Truly, one of the most incredible travel and life experiences I’ve witnessed in all my travels was the Ganga Aarti festival, which is a ceremony or offertory of prayer to the Ganges River.
Enroute to the event which starts at dusk, we passed by throngs of people, thousands of people, all together on the streets of Varanasi in what one could only describe as utter chaos. People darting in and out of alleys ways and shop fronts, cars are buzzing left & right in front of big trolleys and buses full of people, tuk-tuks zig zagging throughout the streets transporting their patrons to the desired places as quickly as possible.
If the thousands of people scurrying to the waters of the Ganges weren’t enough, then there were street workers working with hot tar, burning in big barrels on the streets, filling potholes as people in cars, trucks, buses and tuk-tuks all drove by (or over) their newly completed scalding hot street work. All this amidst the darkness quickly closing in, as we race through the squalor and madness of the Varanasi streets.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity in this pungent, dark, toxic tar smelling cacophony, we were dropped off close to the Dashashwamedh Ghat, which is one of the main ghats (or sets of wide steps leading down to the Ganges River). If the scene on the streets of Varanasi was not chaotic enough from the relative sanctuary of inside the protection of the tuk-tuk, once you’re out in it all, on foot, you realize how very minute a speck you are in the world. Amazing!
People and street hawkers and children and all the smells and sounds you’ve just witnessed are your immediate in-your-face reality. All at once, all of it invades your senses with such an overload that it’s a bit scary, overwhelming and thrilling at the same time. Every sense is on fire! Someone is touching you, someone else is grabbing you to keep you with the group, another child is beckoning you and offering to sell you flowers or candles or henna, the smells of the tar invading your nostrils, the warmth of the Varanasi night, the sounds of everyone talking and chattering and there you are, on the steps of the Ganges River, looking over a literal sea of bodies on boats, sitting and bobbing and watching this amazing ceremony taking place.
The ceremony itself (that we witnessed) takes place on the rooftop of the Viswanath Temple, considered one of the largest and most elaborate temples along the Ganges. We were hurried down to boats floating in front of Viswanath Temple, and were blessed to sit amongst locals who took part in this ceremony with us.
You sit on these boats, all tied to one another and watch in complete awe and relative silence (compared to the streets) and it’s impossible not to marvel and look around at this sea of people, all watching and experiencing this same religious “life experience.”
If you love to become one with your surroundings, I cannot suggest any experience that will so fully immerse you into local culture than the Ganga Aarti festival on the waters of the mighty Ganges River!