VARANASI ( Also known as BENARAS or KASHI ) is the oldest living city in the world with a known history of over 3000 years. Mark Twain once wrote, “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” This historic city existed even when Sri Budha was a young boy.
Varanasi belongs to the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, situated by the west bank of holy Ganga River. The revered and ancient city Varanasi is the religious centre of the world of Hindus, Budhists, Jains & Sikhs. Even after several centuries of destruction by Mughals & other invaders, this city still stands, where the past & present, eternity & continuity, philosophy & wisdom co-exist. To Hindus, Kashi is as holy as Mecca to Muslims & Jerusalem to Christians.
There is a common belief that you need to get an invitation from the God to visit Varanasi. I feel this has some significance in real life too. Though I used to procrastinate a lot, the trip got materialized unexpectedly, when I was not really prepared for it.
One of the main attractions in Varanasi must be its street life, and it is perhaps a dreamland and training ground for every photographer. In this series, I have tried to capture the spiritual moments and street life of Varanasi without losing the charm.
The main characteristics of Varansi are the ‘Galis’ and ‘Ghats’. Gali means narrow passage or alley that takes you around the old city. There are too many twists & turns in the narrow Galis and you could easily get lost the first time you land here. Keep a watch of some land-marks or you may never find your way back to the hotel. Galis are the main happening places in Varanasi and every nook and corner of the Gali is a photographer’s delight. Remember that the cow is considered a holy animal in India and they literally rule these galis. Though most of the cows, bulls and goats are harmless and interested only in a bite of garbage, there are some really mischievous monkeys who could cause some serious damage to your belongings. Remember, these streets are extremely dirty and unhygienic . Come here only if you are ready to accept it the way it is.
At several places in the Galis, there are steps leading to the banks of Ganga river which are known as Ghats. A Ghat is where people take bath in Ganga river, perform religious rituals, take a boat ride or burn dead bodies. There are 87 ghats in Varanasi, the main ones being : Assi Ghat, Tulsi Ghat, Dashashwamedh Ghat, Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat . Out of these, Dashashwamedh Ghat is the most spectacular one where the religious rituals are being performed by thousands of pilgrims every day. Kashi Vishwanath Temple is situated close to Dashashwamedh Ghat. One should not miss the Ganga Aarti (river worship) performed here every morning and evening. Believers usually go into a state of spiritual ecstasy while watching this colourful ceremony.
Beware of those extorting sadhus, touts and locals while photographing the street life at Varanasi. One fine morning, when I was shooting the sunrise, a Sadhu came charging towards me and started shouting at me. Usually a few bucks could cool them down.
I was also threatened by a few locals at the Manikarnika Ghat (a Cremation place) while photographing the cremation ritual. Be careful while dealing with such aggressive locals or you could land in serious trouble.
But, believe me, most of the local people I met were really smart and talented. Many of them used to speak several languages and very helpful as well.
The river is lively from dawn to dusk . You can hire a rowing boat and go for a one hour ride from Dashashwamedh Ghat to Harishchandra Ghat and back. Early in the morning when the sun rises, it is really interesting to watch the colourful ghats and the pilgrims indulged in their daily bath and other religious rituals. Hundreds of seagulls accompany you during the boat ride and if interested, you may please feed them. It is interesting to see the way they respond to the calls of the boatmen . During the ride, you could also buy some floating lamps (diya) and adrift them in the river as an offering. In the evening at 7:00PM, you get a chance to watch the Ganga Aarti (worship) at Dashashwamedh Ghat from the boat. One hour boat ride could cost you between 250 to 300 Rupees.
WATER, one of the five elements of nature ( PANCHA BHOOTA ) is represented by a circle which symbolises fullness. Water is primarily the building block of life and for Hindus, water has been an object of worship from time immemorial. Though heavily polluted and contaminated, a day at the banks of Ganga begins with the worship of water .
Manikarnika & Harishchandra Ghats are Hindu funeral places where dead bodies are being burned throughout the day and night. You are allowed to watch the ritual silently , but photography is strictly prohibited .
The atmosphere is filled with smoke, soot & ash from the funeral pyres and some people may feel uncomfortable here. Piles of firewood lie all around these ghats and relatives of the dead could be found bargaining for different types of wood . Rich people can afford costly types like sandalwood . Requirement of firewood is calculated and sold on the basis of weight. Sometimes if the wood is not sufficient to burn the corpse completely, they may dump the half-burnt body into the river.
Ganga river is extremely polluted as tons of sewage and industrial waste are being dumped in to the river every day. It seems the levels of Coliform bacteria is over 2800 times the level considered safe by W.H.O. Somehow, in the name of devotion & faith, people still take bath and consume the water from Ganga at Varanasi.
There are more than 800 temples in and around Varanasi. Kashi Viswanath temple is the most prominent one among all. Cameras and other electronic gadgets are not allowed inside the temple . We hired a cycle rickshaw and visited the other important temples as well. Birla Vishwanath Mandir or New Kashi Vishwanath temple was located inside Benaras Hindu University (BHU) campus. On the way, we also visited Sri Durga Devi Mandir or The Monkey Temple. Tulsi Manas Temple is a famous temple located near the Durga temple. Sankat Mochan Temple is dedicated to Lord Hanuman. Sarnath, situated 10 Km away is a must-visit place for the visitors of Varanasi. Please go through my blog on Sarnath here >
FROZEN MOMENTS FROM THE STREETS OF VARANASI
“HOLY COW” : Though the cows of varanasi are usually harmless and peace-loving, a little encounter could happen occasionally in those narrow streets. I was shocked to hear a big ‘bang’ sound and i saw the man giving a hard slap on her left cheek . The poor cow did not make any sound and sneaked into the alley searching for her favorite snack in the garbage bin.
“SORROWS OF A LITTLE GIRL” :
The little girl was selling diyas (floating lamps) at the ghats and an old lady was shouting at her for encroaching into her territory.
The horrified face of that little girl was really touching and it reminded me of that famous Hindi song “Diye jalte hai, phool khilte hai” (“दिये जलते हैं, फुल खिलते हैं, बड़ी मुश्किल से मगर…” ), which literally means “lamps glow, flowers bloom, but it is hard to find real friends in this world… “
One of my most favourite captures from this trip.
A day at Varanasi starts and ends with the worship of River Ganga. Water, one of the five elements of nature is the building block of life and it has been an object of worship from time immemorial. While watching the Ganga Aarti, I was amused by the formation of incense smoke turning into rain clouds which has its duty to pour down, replenish the land below to complete the water cycle. What else should be worshiped in this world ?!
Manikarnika ghat at Varanasi. Hindu funeral place by the banks of Ganga river, where dead bodies are being burned throughout the day and night. Look at each element in this frame. A body burns in the pyre while another one waits for its turn. Piles of firewood turn to heaps of ash every hour. A priest waits to collect the human remains in an earthen pot. A cow and a goat stick around to chew the flowers that adorned the body. A black buffalo, the vehicle of lord Yama (God of death) watches silently. Heat waves from the burning body blurs the lively backdrop. It sends a shiver down your spine.
I have seen the past, present and eternity co-existing in this marvelous city.
A mysterious place stuck between life and death…; where you learn that death is so simple compared to this complicated life.
It is time to get back home and continue the journey of a silly mortal…