I first heard of Varanasi from a co-volunteer during my first week in India. He said that it is a must for him to visit Varanasi, the Hindus’ holy city. Varanasi is said to be the place where Hindus’ would like to die in, if they get the chance. I was told that it is believed that dying in Varanasi or having their remains sunk below or their ashes scattered across the Ganges River will either stop their reincarnation (maybe especially when they expect to rep bad karma in their next life) and/or go straight to heaven. Another reason for Hindu pilgrimage in Varanasi is the belief that you can be cleansed of your sins and cured of your illness once you drink from or bathe at the Ganges River.
Personally, I find it rather creepy and extremely unsanitary, especially since the Ganges River I saw is no doubt dirty, but hey, I will not rain on their parade. In fact, It was one of the reasons why I wanted to go—I needed to see for myself. So, I included Varanasi in my list of places to visit in India, especially when I heard about the evening prayer rituals, called puja or aarti, held every night after sunset. These pujas and aartis are probably considered among the “holiest” and “most blessed” prayer rituals for your deceased family members.
It was about 6:30pm I guess when me and my traveling buddies at the time, Amanda and Juls (VSO co-vols) and Laura (their expat[?] friend), trooped to the Dasaswamedh Ghat where the evening pujas take place every night. The street leading to the ghat had been closed to vehicle traffic and there were multitudes of people heading toward the prayer grounds.
When we arrived, the preparations were already underway with the priests (must be coming from the highest order of pandits and brahmins) checking and making sure that everything is in place for the ritual.
I am guessing that the man who got special assistance from some priests to perform some pre-ritual (or maybe it’s included?) things by the Ganges River was the one who asked and paid for that evening’s puja. I’ve heard from a friend that it costs 10000 rupees to have this done. After watching the ceremony, I thought that was an underestimation.
As far as I can remember, the actual puja began with the blowing of the conch shell. I don’t really know what it means but to me it seemed like it’s an announcement that the rituals are about to begin. And mind you, it was a loooong time. I feared that they would run out of breath or something!
After that, the priests lit incense sticks and made circular patterns in the air while ringing small bells. They also threw flower petals, which I think were first drawn into circular patterns in the air as well. I think this was part of the standard steps during the puja. What changes though is the thing that they use after these steps.
I can now only remember the following during the prayer ritual: a chalice which emits smoke, a tiered triangular candle holder, and fire in a naga (snake)-shaped lamp.
I wouldn’t trust my memory of the sequence of rituals for the aarti that much but I can share with you what I felt at the time. I was feeling something solemn, but not completely. In a sense that I want to be one with the priests in praying for the departed but apart from the fact that I do not understand what was happening, there was also too much chatter from the crowd. I mean, a sacred ritual has turned into a spectacle that to me, it loses it’s authenticity or sincerity. Don’t get me wrong. Of course I liked what I saw. It’s just that I am not feeling it, if you know what I mean. But, I guess it would be better if you watch for yourself so I have included below some videos from the evening puja in Varanasi.
Also, just because I feel this way about my experience of the evening rituals in Varanasi doesn’t mean that you’ll feel the same. And, though I did not believe in the power of the holy Ganges River, it doesn’t mean that it is less true—especially to the devout Hindus who believe in her. In fact, because people believe in her so much, I drew on their belief and found myself lighting a very small candle surrounded by flowers and leaves and set it afloat the Ganges while I offer a prayer of my own for my dearly departed.
All in all, would I recommend for you to go to Varanasi? Yes. Though it was a social and cultural explosion for me (for some other reasons than the puja), I still think it’s one of those experiences in India that you wouldn’t want to miss, whether you are Hindu or not. Would I recommend for you to see the evening prayer rituals or participate in the puja or aarti? Yes, especially if you are a Hindu. I think it’s a very deep spiritual experience for Hindus and a peculiarly interesting one for non-Hindus. In fact, I suggest you go down to the Dasaswamedh Ghat area near the evening pujas are held—who knows, you might be blessed by the holy cow!