Around sunset a spiritual calm envelops Rishikesh and storefronts all start to close. Hindu pilgrims gather by the river Ganges for the Ganga Aarati ceremony. The most holy river in Hinduism, it is believed that a touch of the river’s waters will purify one of all his sins.
We witness the ceremony in Rishikesh and Hardiwar, and for all the crowding, loud speakers and commercialism surrounding the ceremony in Hardiwar, the ritual in Rishikesh was blissfully peaceful.
Each night, around 5:30pm, just before sunset, boys studying the Veda begin to file onto an amphitheater of steps at the river’s edge. Vendors selling diyas, bowls made from leaves filled with flowers and a candle, move through the crowd and a good number of religious pilgrims fill the area. The children, Bhajan singers and other performers, dressed in vibrant saffron and orange robes file in and the ceremony starts. Before the ceremony a few Hindu pilgrims perform a ceremony at the river’s edge in which they throw spices, seeds and flower petals into a large fire.
As the singing begins, the ceremony takes on an enchanting atmosphere. The crowd, especially the children, immerse themselves in enthusiastic singing and as the sun sets, a large Shiva statue illuminates over the river. Singing prayers to Lord Shiva, lamps are lit and passed through the crowd with everyone jostling to hold it or be bathed in it’s light. The darkness and fire are such juxtaposition that the atmosphere is almost unworldly.
Without a doubt it was one of the most visually stunning religious ceremonies I have ever experienced. Watching the crowd of pilgrims and children I was struck by their emotions. Not very religious myself, I was moved by their devotion and the spell that spread across the crowd. For anyone, of any religion, it was a meaningful experience. Before leaving India we went to the Ganga Aarati in Hardiwar where the crowd was more intense and men with bull horns implored pilgrims to make donations. It was a completely different experience and being able to compare the two, I was grateful for having participated in Rishikesh.