The Aarti is usually performed at the end of the Puja ceremony in places of religious significance along the banks of the Ganges. I’ve seen it performed lots of times in Varanasi which lies further down the Ganges but had never witnessed it here in Haridwar. More to follow after the jump…
Aarti is derived from the Sanskrit Aratrika which means something that removes Ratri (darkness), or light waved in darkness before an idol. The Aarti lamps are waved before a deity by priests while prayers are sung and then the lamps are set down so devotees can pass their cupped hand from the flame to their forehead to receive a purification blessing – the belief is that the deity or devas image has now passed onto the flame and so in turn passes onto the recipient of the flame.
My first night in Haridwar had unfortunately not been a restful one, I’d arrived late in the afternoon to find that the influx of people for the upcoming Shivratri festival (in honour of Lord Shiva) had led to a real shortage of hotel accommodation. Long story short I’d had a terrible nights sleep and my first job of the day was to pack up and find an alternative hotel. I managed to do this but the idea of taking any photographs that day had gone out the window. I instead spent the day and evening checking out the main bathing ghat which is at the religious heart of Haridwar and where the Aarti is held.
Even though I wasn’t taking any photographs I had my trusty Moleskine© notebook with me and used this to take down notes while I watched the ceremony. It was held on the right bank at the far end as shown in the picture above and I as most other people watched it while sitting on the steps of the bank opposite.
I’ll take a moment here to say that I’ve found a notebook to be one of the most important things you can have with you while you’re away shooting – it’s invaluable. A little tip for India is to keep a photocopy of your Passport and Visa glued into the back pages as this saves you getting out your passport each time you check into a guesthouse (India is a country that requires a lot of personal details for getting anything done).
There are other brands of notebooks on the market but I’ve been a loyal fan of Moleskine© for the last decade or so, they’re great (and if you’re listening Mr Moleskine© feel free to send me some products)
So after spending the day down at the ghat I now had notes of where the sun would be rising for the next morning and I’d discovered that the side of the river where the ceremony was held was a barefoot only zone. After watching the ceremony I knew where I wanted to be sitting to get the best shots of it in progress and also to get my spot early before it filled up with people.
I’ve often found that there are certain tricks that I’ve come to learn while on more orthodox (and shall I say dull) shoots that I’ve been able to incorporate in shoots which are more creatively rewarding. Marking my spot was something I’d always do when photographing conferences as if you arrive late in a room full of sitters and you can’t physically get into the place to obtain those speaker shots you’re going to have one very unhappy client. No matter what you’re photographing you’re always learning…
The following evening I got into place and the ceremony started, towards the end the lamps were lit and the Aarti began. I had a 24-105mm lens on one body for the wide shots and a 70-200mm on a second body with a cropped sensor giving it an effective focal length of 120-300mm. I was most interested in using this to obtain tight shots of the devotees and the image at the start of the post was one of the most successful ones.
At the end of the ceremony the lamps were laid down giving the devotees a chance to receive their blessing from the flame as can be seen above. At the ceremony held in Varanasi this is a relatively orderly affair but in contrast here it seemed to be a real scrum with people clamouring to reach the flames. This looked great and I knew that I wanted to photograph it from this side of the river the following evening.
I’d have to shoot from this vantage point barefoot which left the question what to do with my shoes, I had the choice of either leaving them at the entrance to the ghat on the street (which I didn’t really fancy) or leaving them in a sort of booth where there was a big queue to collect them after the ceremony was over. On the evening I decided to slip them off round the corner and put them into my backpack which I brought with me which worked out fine.
So I get down to the steps and I’m as close as possible to the priests right at the waters edge during the ceremony knowing that the lamps will be lit at the end of the proceedings, it became very crowded with people towards the end but as the lamps were lit I knew it was show time. The steps led right down into the water and below the water line so I rolled up my trousers and carefully (they were slippery) walked down a couple in order to get shots looking slightly back towards the bank itself.
I was right in the thick of it and nobody minded me shooting while it was going on, I think I was more of a source of curiosity than anything else. I’m not sure what the people on the other bank watching must have been thinking seeing this guy shooting while knee deep in the Ganga.
After a pause at the end of the prayers the lamps were set down and the devotees surged towards them, the shot below was taken with the camera held high up at arms length and you can see the crowds. I wedged my way in and got prepared to try and get a clean shot.
Sometimes when shooting in a scrum while walking backwards barefoot on slippery steps you need a bit of luck, luckily I got some and got this nice clean shot of the devotees hands reaching out and prayers being given. Really happy with this shot – made all the planning worth it
Another part of the ceremony was for the devotees to be offered holy milk as they passed – as can be seen with this Sadhu (holy man). While I am not a religious person myself I do find the religious practices in India fascinating. What strikes me is just how accessible and open they are, there is none of the austere attitude which I find in Western religious practices.
I always try to be sensitive to the feelings of others when I take photographs and the last thing I would ever want to do is cause offence or upset at the presence of myself and my camera, but in India I’ve never found this to even remotely be an issue. I look at these pictures and can hardly believe that I’ve been lucky enough to both be present, and what’s more photograph, without issue one of the most holy and religious practices in India.