India – VaranasiBack to Story

India's sacred city on the Ganges River.

Varanasi is a place that is definitely India in the deep end and the part of the trip I found, personally, the most challenging.  This is India’s oldest continuously inhabited city and wrestles with Damascus as one of the world’s oldest.  It is not monuments and ancient ruins that make this city a memorable destination but the customs and way of life, which have remained unchanged that stand out.

From the moment you step off the plane to the chaos of collecting your luggage you know you’re in for a ride.  I have never seen so many people crowded around a short runway of a conveyor belt all jostling their trolleys for position.  I saw the chances of our luggage arriving out safely as being very slim.  This was the first time I realised the incredible value DV (our guide) provided as we all safely jump on our bus with relative ease.

Karl is making sure we all have our cameras set for success, but your eyes can’t help but be drawn to the madness outside.  For example: the contrast between a small shop with only a kerosene lamp for light in the foreground and a warehouse in the background draped with lights to celebrate Diwali.

The hotel we are staying at, we have been warned, has been chosen based on location and not comfort. It is on the banks of the river and right in the heart of everything.  Access is by boat which we load everything into.  The air is thick with smoke and the water is filthy.

We soon find ourselves within easy range of the main burning Ghat. Here the fires burn 24 x 7, which are basically giant bonfires burning the dead so their ashes can return to the Ganges River.  Flames lick the sky and the air is thick with smoke and you can’t help but think of the bodies on the fires in front of you.

This is considered most sacred in Hinduism as it guarantees a good path into the next life.  Bodies line the steps waiting for their turn.  Family members wash the bodies in the river in preparation for the ritual while the limited number of family members who are permitted to participate look on. Sacred cows watch curiously from their key seats or wander past.  It is a reminder of how different the Hindu culture view the cycle of life in comparison to the western society that I was raised in.

It was with this sensory overload that we climb the four odd stories to our rooms to digest and make sense of what we’d seen.  The rooms offered little comfort and I found myself watching the ceiling fan wobbling like the head of an Indian man. The group stayed at the Rashmi Guest House, which was a simple but well positioned hotel. If you require some creature comforts in Varanasi try the Nadesar Palace Hotel as an option.

At dawn we take to the water again to watch the morning cleansing and prayer rituals just metres from the Ghat we’d visited the night before.  All ages come down every morning to bathe, pray, wash clothes and share the process of getting dressed. The sacred water is also bottled to be taken home to drink as well.  The morning light throws a golden glow as we watch the city wake up. It is one of the most beautiful things to witness and share.

The next day we walk and join the locals on the banks and I have my first experience of the warmth the women have.  As a foreigner and photographer I couldn’t be more of an obvious stand out.  After some shared quiet assessment of each other I am asked to join a group of ladies as they pray together, light candles and do each others hair for the day.  It is such an amazingly intimate experience which we all shared, and not a word spoken between us.

 

 

Photographs of Varanasi on the river and in the town. Images of the evening prayers in Varanasi and Diwali prayers

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