The Haridwar Ganga Aarti was not even on our radar when we stepped off the train from Delhi on our way to a yoga retreat in Rishikesh.
In fact, if it hadn’t been for the knowledge and kindness of two German brothers, we would have gone straight through Haridwar, blissfully clueless of what Ganga Aarti was. What a shame that would have been because the Haridwar Ganga Aarti ceremony turned out to be one of my favourite memories from our whole India trip.
Ganga Aarti means prayer to the Ganges River and is an event practiced in various places along the great Mother Ganges in India. While Oli and I ended up watching the Varanasi Ganga Aarti 5 times in as many days, it was at the Haridwar Ganga Aarti that I first understood the power that the Ganges truly holds for Indian people. The devotion and fervour that we saw on the steps of the Har-ki-Pauri Ghat truly blew me away.
The ceremony happens every single evening at sunset, which in itself is an incredible example of devotion and, while I only saw it once, the steps were overflowing with devotees and onlookers on that day in September. There were groups of friends cavorting, sometimes dangerously, in the shallows, and depths, of the river itself; there were older couples huddled on the steps with various offerings, or Puja, laid out in front of them and there were families with bemused looking children being thrust into the arms of foreigners like us.
Everywhere underfoot was slightly damp, from people moving in and out of the rushing water, and it smelled slightly damp too, with the faintest hint of incense.
We began our tour of the Ghat early, just as the Puja sellers were setting up shop and while the local men were still jumping from the bridge into the water. We wandered over the bridge closest to the temples, along the island perched in the river and back over the jumping bridge, through the mess of people, soaking in the revelry.
I had known that the Ganges held an incredibly spiritual significence and so I was shocked at first by the theme-park like atmosphere in Haridwar. It was so unlike other holy sites I’d visited. Everyone was just having the most amazing time though and, though they may have been risking their own bodies, everyone was so respectful of each other and the place.
This is India, I guess. An unapologetic expression of life and faith.
On the stepped side of the river, we deposited our shoes in the storage area and tiptoed through the crowd to settle into a good spot to watch the sun go down.
Slowly things began to quieten down and lights began to flicker on. One by one candles were lit, placed inside their little flower homes and sent out into the darkening water. They added their glow to the fires burning strongly around the temples.
Before we knew quite what was going on a voice came on over the tannoy and everyone joined in in a unified chant. People were still arriving in droves and they added their voices to the din.
The power of those voices together is what I remember now, plus a thousand arms thrust up into the cobalt sky.
The ceremony at the Haridwar Ganga Aarti is not as polished and practised as the same event in Varanasi and I don’t remember any specific ritual carried out by the holy men. It was more of a blur of sound and fire and faces.
It was a beautiful introduction to the spirituality of India and when we sat back in our taxi, rolling through the black roads towards our yoga retreat, I felt excited for what more was to come.