If there is one place in India, most tourists esp. foreigners have settled permanently at, it is Banaras, also called Varanasi or Kashi.
Ask them where should you go if you were to visit only one spot in entire Banaras city, and prompt would be the answer: Dasaswamedh Ghat at Banaras, where an evening aarti takes place everyday.
Aarti at Dasaswamedh Ghat
I bet, 99.99% would answer the same.
I got the same reply.
And such was the conviction with which this place was suggested that I decided to stop for one day, on my way to New Delhi after visiting the Prayagraj Kumbh.
The person who suggested me to go there was named Hellen and I met her at Prayagraj during Kumbh 2019.
She promised it would be a surreal experience, full of spirituality.
She was a German National and was residing in Benaras for the past 2 years. Also, Her photography skills were awesome. Being an amateur myself, I was drawn in when she suggested that the place promises very colorful and lively pics.
If a foreigner can so strongly experience the spiritual vibes, then why can’t me, being an Indian?
Thinking this, I not only went to Dasaswamedh Ghat but also saw the entire aarti ceremony from a close view.
I will always thank Hellen for leading me to the spiritual feast Dasashwamedh Ghat is.
Yet, there are a few grey points, which I think everybody planning to come here should know.
I am recounting my experience with the hope that it may save you from unnecessary troubles.
Everybody talks about the greatness of this ceremony. Deficiencies, however, are rarely mentioned. Thus, I will not focus on the GOODS, which everybody knows, but the BADS.
BUT FIRST, WHAT IS THIS CEREMONY ALL ABOUT
An aarti is a devotional ritual that uses fire as an offering.
Ganga Aarti is a daily event to thank Goddess Ganga for being a mother like she has been to the Indian civilization.
Though it takes place on all the 84 ghats along the Ganga River, but the one on Dasaswamedh Ghat is the most grand. This ghat is located very close to the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple.
Rain or shine, Aarti ceremony starts everyday exactly at sunset time. It is a one-hour event starting at roughly 7.00 PM in Summers and at 6.00 PM in Winters.
Fire, Night and chanting of Vedic mantras, gives a magical touch to the entire ceremony. Synchronized movements of the lamps in Sadhu’s hands performing the arti makes it all the more mesmerising.
7 young saffron clad Brahmcharis start the ritual by offering flowers to the river. Oil lamps are waved in a synced motion as an act of reverence. Conch shells are blown during the ceremony too. It is believed that its sound reaches the Gods. Yak tail fans and peacock feather fans are also given as offerings. The priests end the ceremony by pouring a bowl of water into the river as final offering. Upon which, the devotees let go of small oil lamps with flowers on a leaf to float in the river. During all this, vedic hymns are chanted in unison by people as well as other sadhus.
Although, it takes place everyday, but the ceremony conducted during Kartik Purnima is special. During Kartik Purnima, which comes in October-November, people decorate their houses and ghats with earthen oil-lamps. Thousands of lamps floating in the river gives the surrounding a very picturesque effect.
Special mention must be given to the Aarti conducted on Dev Diwali day during Ganga Mahotsav. On this day all 84 ghats are decorated with lamps and flowers. Large flaming lamps that create a bright hue against the darkened sky looks surreal.
Fire, vedic hymns, sound of the conch, and the crowd around creates an enormous positive energy. All this will certainly make your long term memory .
Moreover, all this is totally FREE. But, If you decide to opt for River view on boats, then you may have to shell out Rs. 200, which is not much, considering the experience.
- If you want to enjoy the ceremony from a good spot, you ought to reach the ghats by 5 in the evening.
- To reach the ghat, get down at the Godaulia chowraha (junction) and walk for 700-800m East. From there a flight of stairs will take you down to the river. Warning: Some of these steps are slippery. Walk carefully.
- From Chowraha Junction, You will have to walk for at least 15 minutes to reach the spot. Be prepared.
- You can watch the ceremony either from Dasaswamedh Ghat itself or from boats. I would myself rate the river view to be better than the Ghat one. But, unlike Ghat view which is FREE, river view on boat will cost Rs. 200.
- Boats are available from Raj ghat along with other nearby ghats.
- Check the time beforehand with local people as it changes according to the sunset timing.
- Do not visit Varanasi between March and September, as the weather could be extremely hot & humid
- You should also visit the Morning aarti at Assi ghat. The sight of group of girls singing Bhajans in the backdrop of rising sun, creates an amazing aura.
- Go with your Camera otherwise you will never be able to forgive yourself. This place is filled with vibrant colours, night sky, bright fire and crowd.
WHAT NOBODY TELLS YOU ABOUT BENARAS
1.GANGS OF SHOPKEEPERS AND TOUTS
Nowhere do you see us Indians working in such an unison as shopkeepers & touts do in Benaras.
This being a symbiotic relationship, in which many shopkeepers gang up to send you to wrong ghats, where you will be compelled to take a boat ride to watch the arti.
This miniscule segment of population is giving a bad name to this city of lights.
- Remember, there is no fee for watching the ceremony. Don't pay a dime to any tout.
- Touts will be everywhere. You should ignore them and move on. It's not off putting, just a part of India.
- When in need of help, ask Traffic Police. If they are not around, then you may ask local shopkeepers, but always cross check their directions.
