Some people have asked us where the most fascinating place we have ever traveled. There are way too many.  But one that tops the list is the city of Varanasi, the holiest city in India.

Situated along the bank of the sacred Ganges River, Varanasi is a place where Hindus aim to visit once in a lifetime. They come to participate in many spiritual rituals and to cleanse their sins by bathing in its purifying water. Witnessing the rituals for ourselves, as well as the chaos and  all things unexpected, was a truly fascinating experience albeit overwhelming.

Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and probably the oldest in India. Mark Twain described it as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”  That itself is fascinating. 

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Rickshaw traffic in Varanasi, IndiaWe looked forward to experience the spiritual atmosphere of the holy city of Varanasi. We found that it was also blessed with holy traffic, holy pollution, holy sea of humanity, and oh so many holy cows! It was pretty intense. We realized that it was not for the faint of heart.

Rickshaw traffic in Varanasi, India, IndiaIn our first evening in Varanasi, we  took a rickshaw ride and joined throngs of locals and pilgrims in weaving through the narrow crammed street to head to the bank of the sacred Ganges River, where a nightly spiritual ceremony was to take place.

Women on Rickshaw, Varanasi, IThis rickshaw carrying pilgrims was moving so slow; the traffic police gave the driver a beating.  Something we didn’t expect in a place where people seek for the sacred.

Crowds walking to Ganges River, Varanasi, IndiaWe got off the rickshaw and follow the thick crowd that was marching to the bank of the Ganges River.

People gathered on the Bank of Ganges River, Varanasi, IndiaWe reached the bank of the sacred river and people were already filling its ghats (steps) to witness the nightly spiritual ceremony called the Aarti.

Aarti Ceremony, Ganges River, Varanasi, IndiaAarti is a Hindu fire ceremony performed by Brahmin disciples to honor the holy river, Gods and deities. It takes place every night at around 7 pm rain or shire.

Audience at Ganga Aarti Ceremony, Ganges River, Varanasi, IndiaLike many people, we  hired a small boat and witnessed the ritual from the river.

Aarti Ceremony, Varanasi, IndiaThe ritual is a highly choreographed ceremony and includes blowing of conch shells, waiving lamps filled with incense, dancing with fire and chanting. 

Aarti Ceremony, Varanasi, IndiaDevotees believe that by attending the ceremony purification and blessings are bestowed upon them.

Votive Candles in Ganges River. Varanasi, IndiaMagnolia votive candles are sold all over the ghats. It is a common ritual for pilgrims to release them on the holy Ganges as they make a wish.  Hundreds of candles can be seen floating on the river each night.

Ganges River at Night, Varanasi, IndiaA cruise on the Ganges River revealed a more poignant scene. We came across the “burning ghat” where cremations take place night and day.

Cremation Bhat, Ganges River, Varanasi, IndiaVaranasi is also called the City of Death. Hindus believe that Varanasi is the most auspicious place die.  They believe that having their dead bodies washed and cremated on the Ganges and their ashes thrown in the river will liberate them from the cycle of life and death (reincarnation) and allow them to move to a higher plane of being.

Witnessing the rituals on the Ganges River this evening was a profound experience. The display of devotion from the pilgrims was deeply moving.  We went back to the Ganges to witness the rituals in early morning and found it even more fascinating – in spiritual, visual and bizarre kind of ways. We will share this experience with you in our next post.

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 Linking to The Weekly PostcardWeekend Travel Inspiration and Travel Photo Discovery.

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38 responses to “Varanasi: Evening Rituals on the Ganges River

  1. Anda

    What a fascinating city. I’ve never been to India but I watched a documentary once about Varanasi. Seeing the dead bodies float on the Ganges River wasn’t exactly pleasant. There were other strange rituals that were featured in the movies that I can’t write about here, but were horrific. I read your post with a lot of interest because India is one of the destinations that is attractive and scary at the same time. In one way it carries so much culture and tradition and in another way seems frozen in time and held back by these strange and outdated rituals. You seemed to have enjoyed your trip though, which means it’s not too bad…
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    • Marisol

      Hi Anda, it is fascinating in many kind of ways – both good and bad. I know about the floating dead bodies, fortunately we didn’t see one. India is a land of contrast – it’s both beautiful and sad and can be an assault to your senses. It’s not for everyone. But if you can look beyond the filth and the bizarre, you can appreciate its deep fascinating and colorful ancient culture.

  2. Bama

    Marisol, this is the most appealing post on Varanasi I’ve ever read so far! I’ve seen some photos of Aarti before, but the fact that you took the pictures from a boat provided us another perspective of the holy ritual. Such a magnificent and beautiful ceremony! Varanasi, or Benares as how it was called back then when I first learned about it, seems like a city that embodies India herself: sacred, beautiful, crowded, filthy, enchanting.
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    • Marisol

      Hi Bama, thanks! I’m glad to hear that. Aarti is indeed a powerful ceremony if you don’t understand Hinduism. You’re right, it’s the true embodiment of India.

  3. Corinne

    Marisol, I love your photos. When we were in Varanasi it was shrouded in fog and quite spooky. I did not care at all for the pollution and the traffic, but it was a fascinating place. I should have stayed longer, I think. Thanks for linking up with #wkendtravelinspiration!
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    • Marisol

      HI Corinne, thank you! I wish I saw Varanasi in fog and see for myself how spookier it gets! I hear you about the pollution and the traffic. Now that I’m away from it, I’m able to look past the chaos and get to deeply appreciate the culture that is still embedded in the city,

    • Marisol

      Thanks Lili, it truly is,

    • Marisol

      Hi Rajesh, thank you! I’m glad you approve the shots of your holy city,

  4. I had never heard of Varanasi before reading this post, but I see how this evening of ritual made it the top of your best experiences list. Your photos are amazing, really inviting. It just seems like an amazing thing to witness (except for the driver beating). Thanks for sharing the photos at Weekend Travel Inspiration, or I may not have found you. .
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    • Marisol

      Hi Rhonda, thanks. Glad you enjoyed the photos. The evening rituals is just a small part of what makes it so fascinating. I’d love for you to see the morning rituals. Thanks for visiting.

