Part 3 of Premgit’s photo essay, Earth, Love, Divine, honouring Mother Ganges in the timeless city of Banaras.
Varanasi, also known as Banaras and Kashi, at various points in history, sits on the western bank of the Ganges in Uttar Pradesh, North India. Varanasi is reputed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city on Earth, and consequently has a very long history, both social and mythical. It has survived being razed to the ground twice under Mughal rule and blossomed in other times as a trading port.
In the mythical realm, India has an unprecedented web of pilgrimage sites spanning the whole country. Some of these predate the Hindu period, while others are more modern. All Hindu mythology can be correlated to specific places, so all cities, towns, villages, mountains and valleys can claim the presence of a deity. Collectively this web is known as ‘sacred geography’.
Varanasi is a huge pilgrimage destination for Hindus and it is considered their religious capital, and this sacred geographical web overlays the city. This means that a pilgrim from Kerala in the south can find his own deity somewhere within this web, represented either as a statue in a temple or outside at a particular bathing ghat.
Varanasi is also considered to be a tirtha, which literally means crossing. It is felt that here one can cross from the mundane worldly state of being into the spiritual realm and back again. Varanasi is the most important tirtha in India, due to the ease with which the crossing can be made.
The city is said to be ‘the abode of Shiva’ who vowed never to leave. There are many stories linking Kashi with Shiva, one of them being how the Ganges was born from his matted hair. This bestowed divine powers to its waters and it is considered now that the Ganges is the “giver of salvation.” People from all over India come here on pilgrimage to bathe in its waters, thereby cleansing the soul of sins.
Many come here simply to die, as it is said that to be burnt here, will release the soul from the endless cycle of death and re-birth.
In many ways Varanasi has changed little in the last forty years. There are of course many more tourists, and the hotels, guest houses and restaurants that support them, but the pilgrims and Brahmins still perform the morning puja rituals of giving respect to Mother Ganga, quite unconcerned as to who may be watching. In fact Uttar Pradesh Tourism supports the nightly Aarthi ceremony, where carefully choreographed Brahmins make offerings of fire and incense to the Ganga, to the accompaniment of loud bells and music. It is for sure a magnificent spectacle, although you can find a more traditional aarthi happening on a much smaller scale at some of the other ghats.
Aarthi is said to be descended from the old Vedic fire rituals, and today all five elements – earth, wind, fire, water, and cosmos – can be represented in the ritual.
Aarthi can be performed by anyone, and will differ accordingly. In the temple, offerings representing the elements are made to the deity, and on the ghats, people will take part in a Brahmin-led ceremony, but will also place a small dish in the river made of leaves, which contains some flowers and a lit candle.
Every pilgrim will perform morning puja by bathing in the Ganges, and using a kalasha, a specially-made small metal pot. Water is scooped out of the river then poured back in repeatedly, symbolizing the life-giving ability of nature.