Varanasi: the Eternal City

April 17, 2008

Varanasi is one of the holiest and most ancient cities in India. The Ganga (Ganges) which flows along the Eastern edge is sacred to most of India, especially to those who live along its banks.  It is, of course, a popular destination for pilgrims who come to bathe in the river and have the sins of a life time washed away. I’ve heard it only takes one dip to wash you ‘clean’ but I noticed a number of people take repeated swims– you can never be too sure.

The first several days of my stay were quite foggy. Some days the fog never lifted.

Most boats on this section of the river are kept ready for pilgrims and tourists.  Guides will take groups and individuals on a tour of the ghats which are the stone steps that descend from each of the temples perched above the river.  When the fog limits the view, the boats and their oarsmen get a break.

After several days the fog cleared which allowed for pictures more in keeping with the genre that is Varanasi: boldly colored temples and a profusion of tourists and pilgrims.

Every morning I was out on the ghats watching the sun rise over the river. Most mornings, it was spectacular. Not in an overwhelming arrival with fanfare, but with a delicateness more in keeping with the mystery of the city:

Many Indians come to Varanasi to spend the rest of their lives along the banks praying, begging, and waiting to die.  It’s an auspicious city to live in but also to die in.  A select few ghats are known as ‘Burning Ghats’ where the deceased are cremated next to the river.  Several hundred cremations happen every day and the ashes are sifted into the river.  It’s considered bad form to photograph cremations in progress (understandably) but I did catch this shot of one of the smaller burning ghats after a busy night.

The men to the right are carrying ashes to the river which you can see making a gentle dark swath toward the foreground.  In true India fashion, each basket of ashes is sifted carefully and swirled in the water.  They’re panning for gold (gold teeth, earrings, etc.)

In the next India post I’ll share images from a trip out on the river with a fisherman and his daughter.

Finally, a bit of administrivia:  I’ll be out of the studio from April 18th to the 22nd.  I’ll be in regular email contact during that time.