- Rickshaw Wallahs have their commissions fixed at various hotels. They may say bad things about your chosen hotel and try to take you to their suggested ones. Never believe them and insist on going to your chosen hotel only.
- Boatmens are no less. They inflate their prices every other hour. Also, they may say in the middle of the trip that you have paid for only one way trip. Bargain hard and clear beforehand how long the ride will last.
2.PUJA HAS BECOME A SHOW
The ghats are a very good example of how a religious place has been mercilessly exploited by touts to change its nature to a circus.
Some even say that Bollywood influence has made evening Pooja more of a Show - only focussed at selling maximum tickets.
Any religious exercise,if devoid of devotion makes the proceedings life-less for many. Fortunately, that state has not arrived yet.
Some Pandas doing rituals on the Ghats, and a few temple-purohits have fine-tuned the art of selling religion by preying on your conscience.
- Try to indulge your mind into the logics of every ritual. Hinduism being an ancient religion is very scientific.
- Know the history of the place and the significance of every ritual. Don’t believe anything, whose logic isn’t clear to you. Use authentic sources. This way you will be able to separate the chaff.
3.BOATS IN FRONT OBSTRUCTS YOUR SIGHT
Number of boats that come and stay right infront of the ghat blocks the view of Ganga. So when the priest performs arti, it seems they are doing arti of the passengers in the boat and not of Ganga mata.
Boats are so many that the river gets congested too.
This dampens the religious fervour a bit.
- If you are not a photographer, You can view from the Ghat itself. Not only are fewer mosquitoes on land in comparison to river but also, you can hear amazing music & Vedic chants much clearly on ghat in comparison to river. Also, on ghat there are big concrete steps, where you can sit & relax when tired.
- However, Best vantage point for photographers is found only on river view.
4.FILTH, UNTIDINESS, MISMANAGEMENT
Ghat area is a Complete chaos. No other words.
My rickshaw got stuck in traffic for half hours. During this time, people kept honking non stop.
Also, Traffic, cows and loud sounds were an attack on the senses.
People come from all over the world to Benaras for cremation. Though, Dasaswamedh ghat is not used for cremation, but you can find floating dead bodies here too.
At many places, funeral rituals were going on. This included dipping the body into Ganges and covering it with ghee. Later it was wrapped in cotton before being cremated in the open on a funeral pyre. The ashes were then scattered in the River Ganges.
The quickness with which half-burnt human bodies are washed into the river thereby polluting the holy river is disgusting.
Ghat area needs to work on its tidiness. Place is poorly developed with animal dung lying all over. Beggars are everywhere too.
Also, Watching people bathing in open is O.K. to an extent, but most of them also urinate openly owing to lack of toilets & deeply ingrained habit.
Open urination, being our national hobby , though is normal to us but many foreigners find it totally off-putting.
- Look at entire cremation process as an experience in itself. Infact, it's one of the most earthly experience people come here for. India won’t be itself, without these people.
- Try to not create more filth yourself. Yes, you won’t find dustbins everywhere, but you can keep the garbage in a bag for later disposal.
5.BAD QUALITY STREET FOOD
Being a huge fan of good quality street food, I was disappointed with its quality near this ghat.
Hygiene standard was very low. Food was exposed to air at many places.
However, If you know some right places, you can get very good food.
- Stick to vegetarian. You will not be disappointed
- Try lassi at Blue Lassi which is a vegetarian friendly hotel.
- Bhang Lassis of Benaras is very potent. Don’t take them in open area. You may get robbed.
- Don't forget to taste world famous Banarsi Paan.
Photo enthusiast, culture lover and pilgrims keep thronging this place all year around.
Due to crowd, handling children sometimes becomes tough.
- You can't wish the crowd away. Infact, it's one of the things, people come to India for.
- Always keep care of your wallets and valuables.
- Staying calm is the only way you can survive the crowd. Don’t let it get on your nerves.
There are people trying to sell you stuff everywhere. Fortune- tellers, silk-touts, beggars, boat-operators, snack sellers etc are everywhere. This kind of ruins the vibe down at the Ghats.
Ghat has become extremely crowded and commercialized
Auto-drivers and shop keepers will drive you crazy.
- Try to avoid making purchase at the Ghats itself.
- There are enough good quality market, where you can quench your thirst for marketing.
- Dashashwamedh market is very close to the ghat. You should purchase local products from here.Also, ola and other taxis can be taken from here only.
- Adding to the crowd of humans, are uncountable number of apes. Be ready to face them too.
8.CRY FOR DONATIONS
Many will try to play with your conscience, in the name of God.
You will find request for donations at every step.
Don't get fooled.
Don’t give a dime unless sure about the genuineness of the institution. Know that, Hinduism has many poor not because of lack of money but lack of intentions.
- Don't give a penny unless you are sure of the purpose it will be used for.
- Most of the donations don't reach the poor and needy, and ends in the pocket of middlemens.
- Request for money donations for poor people’s cremations is the most common excuse. Whether to give or not, I leave this to you. I did not give.
Dasaswamedh Ghat is frenetic and intense, colourful and chaotic. For a truly spiritual experience, You should soak all of these into yourself without letting the distractions overwhelm you.
And this can happen only if you know the difficulties you can face.