River Ganga dresses up in lights and rituals during the 10-day Ganga Dussehra in June and nowhere is it more spectacular than Varanasi and Prayagraj
For 1o days in the beginning of June, every city and town that the river Ganga flows through venerates it with extra special devotion until it culminates as Ganga Dussehra on June 12. The devout come from all across the country to bathe in the sacred river, perform rituals, worship and meditate. It is especially surreal in the evening as darkness falls when thousands gather to float lamps and perform aarti accompanied by chants and devotional songs.
The 10-day festival has its origins in mythology and its beginnings go back to an indeterminate time. It is held to commemorate Gangavatarana, Ganga’s descent to earth. According to legend, the land was ruled by a king called Sagara who is believed to have 60,000 sons. In order to perform the Ashwamedha Yagna, he needed the retrieval of his ritual white horse, which had been purposely stolen by Lord Indra, who was wary of Sagara’s growing strength. The sons found the horse tied outside the home of Sage Kapila and created a ruckus thinking the sage had stolen it. Livid that his penance had been disturbed, the sage opened his eyes and burned all of them to ashes. Bhagiratha, a descendent of Sagara, prayed to Lord Brahma for the salvation of the souls of his burnt ancestors and was rewarded with Ganga, who descended to earth from the heavens, washed the ashes and helped them gain salvation. Ganga Dussehra celebrates this descent of Ganga.
While the festival is celebrated all along the river in the states of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, it is a big event in the cities of Varanasi and Prayagraj. In Varanasi, the ghats are where all the action is, especially Dashashwamedh Ghat. The whole area bustles with life as thousands of devotees congregate. It is filled with hawkers, shops and establishments selling a variety of things such as articles of worship, flowers, offerings, brassware, jewellery, fruit and vegetables and an array of snacks including samosas and kachoris.
Through the day, devotees bathe in the river and perform rituals while the Kashi Vishwanath temple teems with pilgrims. As night falls, thousands of lamps are lit along the ghats and let afloat in the water. It is a surreal sight to see them gently floating with the current, bobbing in the water. There is also the evening aarti where a group of seven priests perform a series of ritual offerings to river accompanied by chants and songs.
It is somewhat similar in Prayagraj, but the location has more going for it. A bustling city epitomising contemporary India, it is a maze of heritage and modernity, with narrow alleys, cheek-by-jowl neighbourhoods and monuments juxtaposed with wide avenues, long bridges and shiny buildings. Prominent among them is the beautiful Prayagraj Fort, which stands on the river banks. But more importantly, Prayagraj has an enviable location: it sits on the banks of not just Ganga and Yamuna, but also where the two meet with a mythical third one called Saraswati, at the Triveni Sangam. It is this confluence of rivers that makes Prayagraj a holy destination for the devout and is also where the Kumbh Mela is held periodically.
During Ganga Dussehra, the 10 days leading up to the final day, a buzz hangs in the air near the river and the Sangam with chants and devotional songs ringing out. The whole ghat buzzes with religious activities, spiritual readings, satsangs and bhajans, while the devout take a ritual dip and worship the river. At dusk, the scene becomes surreal with lamps being lit and aartis being performed, culminating in cheers and loud chants. As the festival winds down, the banks and the riverside throughout become serene once again and the river flows on. Until it is time for the next big river festival.