Sunday, March 30, 2014

Enchanting moments with Ganga Maiya

The 2500 km (approx) stretch of the river Ganga, is not a mere stretch of water for crores of Hindus, but its a source of purification of their sins. The hearts of millions of Hindus, emotionally melt at the very sight of the river. It is believed that the river descended from heaven and locked by Shiva for a controlled flow. It is considered to be the holiest of all rivers.

" I have taken bath in Ganga many times, even as a boy with my father. But having narrowly missed the " Ganga Aarti" at Haridwar due to incessant rains, the lost opportunity was boiling in the back of my mind from a very long time.

On our way back from Nepal in 2012, our family decided to visit Varanasi only to fulfill my desire. And what an experience it  was !!!

Right from 5. PM , we sat near the ghats not to miss even a moment of thrill. So as the sun descended, and the lights were on everywhere, preparations for aarti started. "

Origin of Ganga:

The Ganges begins at the confluence of the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers. The Bhagirathi is considered to be the true source in Hindu culture and mythology, although the Alaknanda is longer. The headwaters of the Alakananda are formed by snowmelt from such peaks as Nanda Devi, Trisul, and Kamet. The Bhagirathi rises at the foot of Gangotri Glacier, at Gaumukh, at an elevation of 3,892 m (12,769 ft)

The main terrains of the river are as follows :

1. Daughter of the mountains :- Right from the birthplace at Gaumukh, it descends until it meets Alakananda at Deoprayag and furthers move down as Bhagirathi till Haridwar. And from then onwards it is called as Ganga.

2. Gangetic Plains :- One of the most fertile lands in the country. The plain's population density is very high due to the fertile soil for farming. The plains support one of the most populous areas on Earth, being home to millions of people.

3. Ganga Brahmaputra delta :- The Ganges delta has the shape of a triangle, and is considered to be an "arcuate" delta (arc-shaped). It covers more than 105,000 km2 (41,000 sq mi), and although the delta lies mostly in Bangladesh and India, rivers from Bhutan, China, India, and Nepal drain into it from the north. 

Approximately two-thirds of the delta is in Bangladesh. Most of the delta is composed of alluvial soils made up by small sediment particles that finally settle down as river currents slow down in the estuary. 

A number of large rivers flow through the Ganges Delta, including the Padma (main distributary of the Ganges) and the Jamuna (main distributary of the 
Brahmaputra), which merge and then join the Meghna before entering the sea.

This includes the mangrove forests of Sunderbans among the others.

(Image Source : Wikipedia/Wikimedia)

Varanasi :

Varanasi , once known as Benares or Banaras or Kashi, is a historical city in northern India. The city is sacred to Hindus and also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. In many ways Varanasi epitomizes the very best and worst aspects of India, and it can be a little overwhelming. However, the scene of pilgrims doing their devotions in the River Ganga at sunrise set against the backdrop of the centuries old temples is probably one of the most impressive sights in the world. Some people believe that Varanasi is a must see destination on any trip to northern India.

Our Journey : The train from Raxaul (Bihar - India/Nepal border town) to Varanasi, departs Raxaul around midnight and reaches Varanasi the next noon.

Once we reached the Temple town, the search for a lodge took some time. By covering many gullies in the cycle rickshaw, at last we found a quite decent accommodation near to the temple and the river.

"Driving in those gullies is very challenging, as there are many types of transports that take the road at once, along with horses,cows and donkeys" 

After dumping our luggage in the rooms, we refreshed ourselves and set out to explore. The sun was burning brightly on top of the head . The infinite number of Jaljeeras, Lassies and Juices we drank made us feel slightly better.

1. We went to the nearby Ramakrishna Mutt , which was close to our accommodation . Coincidentally, we could find a "Swamiji" who was our relative. He was my Grandfather actually. He took "Deeksha" at a very young age, and had become a saint. After taking his blessings, we went to the river to see the most awaited performance.

2. Ganga Aarti on the first day :

Every evening, as dusk descends, it's time for the Ganga Aarti to be performed at the three holy cities of Haridwar, Rishikesh, and Varanasi in India. It's a very powerful and uplifting spiritual ritual. 

3. Visiting the ghats :

The next morning, we went to the opposite bank of the Dashashwamedh ghat to take a holy dip in the river. Later, the boat ride across the many ghats was amazing.

Varanasi has nearly 100 ghats, steps leading to the banks of River Ganges. Many of the ghats were built when the city was under Maratha control. Marathas, Shindes (Scindias), Holkars, Bhonsles, and Peshwes (Peshwas) stand out as patrons of present-day Varanasi. Most of the ghats are bathing ghats, while others are used as cremation sites. Many ghats are associated with legends or mythologies while many ghats are privately owned. The former Kashi Naresh owns Shivala or Kali ghat. Morning boat ride on the Ganges across the ghats is a popular visitors attraction.

