Part II – Varanasi
When we told our Indian colleagues we were going to Varanasi, they all gave the same response “Why on earth do you want to go to that place? It is crowded, stinky and filthy, definitely not worth spending 2 days. We don’t know why so many foreign hippie tourists end up there.” Well, we are by no means hippie, but we did end up there, and did stay for 2 days and surprisingly did enjoy the experience very much. It was much emptier and cleaner than we expected, probably because most people, locals and tourists alike, flocked to Southern India for their Xmas beach parties instead of visiting a haunting place like Varanasi during those festive but freezing Dec days.
Varanasi is known as the city of ‘learning and burning’, and it is the latter that has captivated the hearts of millions of tourists. The city is probably one of a few places on earth where you can see those intimate rituals of life and death and those fine crossings between the physical and spiritual worlds taking place right in front of your eyes every single day. It is considered auspicious for Hindus to die in Varanasi, to be dipped into Ganges’ water then cremated, and have the ashes swept away by the holy river. It is no wonder that they have a few hospices for terminally ill people in Varanasi, who wait to pass away peacefully and achieve moksha (liberation from reincarnation cycles). Strangely, onlookers like me also find peace looking at long bamboo stretchers carrying dead bodies wrapped in yellow fabric through the streets to the burning ghats, at the quiet cleansing ceremony, at the flame eating away the fabric, revealing the arms, the legs, the head, and then engulfing the whole body and burning it down to ashes, at dogs digging and fighting over something that looks like bones. It is haunting and disturbing for sure, but somehow the still atmosphere surrounding the scene, the dignity with which relatives carry out this religious tradition for their loved ones, and the whole overwhelming ancient feel just calm us down, and absorb our fear.
Apart from the two burning ghats, the rest are bathing ghats. It is here that you see life in a new light. Here everything gathers by the river – men, women, children, cows, buffaloes, dogs, monkeys, chicken, goats, sheep, cobras, pigeons, boats, rags, dung, urine, foods, flowers; and everything happens by the river – bathing, washing, praying, pissing, shitting, cooking, drinking, playing, gaming, selling, even sleeping. It is baffling that the same stretch of river is used for both the living and the dead, human and animals, consumption and waste. I can’t recall how many times I walked along the Ganges, wandering from one ghat to another, marveling at this primitive way of life, and wishing that I had a better camera with a larger zoom so that I could take photos of people without intruding their private space. Varanasi is a heaven on earth for portrait photographers, unfortunately I am not one of them, so here are just some quick glances into the holy city of Shiva.
You cannot visit Varanasi without taking a boat tour. In winter, the city is still wrapped in a blanket of fog early in the morning, making it even more mysterious. Gradually, as you row down the river, the fog thins out, the sky lightens and life unfolds itself before your eyes.
There are many beautiful ruined palaces lining the ghats along the Ganges. They are now left abandoned, desolate, and falling into decay. Just imagine if they could be turned into fabulous boutique hotels or lively museums and art galleries…
No matter how hot or cold, many people come to the bathing ghats (a series of steps leading to the water) early in the morning to do their daily rituals: washing themselves, praying, getting some holy water for blessing their houses, their foods, etc.
We also bought some flowers and candles as offerings. All those bowls are made from leaves. Another great eco-friendly product ‘made in India’.
As the city of Shiva – Lord of errect Phallus, Varanasi is full of Linga-Yoni artifacts.
A popular ritual in India is for people to tie threads of white, red and yellow silk around a peepal tree to pray for progeny or to wish for a desired thing. Another myth associated with this ritual is that on certain days of the year, Hindu women fast and pray for their husband’s long life. Then they will walk 108 times around a peepal tree, tie an unbroken length of cotton thread around its trunk, and recite prayers as they walk. The peepal tree represents the tree of life. The cotton thread represents the fragile nature of life, love, trust, faith, etc. By winding it around the tree multiple times, you make the thread stronger, and so is your wish.
There are lots of sadhus (holy men) in India in general, and in Varanasi in particular. Those ascetic wandering monks renounce the material life to live in caves, forests, and temples. They live on donation and practice meditation in order to achieve moksha (liberation). Sadhus are respected for their holiness, but also feared for their curses, hence I did not dare to get to close to them, or to take front-face photos of them.
Another ubiquitous feature of Varanasi is its huge parasols. Traditionally made of bamboo and called ‘Chhatris’, they line up along the ghats and are used to shelter pundits and sages on the bank of Ganges.
I was fascinated to see how people did their laundry in Varanasi. A quick wash in the river, some bangs against a rock or with a baton, some more washes in the river, some twists and turns and a quick toss into a big pile on the dirty bank. The washed clothes were then hung up on ropes, along the walls, on balconies, or spread out on rocks, even directly on the roads. But I was totally flabbergasted when I saw people washing clothes right next to the burning ghats, where the corpses were dipped into the river for blessing, and where the ashes were washed away. We just prayed that our sheets and blankets at the hotel were not washed there, ever.
It was cold and there were lots of people sitting around, doing nothing but trying to warm themselves up over open fire. Even dogs, chicken, and baby goats tried to get some warmth from the ashes.
This man was using his sandals to scoop up cow dung
The cow dung was then shaped into small patties and thoroughly dried to be used later as fuels.
Ironically, even the two dogs in our hotel have their own warm coats
A man feeding pigeons by the river
A chai tea seller in his hole-in-the-wall shop
An old man outside a temple
The priest was chanting some prayers while instructing this man how to put small rice balls on specific points on the mat.
A flower vendor
A food vendor
I am not quite sure what they were doing here
These plastic cans are for taking water from the Ganges
A boat in the making
A cute little boy
One of many small alleyways in the Old Town
A sweet shop in the Old Town. Most of the alleyways here are so small and crowded, it is hard to take photos.
When in Varanasi, I took lots of photos without looking into the viewfinder. There were so many private rituals and ceremonies going on, I was afraid I might invade their privacy by a simple act of raising my camera. Not surprisingly, many photos came out blurry or with parts of the bodies cut off. This is one of them (I already cut out a big empty space on the left).
And when night fell, the city was wrapped in another blanket of fog again. We were late for the ganga aarti ceremony at Dasaswamedh Ghat and only caught a glimpse of its final moments. People lined up to pray, cupped their hands over the flames of those Aarti lamps, and then raised their palms to their forehead. Before that, priests had already circulated the plates around a deity and sang praises of that deity. The blessings were therefore passed from the deity to the flame and then to the devotees.