to comprehend!
The aim was to take a boat ride on the holy river to capture the mesmerising sunrise and the picturesque ghats in the golden hour, however something strange appeared. We noticed there was a stage set-up and lamps lined up. Yes, we too thought what you are thinking – this must be from the previous evening. But isn’t the Ganga Aarti supposed to be held at Dashaswamedh Ghat and not here, Assi Ghat? And if the lamps were from previous night’s aarti, why did we see fresh/new wicks in these lamps? While we were trying to find a logical answer, arrangement of chairs facing the stage began.
Honestly, I couldn’t believe my eyes..! Is this ‘the’ Ganga Aarti we had expected to miss? Was there a spiritual side to this as well? Did Mahesh Anna and I get extremely lucky? Was it due to Navratri (that was our time of visit in October)? Was there an additional Ganga Aarti ceremony being performed at dawn as well? If yes, why no-one spoke about it? Inspite of expressing desperation, why neither the cab driver nor the hotel front desk or even the temple guide mention about Ganga Aarti ceremony scheduled next morning? Was it a communication gap or ignorance or weren’t they aware of this in the first place? Actually, we decided to let go our urge to attach logical reasoning to what was happening around us and began being part of the holy experience.
As I started to pre-visualise the shots, the spectacle began.
Rest is for you to experience..
PS: As a mark of respect to the Holy Ganges, photographers aren’t allowed to position themselves between the priests performing the ceremony and the river. Hence, we need to either choose a side angle or take a boat ride to shoot from the straight angle. As I wasn’t geared up with the telephoto (long focal length) lens, I chose to shoot from beside the ceremony stage.