  5. jan

    What a spectacular post. I’m not sure if I will ever get there myself but I love your photos. All they need is a sound track and it would complete the picture :) It would be an overwhelming, exciting, poignant and even scary experience I think. I can’t wait to hear about the morning ceremony. I would love to hear the conch shells. I heard them at a Dire Straits concert in Townsville 30 years ago and really liked the sound. In the Varanasi setting it would be superb.
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    • Marisol

      Hey Jan, I’m really surprised you haven’t made it there yet. You’re one person I thought for sure would have brave it by now. Overwhelming and poignant experience – yes. But not really scary. The sound of the conch shell was truly beautiful, pretty spiritual. Although I would think that the sound would come out differently at a Dire Straits concert- more wildly, I think?:)

      • Johnie

        These are the reasons why I like your blog and YOU! YOu say what what you want to without any fear! It was a great read Vix. I can see we as women have come a long way but yet have quite a distance to cover. And how to I express my feiismnm? But just being who I am whether males (or females) like it or not!

  6. What an interesting place and one that seems to hit all the senses full on. It’s interesting that they do this ritual nightly and that there is enough demand for cremation that the pyre burns continuously. Every bit of this post fascinates me. I have rarely had a guide with me when I’ve witnessed Indian rituals, and I usually find myself wishing I had a better understanding of what was going on.
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    • Marisol

      Hi Michelle, you’re so right – it’s an assault to all the senses indeed. The cremations, the rituals, the devotion, that chaos — it truly is fascinating in a mind boggling kind of way
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  7. My son has actually been to Varanasi during his world travels in 2012. I remember him telling me what a fascinating place it was and showing me his photos. Although India has never been on my ‘must see’ list, I think I am beginning to warm to the idea of checking it out. Thank you for bringing this place to me with your wonderful photos.
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    • Marisol

      Hi Kathy, our pleasure. It must have left an great impression (good and bad) in your son’s mind. I hope you can it check it our yourself someday.

  8. Varanasi – probably one of the craziest Indian cities, yet there’s something special about it, right? :)

    However, the evening ceremony is magical, yet insanely loud 😀
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    • Marisol

      HI Elena, yes, as holy as it is, it’s also one of the craziest. I guess that what’s makes its fascinating, its contradictions. True, the evening ceremony is interesting but it was not that loud at all.
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    • Marisol

      Hi Dana, thanks. They have many fascinating rituals and I hope you get to witness them someday.

  9. Mike

    Your pictures are as of being right out of a movie (yet again), Marisol. Excellent addition of Mark Twain’s quote – wow did he nail that, huh? And your’s was just as good, “it was also blessed with holy traffic, holy pollution, holy sea of humanity, and oh so many holy cows” LOL :) I would probably like to visit India someday but it low on my list. I would like to see the beatituful countryside of the northern part of the country. Wonderful post :)

    • Marisol

      Thank you, Mike! Glad you enjoyed the quotes:) It’s not the easiest and most comfortable place to visit, but if you keep an open mind you will appreicate its fascinating culture, rituals and people.

  10. holy traffic, holy pollution LOL! The Aarti Ceremony, the night shots, the views from the boat WOW! Great how a culture and ritual has survived for thousand of years …
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  11. This looks like such an intense experience albeit unforgettable too. It certainly is fascinating. Beautiful photos of such an interesting ritual and pilgrimage. The cows, traffic and pollution seem to be prevalent in many of the India posts so I’m glad to see you had such a positive experience.
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    • Marisol

      HI Mary, Yes it was both intense and unforgettable. Truly fascinating to experience.

  12. Even though photos in places like this tend to take themselves, these are some of the nicest I’ve seen of Varanasi. Also, you’ve chosen the perfect time (weather wise) to visit India. To say: ‘What a destination!’ is an understatement. :-)
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    • Marisol

      Hi Mike, Thanks, that such a compliment We found visiting in November perfect weather-wise. So, that that would be an understatement.

    • Marisol

      Hi Leigh, thanks. The press of humanity was quite overwhelming., but the incredible. experience made it quite worth it.

  13. Ilse Colvin

    I’m not sure how I managed to come across your post, I think it was while trying to find the exact meaning of Aarti ceremony. My husband and I just got back from a 5-week journey through India. I must tell you we had the most wonderful exciting experience we have ever had in all our world travels. Already we have the urge to go back. Varanasi was my favorite city, The cremations and the Aarti rituals where absolutely overwhelming.. Yes, one has to keep an open mind when traveling in India. For me, after a few days in India, I did not notice the cows on the roads anymore but rather the beautiful women dressed in their beautiful saris walking gently among the cows. I hardly noticed the traffic jams anymore but rather observed and admired our professional drivers as the navigated calmly through the traffic mess. No road rage here. I have pictures of the ceremonies, but they are not nearly as beautiful as yours.. Thanks for sharing the pictures and your experience. We loved India.

  14. Marisol

    Hi Ilse, I’m so glad to hear that you had a wonderful experience in Varanasi. Thanks for sharing your experience and for dropping by.

  15. This article is incredible with much information on this subject. I have not seen photos of this city in such a high resolution, very incredible and amazing this city is.

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