The Art of Ganga Aarti

Long before I travelled to Varanasi I knew that one of the things I absolutely had to do was witness the daily Aarti ceremony that takes place on the banks of the holy Ganga river at sunset. With my accommodation being so close to the ghats, my wish ended up being granted no less than five times !

You may think this is a little excessive, but the repeated experience enabled me to see the ritual from a number of different angles and locations. Although I took around 1,000 photographs during those five evenings, on reviewing them it’s clear that with each day I was getting a little more proficient at capturing the event, and it also provided me with plenty of time to put the camera down and immerse myself in the ritual as it unfolded.

Towards the end of this blog I will articulate my recommendations for both seeing and capturing the event, which hopefully others will find useful, especially if you only get one chance to witness the ritual.

These photos show the various stages of the Aarti ritual in chronological order, but taken over a number of evenings. Click on any photo to view in a larger format.

Aarti (which can also be spelled arti, arati, arathi, aarati, aarthi, aarthy, arthy) is derived from the Sanskrit word आरात्रिक (ārātrika), which means something that removes darkness. This Hindu religious ritual of worship is part of a puja, in which light (usually in the form of a flame) is offered to one or more deities. Here at Varanasi (Banaras, Kashi), that deity is of course the sacred river, Mother Ganga.

The origins of Aarti is thought to stretch back to the Vedic concept of fire rituals, so predates Hinduism. The ritual performed here at Varanasi has a number of phases where different actions are performed using a number of symbolic items, representing the five elements :

  1. Fire (Agni)
  2. Earth (Prithvi)
  3. Water (Jal)
  4. Space (Akash)
  5. Wind (Vayu)

The lamp or candle represents the fire component (heat), the flower petals represent the earth (solidity), the water and accompanying handkerchief correspond with the water element (liquidity), the yak-tail fan represents the subtle form of ether (space), and the peacock fan conveys the precious quality of air/wind (movement).

The burning of incense represents a purified state of mind, and one’s “intelligence” is offered through the adherence to rules of timing and the order of the offerings. Thus, one’s entire existence and all facets of material creation are symbolically offered to Mother Ganga via this Aarti ceremony.

The ritual is performed by young priests from the Gangotri Seva Samiti, dressed in silky saffron and white robes, with a red pullover during the winter months. The entire ritual commences and concludes with the blowing of conch shells (Shankha) to sanctify the atmosphere, it’s such a distinctive sound and very atmospheric moment is it echoes around the ghat and across the great Mother Ganga.

All the priest’s actions are synchronised and performed in each direction, so everyone gets a chance to see the Aarti no matter where they are sitting. Throughout, Sanskrit Shlok Chants are sung accompanied by music, which is the perfect backdrop to this ritual.

All of these photos were taken from two slightly separate Aarti ceremonies that are adjacent to each other at Dashashwamedh Ghat. The timings of the rituals does change throughout the year, starting at 6pm in winter and slightly later at 7pm in the summer. It lasts about 50 minutes.

One thing you will certainly need to do is get here early to find a good spot, at least 30 minutes earlier, but preferably an hour earlier. Be aware that once the ritual starts you will not be able to move location, it’s simply too crowded to find any viable alternative place.

The location of the main Aarti ceremony is easy to identify as the area is cleared and prepared well in advance. Rows of white seats are set out facing the Ganga, and some low platforms between the seats and where the Aarti will be performed are covered with cloth and cordoned off. Of these platforms, the middle one will be reserved for the musicians, and some of the others may get “Reserved” signs placed on them. If one of these platforms does not have such a sign, you are ok to sit there and wait for the ritual to begin. A lot of people think that all of the platforms are reserved for paying guests, but that is simply not the case.

These platforms are a great location for photography as you are closer to the action, and your backdrop is the night sky over the Ganga. The seats that are provided are of course the most comfortable place to watch the ritual, but you are a little further away.

This is in fact one of the main challenges when photographing the Aarti, separation of your subject from the background. All of the ghats are lined with bright lights, so any photographs taken with buildings in the background are likely to not come out quite so well.

This is main reason why I opted to not get on a boat to witness the ritual. Not only are you further away, but that subject/background separation becomes even more challenging.

On one of the evenings I sat on the steps below where the Aarti was taking place with my back to the Ganga. This gave me an angle where I was shooting upwards and enabled me to remove some of the background distractions.

For photographing the ritual, I would highly recommend taking a central position. It struck me over the consecutive nights how those performing the ritual in the center of the lineup seemed a little more proficient, confident, and experienced in what they were doing.

Those on the fringes of the lineup were clearly less confident, and were often staring across to ensure they were synchronised and doing the right thing at the right time. So the most “polished” actions and movements tend to be performed by the young priests in the centre of the lineup.

If you arrive late and the area with the white seats has become too busy, continue heading south with the Ganga on your left to a smaller area where Aarti is also performed. This area tends to be less busy so may be a good option depending on when you arrive. Everyone tends to flock to that white seated area initially.

In terms of camera settings, I can really only recommend an f-stop that is low enough and an ISO high enough to achieve a shutter speed of at least 1/100th of a second, and preferably faster if your camera equipment is not stabilised. The movement of the priests is quite slow, but even at 1/100th of a second you can end up with blurry shots (believe me, I have quite a few 🙂 ). Basically, the faster the shutter speed, the better the results you will get.

If your camera has a flash, please turn it off. The resulting shots won’t look that good, and it’s awfully irritating for those watching with you. In terms of lens focal lengths, that all depends where you are seated of course. I used a variety, anywhere from 24mm to 200mm.

I hope the above information is of some use to anyone planning to attend the Aarti ritual at Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi, which is free to attend but a donation would of course be welcome. It is certainly an awe-inspiring spectacle, and one that will last long in the memory, of which you will have many from your time spent in the ancient and sacred city of Kashi.

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