Dashashwamedh Ghat :
Dashashwamedh Ghat is located close to Vishwanath Temple, and is probably the most spectacular ghat. Two Hindu mythologies are associated with it: According to one, Lord Brahma created it to welcome Lord Shiva. According to another, Lord Brahma sacrificed ten horses in a yajna here. A group of priests daily perform in the evening at this ghat "Agni Pooja" (Worship to Fire) wherein a dedication is made to Lord Shiva, River Ganges, Surya (Sun), Agni (Fire), and the whole universe.

There are other important ghats like Prayag Ghat , Manikarnika Ghat , Munshi ghat etc., among the others.

View of Munshi Ghat

Vijayanagaram and Kedar ghats

Munshi ghat another view

HDR image of the Prayag ghat

Final Journey towards Harishchandra ghat

Panorama of the various ghats - Stitched 8 images

After the holy bath at Ganga, I was feeling slightly lighter as I felt some of my sins were washed away :)

Later, we visited the "Kashi Vishwanatha temple" , "Annapoorneshwari temple" , "Vishalakshi temple" among others.

The mahaprasada(Lunch) at temple was incredible and it filled us completely. Later , a small stroll along the streets of Varanasi was refreshing. Especially for the ladies in our group (Sister, Mother and Aunt), as they were busy in shopping, while I was busy in shooting Sadhu's and Sanyasi's. Each of us were completely crazy :) 

4. Ganga Aarti on the second day :  

The evening set in, and we were waiting at the banks of the river to watch the spectacular Ganga Aarti. We had witnessed the previous evening as well. So this was a double delight.

What is the Ganga Aarti?

An aarti is a devotional ritual that uses fire as an offering. It's usually made in the form of a lit lamp, and in the case of the Ganges River, a small diya with a candle and flowers that's floated down the river. The offering is made to the Goddess Ganga, also affectionately referred to as Maa Ganga, goddess of the most holy river in India.

How is the Ganga Aarti Performed?

The aarti takes place facing the river. The lamps are lit and circled around by the pandits (Hindu priests) in a clockwise manner, accompanied by changing or songs in praise of Mother Ganga. The idea is that the lamps acquire the power of the deity. After the ritual is complete, devotees will cup their hands over the flame and raise their palms to their forehead in order to get the Goddess's purification and blessing.

Where is the Ganga Aarti Performed?

As mentioned above, the Ganga Aarti happens every evening (rain, hail, or shine!) on the banks of the Ganges River in Haridwar, Rishikesh, and Varanasi. However, the ceremony is very different in each of these places.

The aarti, would start by around 6.30 PM. In order to get the best view and photographs, it is advised to be at the place pretty early.

People can witness the aarti by sitting on the benches in the river bank, or by sitting in the boat. 

Preparation for the Aarti

Ambika lighting the deepa's at the stage, where aarti is performed

The aarti is performed by the highly talented Brahmin youths, traditionally dressed and devotionally performing with a particular rhythm to the tune of hymns on Goddess Ganga.

Even the dire atheist would turn devotional in the atmosphere. There was pin drop silence, as people were spellbound.

Initially, the lights would be switched on the entire Dashashwamedh ghat. Later, the artists co-ordinate with each other and perform a small pooja to the idol present there.

A small aarti to the Goddess Ganga carried on initially during the start.

Many shops in the vicinity rent out their balconies to tourists who visit Varanasi on tailormade tours, allowing them to get a better view from distance.

All through the ritual, huge flaming lamps are circled in perfect synchrony with the rhythmic chants of hymns, creating a bright hue against the darkened sky and leaving every single person on the ghat feels mesmerised.

The ritual commences with the blowing of a conch shell and involves continuous waving of incense sticks in elaborate patterns.  

At the end of the aarti, devotees offer flowers, sweets, money, etc., to the holy river. In this process, they take the blessings of the mother Ganga and the saints who stay nearby.

Each and every performance is synchronous with all the artists performing on the stage.

These are the pooja saamagri's that are used in the Aarti

They would then blow the conch, which is truly a inner awakening that happens in the presence of Ganga nearby.

Later on, the chamara seva is performed. Chamara is usually, made by yak hairs.

This is then followed by the burning of incense sticks or Dhoopa what we call here in South.

Huge assembly was gathered by the beginning of Ganga Aarti.  It included different people from diverse backgrounds. Some were from Southern India, some were from the streets of Varanasi,  Some were from North , East and West and all over.

The aarti is performed in all the 4 directions.

People from different states, different countries, different religions, different castes, different colors with varied dressing forms from Sarees to Jeans etc.,.were gathered at the place. It was a confluence of faith, cultures and tradition.

The lighting of Laksha Deepa Aaarati

At the end of the aarti, the young pandits sing a hymn in praise of the mother Ganga. Later, they sprinkle the holy water to all the people gathered around.

Flower seller selling the Diyas
All these Diyas are then left in the river, making it an amazing sight
After the Aarti is done

" Even as you leave the ghat, the one feeling that remains with you is that you just got a little closer to the almighty !!! "

(Camera : Nikon D90 , Nikon 18-105mm VR Lens , all handheld shots)

Jai Ganga Maiya

Thank you

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