One of the oldest living inhabitations of the world, the sacred city of Varanasi or Benaras, nestled on the banks of the holy Ganges river, has been attracting pilgrims for centuries. Celebrated author Mark Twain, who visited India in the last decade of the 19th century, described the city as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend.”
Believed to be the abode of Lord Shiva, Varanasi is among the seven sacred cities in the country. Centuries of history, art and tradition have conflated to add colourful layers to Varanasi's aura, which is most spectacularly evident at its ghats (stepped banks of a river). An abode of travellers in search of holiness and divine providence, the ghats of the Ganges are the highlight of the spiritual scene of Varanasi. From the famous Ganga arti (a fire ritual) to cremation ceremonies, the ghats are the site of time-honoured rituals that are performed to this day.
One of the oldest and the most sacred ghats in the holy city of Varanasi is Dashashwamedh. This place is most famous for its Ganga arti ( a holy fire ritual), which is an elaborate and lively ceremony that takes place at dusk everyday. Amid blowing of conch shells, ringing of bells, clanging of brass cymbals and chanting chorus of mantras, priests venerate the Ganga, the lifeline of Varanasi, with brass lamps that rise several tiers. The priests performing the arti are all draped in similar clothing-- a kurta and dhoti. The preparations for the arti include collecting five elevated planks, an idol of Goddess Ganga, flowers and incense sticks. Rituals of the arti are performed by those learned in the Vedas and Upanishads and are led by the head priest of the Gangotri Seva Samiti. The arti lasts about 45 minutes. Devotees float smaller diyas on leaf platters in the river as an obeisance to the holy Ganga. As the sunlight recedes, the innumerable lamps flowing in the water make for an unforgettable sight. The hour-long ritual can be watched from the ghat or boats moored at the river bank.
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