Ganga Aarti, Varanasi – The Light Of Faith

UPDATED – OCTOBER 2021

The crowded, choreographed, almost Bollywoodesque obeisance to the Ganga in Varanasi is more spectacle than religious ritual.

Performed daily at sunrise and sunset, the Ganga aarti was conceived by the savvy pujari (temple priest) Babu Maharaj in 1992 and it’s popularity has spawned more such spectacles in other cities along the banks of India’s holiest river. The latest being the Ganga Aarti in Patna. Despite the obvious stage management, however, the ceremony is pretty impressive and not as frenzied as we had envisaged. And it is hard not to be swept up in the faith and fervour of hordes of solemn devotees. 

The 45 minute ceremony takes place across several adjoining ghats (steps leading down to the river) but Dashashwamedh is the grandest, manned by seven young pujaris who wouldn’t look out of place in a Bollywood flick!

We witnessed the aarti both from a boat across the Dashashwamedh Ghat as well as from land. We weren’t early enough to bag great vantage points and my low light photography skills are still obviously wanting but I hope this gallery manages to convey some of the atmosphere.

EDIT 2021: This post originally opened with the Sound Cloud clip set to play automatically but auto-playing has since been disabled across the net in the interest of personal choice. I’ve moved it up here so you can play it – for extra effect – before you scroll through the images.Β 

Temple priest holding aloft a multi tiered brass lamp amid hordes of devotees.

An traditional hand held fan, a little grass mat and a fly whisk placed on a red cloth covered low bench await the start of the aarti ritual.

View of the priests' individual spot holding a trident, a low stool covered with a saffron cloth over which are placed photographs of spiritual leaders and other aarti essentials including a brass bell.

Temple priest holding up a lighted brass lamp with cobra hood amid hordes of devotees.

Temple priest holding up a multi tiered brass lamp in the middle of a crowd of devotees.

Row of kneeling priests raise brass incense burners billowing smoke against lights that create a dramatic silhouette.

I meant to chronicle my travels sequentially this time around, but I couldn’t resist ushering in our festival of lights with these images.

May your homes and your hearts light up with the joy of Deepavali!


VARANASI ON YOUR RADAR? πŸ“Œ PIN FOR LATER

Ganga aarti photography from Dashashwamedh Ghat, Varanasi. Presented with sound effects to evoke the dramatic atmosphere and the faith of solemn devotees.

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

134 thoughts on “Ganga Aarti, Varanasi – The Light Of Faith

  1. I loved visiting Varanasi. It is taking a trip back to ancient times. I loved your recording of the chanting and your lovely pictures of the light of the city. Happy Diwali! Namaste. . . . . .

    1. Thank you Ruth. I realised too late that my white balance was off. Still have a long way to go with night photography πŸ™‚

      1. Back to work in Toronto!

        Happy Diwali to you and Ravi too.

        Loved the sound of the temple bells.
        Cheers
        Sabina

  2. Nice post and photos Madhu. This festival wasn’t held when we visited Varanasi, and it looks like a spectacle. BTW, I love the audio on the post. ~James

    1. Strange, I was told it is held rain or shine! Although they did cut it short on day two because of heavy winds. The multi tiered lamps weren’t lit at all, so I don’t have close up shots of them. The audio does add to the feel doesn’t it? Wish it didn’t stop so abruptly though. Thank you for stopping by James πŸ™‚

  3. Are you kidding about your low light photography skills? Wow, the settings you’ve chosen for these photos add such presence to the scenes! Absolutely beautiful.

    1. Thank you Angeline. The long shots are not too bad considering they were shot from quite a distance. But I was very disappointed with the ones shot from land. I keep forgetting to reset manual settings from day to night 😦

    1. I was delighted to find that clip on Sound Cloud Judy, even if it does stop abruptly. Glad you enjoyed it.

  4. Your photographs are very good. What a fantastic event it is.

    There is a village East Ayrshire called after Patna in india.

  5. How lovely that you could be there for this amazing and colourful Festival of Light. Your picture gallery and the sound track had me right there with you. Happy Diwali, Madhu..

    1. Thank you Sylvia. These images depict a daily ritual that takes place in Varanasi, come rain or shine. Diwali is being celebrated across India over this weekend.

  6. Madhu, you are far too humble! Even without the sound clip your photos capture so much mood and atmosphere – they wouldn’t look out of place inside the pages of National Geographic Traveler. There is something wonderfully dramatic about the ceremony, not just the pujaris with their lamps held aloft but also the bright lights and plumes of incense smoke.

    Last night I passed our local Sikh temple on the way home and it was bedecked with a glorious pattern of blinking lights… and then I realised why. Happy Deepavali!

  7. Wonderful shots, great sound – you evoked the atmosphere of this great festival perfectly. I so want to be there and experience it πŸ™‚

    1. Thank you Ken. That is a daily ritual. You don’t have to wait for a festival to come around to witness it. πŸ™‚

        1. Really! πŸ™‚ Come rain or shine, I was told! Although the final multi tiered lamp was not lit on the second day since it got too windy.

  8. Wow, this brings back memories! For me Varanasi is like “India-max.” You’ve really captured the atmosphere of the place – I can almost smell it πŸ™‚

    1. I guess you either like or hate Varanasi! There are no in betweens. Appreciate your visit and comment Alex. Are your memories good or bad? πŸ™‚

      1. Hello. My memories are generally positive, although I was travelling in a group which brought a certain ‘safety in numbers’. Seeing the funeral pyres whilst cruising along the Ganges in the evening was a very affecting experience though.

