When I decided to return this year to India, I did so with the city of Varanasi in mind. Yes, it’s as manic and overbearing as any Indian city, an unbridled mess that is one, if not the dirtiest city in India (and it has some pretty steep competition). All that said, to get the chance to wield a camera there one more time was reason enough for a return to India for me.
– Mark Twain commenting on Varanasi
Varanasi, the Hindu holy city by the sacred myth-laden River Ganges, is the centre of the Hindu world (it was said to have been founded by the Hindu God Shiva) and one of the oldest cities on earth, having a religious history stretching back to the 6th century BC. It’s also a unique, world-class people-watching destination. The everyday activity on the ghats lining the river – people bathing, washing clothes, doing yoga, offering blessings, selling flowers, getting a haircut or a shave, a massage, playing cricket or just hanging out – is traditional India at its most vibrant, colourful & picturesque. Photo opportunities abound. And then some.
India, a country of 1.3 billion people, 82% of which are Hindus, has thousands of Hindu holy sites. Seven, a number with special significance in Hinduism, of these are sacred cities, major pilgrimage centres, with Varanasi the most revered of the lot – it’s the chosen final pilgrimage destination for the very sick or elderly as it is said dying in this sacred city releases a person from the Hindu cycle of rebirth. Pilgrims come here to bathe in the Ganges, regarded by them as amrita, the elixir of life, believing that by doing so will bring purity to the living (cleansing of the soul) and salvation to the dead.
Whether it does indeed cleanse their souls or not, I doubt it cleanses much else. Thirty large sewers in the Varanasi area alone are continually discharging into the river & its water is so polluted that it’s certified septic, meaning no dissolved oxygen exists. It’s a cesspit of nastiness and to see people washing and swimming in it, all in the name of religion, makes me, a nice, clean, freshwater-advocating soul, shudder.
The above picture is an early morning picture of activity at Dashaswamedh Ghat, one of about 80 bathing or cremation ghats that line the 7 kilometre western bank of the Ganges River. Spiritual life in Varanasi has always revolved around the city ghats, & the riverbank is built high with 18th & 19th century pavilions, terraces and palaces, all lined with a chain of ghats leading down to the water. Each ghat has an associated place of worship (a nearby temple for example) where the devotees come to pray, before dunking themselves in the river. Spiritual life in Varanasi has always revolved around the ghats, used for centuries in India primarily for worship but also for bathing and washing clothes.
In a city that looks and feels (and is) as old as Varanasi, it’s hard to believe there is actually an Old City. But there is. It’s a disorientating labyrinth of atmospheric & narrow – too narrow for vehicular traffic – lanes leading away from the ghats at the rivers edge. The Old City is actually only a few hundred years old but because of all the claustrophobia, noise, dust & mayhem it looks, feels & smells much, much older. It’s a great place to get lost (doing so is virtually guaranteed) and an even better place to bring a camera.
Third Time’s a Charm
On my last, second visit to Varanasi, a three-day stint in March 2008, I captured some of my very favourite travel pictures. That visit still remains one of my fondest photographic experiences. This time, & with having such high expectations upon my return, I was a little disappointed photographically with Varanasi (maybe I should have left well enough alone). While I got quite a few images I liked this time around I just didn’t find the overall Varanasi photography experience as satisfying as I remember it being. The city, as manic and overbearing as any Indian city, wasn’t as bustling. It wasn’t as colourful. It wasn’t as vibrant. It wasn’t as (insert suitable adjective here). In a nutshell I didn’t find it as photogenic. And it wasn’t for the want of trying. I was down by the river for sunrise two mornings in a row, was also there well after nightfall & in-between I wandered the maze of ramshackle, atmospheric lanes in the Old City. Upon reflection I did capture quite a few images I liked but at the time of capture I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed. Silly really.