Rishikesh is the land of “rishis”, yoga ashrams, quiet and casual cafes and thrilling adventure sports. It has been an epicenter for spiritual seekers. Dotted with ashrams and excelling in varied forms of yoga and meditation classes it is often referred to as the “Yoga Capital of the world”. The buzz is more towards the north of the city, where the swiftly cascading River Ganges, encircled by forested hills, provides an idyllic environment to meditation and mind expansion. As the dusk sets in, a calming supernatural breeze sweeps down the valley and an awareness sets in, of paying obeisance to the river. The temple bells chime as pilgrims, sadhus and tourists rush to Triveni Ghat with impelling alacrity for the evening ganga aarti or the maha aarti (river worship ceremony).
We were no different. No sooner had the clock displayed 5:30 pm, Sam and I got into a Tuk-Tuk to take us to Triveni Ghat. The Triveni Ghat has been a revered spot for ages. The water that runs alongside the ghat is the confluence of three sacred rivers – Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati. Devout Hindus plunge into its waters as they believe it can wash away their sins. This is also the place where every day the Maha Aarti takes place at 6 p.m. Through tiny alleyways and winding roads, the tuk-tuk finally dropped us off near the ghat. If we had shared the tuk-tuk with other passengers we would have paid less but we neither had the time nor the patience so the 4.5 km journey to the ghat cost us 250 Rs after bargaining.
Mentally I had prepared myself for brouhaha outside the ghats with crowds piling on top of each other to get a glimpse of the aarti. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to see how everything was systematic and well organized. After depositing our shoes at the counter we walked towards the steps where clean carpets were rolled out for the devotees to sit down. The first three steps of the ghats are reserved for people who make donations and want a special puja performed for their families before the main aarti. The donations can be Rs. 300 and above for the same. After making our contributions we had one pujari assigned to us. After ablutions in the flowing river, the puja began. The rest of the crowd settled down and watched this special puja for the donors being performed. Once done, everyone took their seats and the ghee soaked diyas were lit. The show was about to begin.
As if we had transcended into the heavens, the ambiance of the place changed into something magical. Twenty-two pujaris stepped up on their respective platform and the prayers started. The air reverberated with positive energy. The sounds of the conch shells and the ringing of bells reverberated in the air. For one hour, in sync with the melodious prayer song, the priests swayed the lamp urns from one direction to another. The River Ganges happily gurgled and moved forward. The illuminated lamps, the clapping of hands in devotion, the soft glow of the moon and the religious chants made it an ethereal experience.
The aarti ended at 7:30 p.m but all was not over. Bhajans began at the ghat where the devotees joined in the singing and dancing. I watched in fascination. Women who were all shy and demure until a few minutes back had shed their inhibitions. They danced in gay abandon, squealed with joy and joined the men in the merriment. The Triveni ghat held no bars on gender, caste or creed. Everyone was on the same spiritual level and singing to God’s glory.
To the Hindus, River Ganga is not ordinary. As author Sudipta Sen writes in his book Ganga: The Many Pasts of a River – “It is part of a superordinate cosmic order.” The third Mughal emperor Akbar drank only Ganga water. He rhapsodized about its taste and purity calling it abihayat – the source of life. Indian mythology has stories galore about the preternatural healing properties of Ganga water, which gave cripples and lepers glimpses of hope. A holy dip in the Ganges is said to absolve the sins of previous births. Submerging the ashes of the departed in the Ganges endows them liberation. The river provides, heals, absolves, nourishes, absorbs and emits energy. It is integral to the ideas of the cosmos and eschaton of the Hindus. Day after day, the Triveni Ghat is the witness to the gratitude that devotees give to the River Ganga. Magnanimous, divine and emotional – the Ganga aarti is not one to be missed.