Varanasi - The Holy City
When you want to start sharing experiences of the travels you have undertaken in this wonderful journey of life, the question that stares at you is “which one to begin with?”
After ample time twiddling my thumbs pondering over it and sipping numerous cups of tea, I decided on Varanasi. After all what can be more significant than one’s journey within oneself and that’s where it began for me.
The famous Ganga Aarti is what drew me to it, like it does most of us, and being fully prepared to take the dirt, dust and noise in my stride for the sake of the experience, I set off to Varanasi. Having arrived by noon, I had plenty of time to walk around the streets and talk to the locals who are proud to talk at length about their city’s heritage and culture, their pride dripping from every word. After enjoying a lunch of sumptuous “kachori”and “aaloo “followed by “rabri malai” from a hole-in-the-wall shop, it was time to explore the Ghats. It is a long stretch of walk, one Ghat leading to the other along the length of Ganga. Even though it was afternoon, the Ghats were far from sleepy, preparations already underway for the evening Aarti. Ghats being washed, brass lamps taken apart and being polished to be assembled later, platforms being adorned with saffron cloth and dais for the pundits being set up. I was already being filled with curiosity of what’s to come but nothing could have prepared me for the magic that Ganga Aarti exudes.
Though the Aarti takes place on several Ghats, the one at Dashashwamedh Ghat draws maximum crowd. People start gathering and finding their places to sit early on to ensure a clear view. There are a huge number of people who choose to watch this mesmerising event from the boats on the river. The density and diversity of the crowd itself is a marvel to watch. All the lines dividing us by age, race, class, gender, position seems to blur and everyone seems to be bound by the thread of anticipation.
At sundown, around 6.45 p.m. a group of pundits start the Aarti in an organized manner by holding a lighted lamp in their hands and chanting of shlokas in a rhythmic manner. After about 15 minutes, the announcement is made for the commencement of the Aarti. It is an immaculately choreographed event accompanied with the sound of bells, drums, cymbals, conch shells and chants. All the priests who perform the Aarti wear the same kind of dhoti and kurta (usually saffron coloured) which is held tightly at the waist. Aarti is performed sequentially with a multi-tiered oil lamp, incense sticks, a conch shell, a big and heavy brass lamp having a snake hood. The whole event takes around 45 minutes, but those 45 minutes can only be described as divine. The sky, dark, being lit only by the light flowing from the lamps, reflecting on the rippling water in the river, only sounds you hear are the ones offering the prayers, complete serenity on the faces of the pundits. Their devotion shining through, their unfaltering chants and graceful dance like movements of their hands has a trance like effect on the already mesmerised crowd. The smell of camphor mixed with that of incense sticks hangs in the air as the Aarti concludes. It is nothing short of a marvel how for those 45 minutes, hundreds of people are bound by the common purpose of having this wonderful experience unfold in front of their eyes and then disappear into the night, probably never to meet again. Slowly and silently the crowd disperses. You’re left with a bittersweet feeling of having been a part of something so divinely beautiful and want to hold on to the feeling even if for a little while longer, but you know you can’t, because just like in life, there has to be an end for there to be a new beginning. Hundreds were setting afloat oil lamps made of leaves on the Ganga, seeking blessings. As for me, I wished my worries gone while floating my lamp and the last I saw, the water was carrying it away.