  9. Madhu, I really love your photos, especially the ones on the pujaris holding that ceremonial thing with smokes. They look simply magical. I have to say that of all pictures from Varanasi that I’ve seen, yours are the ones that really made me want to go there!

    Happy Diwali to you, Madhu! And speaking of which, last night I learned a very encouraging news for Indian-Indonesians because for the first time ever there’s a Diwali holiday for them, even though it’s still only in Jakarta. But things are looking bright.

    1. What a lovely compliment Bama! Frankly the rest of Varanasi didn’t appeal much! Thank you for the Diwali wishes. That is a generous gesture by your government!

  10. Your shots are pure delight, and capture the orange mood of the arti perfectly. How filmi we are… ?!! But then, why should I be cynical about it? Everyone likes high TRPs… !

    Hope you are having a great Diwali, dear Madhu. Take care, and try to stay away from too many sweets… I’m trying too!

    1. Ha, good one…..and yes, filmi we certainly are πŸ˜€ Had a fabulous time with the children and catching up with old friends. Can’t say I succeeded in staying away from the sweets though, thanks to the new trend of gifting chocolates in place of mithai…….so much harder to resist 😦
      Hope you had much to celebrate this Diwali Meenakshi. And hope the year ahead is just as bright.

    1. Don’t own one Paula πŸ˜€
      It was a nightmare on the bobbing boat, and people casually jumping on it to cross over to the next!

        1. Know what? There wasn’t, From the boat, it was all back lit. A friend taught me spot metering just before I went, and I tried it here and bingo πŸ˜€

  11. Our annual yoga retreat here has just finished, now I feel doubly blessed by your post Madhu! How very marvellous to be there with you to witness the aarti with all the ceremony and lights …. and the voices … very moving dear sister, thank you πŸ™‚ the light of Deepavali glows equally in our hearts xx

    1. That has to be the nicest comment I have received on my blog! Thank YOU dear Christine for your constant support and encouragement πŸ™‚

  12. Thank you for your kind Deepawali wishes Madhu. May I also reciprocate and wish you a happy and prosperous year ahead.

    I found those pictures of the ghat aarati interesting, particularly the impressive diya stand being used. Would need quite some control to keep all the flames alive I suppose.

    As a religion evolves and matures, does not each of its nuances need to become a spectacle to sustain and hold the flock together?

    Shakti

    1. Thank you for stopping by to share your thoughts Shakti.
      In my mind a religion that is dependent on spectacle to hold a flock together hasn’t evolved at all!! Spectacle is fine for tourists and in politics. Not in deeply spiritual places. I am no expert, but I think it is excessive dependence on ritual, without understanding the underlying symbolism, that is holding us back from evolving in fact.

    1. Aww, Rommel, you are too kind always πŸ™‚ This is a daily event – takes place 365 days rain or shine!

      1. That alone makes it very interesting. What a routine to follow everyday! I’m not that spiritual, I’ll bore myself doing that over and over again. I’m sure it’s fulfilling and purpose-ful for those people who do it.

        1. I would think so Rommel. Varanasi itself was mindboggling and very hard to relate to, even for me!

  13. A light that flows from one heart of faith to the next. A beautiful ceremony that inspires one soul. The pictures make us feel like we were there too. Thank you for sharing this.

  14. What a magnificent feast for the eyes Madhu, all great night shots so full of atmosphere in that amazing crowd! Cecil be de Mille eat your heart out!

    1. Oh my Patti that is some compliment!! Means a lot coming from you, a master at capturing atmosphere πŸ™‚

  15. How can I say how fabulous this post is! To be greeted with the sounds of India, and the spectacle of — I guess it’s the beginning of Diwali — and the whole exuberant life of the subcontinent!
    We just finished showing The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to our community, and although that is secular and frivolous (perhaps) and from “outside”, it portrays the colors and sounds and movement and kaleidescopic activity that every American visitor returns amazed and awed by — But then to have your post, from “inside”, just open up that spectacular way! I am so moved.

    1. Thank you for your lovely comment Judith. I am overwhelmed by your kind words, really! And pleased as punch πŸ™‚

  16. Beautiful night photos, Madhu, and the accompanying sounds only add to the atmosphere. I look forward to traveling with Ron to Varanasi and witness this aarti myself. What a sensory experience. The photo of the single man holding his light is such a symbol of his devotion. Humbling. Sorry for the late comment. We’ve been on the road for 20 days.

    1. Thank you Lynne. The aarti is the high point of a visit to Varanasi. No need to apologise. I look forward to reading about your roadtip.

  17. Wondrously sensual combined wit the music ! I am so sorry to be late to your feast of sight sand sounds!

  18. Madhu, thank you for what you always share so beautifully. I used to travel several places and even though I do not as much, I am able to travel through what you share through your eyes and spirit! And it is so very enjoyable….thanks for the genuine blessing you always bring alive with every post you share…God bless my dear sister!

  19. Definitely on my list of to do’s. Seen a bit of India (born there though not of Indian heritage) but never got over to Varanasi

  20. Really cool idea to have the soundclip playing, Varanasi is such an amazing place and this is a great way to share your experiences with people who haven’t had the chance to experience it for themselves.

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