Dirt, shit, dust, noise, and smoke. That was my expectation of Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in the world. I wasn’t disappointed. There is, though, more to Varanasi than just that. You just need patience and an open mind to find it. As a result it’s a difficult place to sum up in words…or pictures.
Varanasi feels like a broken machine that still works but not in the way that it was originally designed to. The kind of machine where the broken parts have been cobbled together with string and chewing gum to keep it functioning, and every so often you have to give it a kick to get it going. Take, for example, the traffic in the centre of Varanasi. It’s crazy, uncontrolled, and uncompromising; much more about sheer persistence than power or speed.
For me, and I dare say for others too, this translated into the accommodation being worse than expected (and advertised), the food being hit and miss depending on the restaurant or even the time of day, and never really knowing if someone is truly telling you the truth whenever things involved money. But then this could be true of many places in India.
At the end of December Varanasi, like Delhi, is cold. The sun rises illuminating the smog which hangs in the city many mornings in winter. The locals emerge wrapped in a jumbled combination of coats, jumpers, scarves, and any other warm clothes they can find. While many of the pilgrims take their first Ganges dip of the day seemingly unaffected by the cold. Needless to say there aren’t many tourists at this time of the year, Varanasi isn’t exactly a Christmas destination. A walk along the ghats that run parallel to the river Ganges means that every few steps you get approached by boatmen asking if you want to take a boat ride. On the south side of the city generally, a polite ‘no thank you’ is fine and they move on, but the closer you get to the main ghat, the more persistent the boatmen, souvenir sellers, beggars, etc get. At the main ghat the hustle is more aggressive, more persistent and more annoying. Even the guys that do massages have learned tricks. With tourists they get you to shake their hand as a friendly greeting, and once they have your hand they try to pull you along to their massage area while relentlessly trying to sell you a 5 minute massage.
The main ghat is a hive of activity, and here you have to navigate an assault course of cows, dogs, hawkers, boatmen, holy men, massage men, flower/candle sellers, beggars and shit. The shit part is a constant obstacle in Varanasi, and walking in certain places will be an assault on your sense of smell.
Apart from the main ghat, most other riverside activity happens at one of the two burning ghats. The smaller one services about 3-6 bodies at a time, while the bigger one services about 20 at a time. Groups of male family members stand nearby each cremation, taking charge of what needs to be done, women are not allowed there.
Seeing the larger burning ghat, especially in the evening as the sun is going down is quite a hypnotising experience. There is a strange beauty in watching the flames dancing in the evening light. In the glow you can sometimes make out the outlines of the bodies and it makes you wonder about their lives…as well as your own. Once you get this close the smoke gets in your eyes, but on the plus side there is only the smell of wood burning. Hundreds of years of practice have made them experts at disguising the smell of burning flesh. The whole experience is something that you have to see for yourself – out of respect photography is not allowed.
Sometimes, in its own way, Varanasi contradicts itself. Out of all the noise and hustle I was also able to find quiet and tranquillity. I discovered that in the late morning at the ghats in the south people just got on with their lives, and here I experienced my most relaxing moments in Varanasi. Sitting on the steps, simply watching the world go by. The fishermen prepared their boats and nets, the kids played, and the groups of clothes washers washed. With no one asking me for anything or trying to sell me anything, I could just watch Varanasi being itself.
On the final evening we did a boat trip on the river, and it was one of the highlights for me. You get all the peacefulness of the river while being able to step back from all the buildings and activity and be able to truly see and appreciate everything. You eventually feel the more spiritual side of the city and the river. The Ganges has to cope with a relentless onslaught of rubbish, dust, ash, bodies, bones, bodily fluids, etc, but yet while you are drifting along on it it feels like a serene majestic place, and you forget about the craziness everywhere. This part of the river is basically a giant liquid cemetery, while you are on it the river gives you that sense of calm and quiet.
Looking back I had some of my quietest and craziest moments in India in Varanasi, but the thing that will stay with me most is the friendliness of the people I met, even when their intension was to separate me from a few rupees. I was initially worried about walking with my camera in my hand, but far from making me a target it often gave people a reason to engage with me. I chatted with and shot portraits of complete strangers, often at the lowest levels of society. They were happy to get copies of the pictures, while I was happy to capture their smiles and find out a little about their lives. Instead of setting us further apart the camera helped to bring us together and helped me to get a little bit beyond the surface of the place.
Below are a few more images. At the end of the India series there will be a permanent image gallery for India with images not featured in the blog entries. Please feel free to comment on this entry at the bottom of the page.