Varanasi is a place which is unapologetic in showing all aspects of life. From birth and death to the divine and the repellant, it’s all here on display. Here’s a day in the life of this most revered and holy city
The sun rises on another day, The ghats and temples line only one side of the banks of the Ganges and it’s this side of the river which gets the morning light
As soon as the sun rises the river stirs into life. The flow of the water laps at last nights offerings, people take their morning dip and give their blessings to the river which is known to Hindus as ‘Mother’ Ganga. Aside from the ritual dips people also wash themselves, their clothing and pots and pans.
Fishing nets are mended and the hulls of boats patched up and the ever optimistic dredging for Rupees via the use of magnets continues.
Along the river there are two ghats which are referred to as the burning ghats. It is here that bodies are brought to be cremated as it is believed that having ones ashes put into this river will break the cycle or reincarnation.
Here is a shot of the smaller of the two cremation ghats at sunrise. I’d like to point out that no remains were being burnt at the time, in the maintenance of these places any left over material is burnt and the ashes swept through in case of any jewellery (which was left on the body) being found.
In the mornings (when no cremations are taking place) it has a fairly relaxed atmosphere. Many dogs and goats congregate at the smaller of the two burning ghats and if you get bored you could always try slapping one on the head to get it to rear up at you as this chap did.
Now photographing these places is a rather tricky one. Photography is not tolerated (as you will no doubt be told) on the basis of religious grounds, but as you will also be told (especially at the main burning ghat) you can take photographs if you pay.
The going rate I’ve heard of is 10,000 Rupees (roughly 120 Euros) which will essentially buy you protection to take photographs or video without getting beaten – which I’ve no doubt would happen if you tried unannounced.
Certainly I’d imagine that some of this money may go to the families of the deceased for the inconvenience but my instincts tell me that most of it would be pocketed by theses gangsters.
During my visit last year when I was filming a day in the life along the river I did enquire about the possibility of filming here (as it was relevant to the project) but after getting the gist of how it operated I decided that it was a racket that I wanted no part in, I don’t want to offend people by the presence of my camera now matter how important I may feel it to be to a project and I certainly don’t want to line the pockets of unscrupulous characters.
During my first visit to India while in Pushkar (who’s lake is a also a major pilgrimage site) I was told by a man that I couldn’t take photographs of an area on religious grounds, which is fine. But in the same breath he then told me that I could if I paid, which to me is not fine at all – and I told him just that.
While not a follower of any organised faith I have respect for religious worship and I do have a big problem with this being overruled by the worship of money (which is said to be at the route of all evil). Indeed in pilgrimage sites such as Varanasi it can not be immediately obvious to tell where the market ends and the church begins but my principles are that if you’re going to have a rule held up on religious grounds it shouldn’t then be open to being sold out for a certain price.
Behind the main burning ghat great piles of wood are stocked up for use in the funeral pyres. The wood is purchased by the families of the deceased along with spices and ghee which are used as part of the cremation ritual. I do have plans to try and focus on this side of the ritual but even well out of sight of the cremation area I’ve been getting a lot of side long glances and the atmosphere is a tense one so I’ll have to see how this pans out.
I’m currently here in Varanasi a bit later in the year than on previous visits and I’ve noticed that the level of the Ganges is a fair bit higher, the sunlight is a bit harsher and most noticeably it’s a lot hotter.
In the afternoons most things seem to grind to a halt with the locals and wildlife searching out the shade for a nap.
The water buffalo seem to have the right idea, although persuading them to eventually leave the cooling water does seem to be a bit of a task.
The narrow passages of the streets up from the river provide a welcome break from the strong sunlight and are very photogenic. Just be careful where you tread, as I mentioned Varanasi is a place that embraces all aspects of life – filth being one of them.
It can be quite easy to get lost in these streets, so much so that most hotels and restaurants have hand painted signs directing you to their locations. While taking a break this kid presented himself infront of the camera and was a natural.
I’d read that a young band called the Beatles were signed by the label Parlophone (after being turned down by EMI) because in the meeting with the record label the exec said he liked the way they stood there, he hadn’t even heard their music, just liked their style.
If that’s the case this kid should be going double platinum very soon….
Then a few more of the neighbourhood kids turned up and wanted their pictures taken, here is one of them displaying the classic ‘upright’ pose that most Indians adopt when you point a camera at them. Just chat to them a bit to get them to loosen up that backbone.
Then it turned into a bit of an impromptu camera skills workshop with them all wanting to have a go at taking pictures themselves, heres the effort of the laddie in the picture above – not a bad effort, shows promise this one
Then his bossy mate in the scarf butted in and wanted a go, a bit hit and miss but the third image capturing the daily scene of sweeping within the portrait is commendable. Laddie number one is giving the punk salute showing anarchy is alive and well in Varanasi – thank goodness
Then we have this startling and highly unorthodox composition, I’m not quite sure if doesn’t work or if he’s onto something – maybe one to watch for the future
Then laddie number three who couldn’t contain his impatience any longer finally got a go, I think all the build up and anticipation had got to him and he was firing shots all over the place.
Then it began to descend into squabbles with the heavy camera being passed between wee hands and I had visions of broken lens glass, playtime was over.
In summary laddie one showed the greatest consistency, laddie two did show flair and some real touches of individuality and laddie three unfortunately I think your future lies in fishing or another such vocational trade. Good effort all round though.
Varanasi is place that offers lots of photographic opportunities. It is unfortunate that with the city being invaded by groups of photographers on organised trips such as the image below (there are at least x5 70-200mm 2.8′s being sported here, probably the mark II’s) having your photographs taken has become a trade for some areas of the local population.
You might have noticed that I do not have any pictures of the many Babas or Sadhus (a Western comparison would be a wandering monk) that can be found here. The reason I don’t have pictures is that the real Babas will certainly not want their photo taken (which I perfectly understand) while the rest of them will actively encourage you to take their photo as long as you pay them. I don’t really want any part of this, I don’t want fake images.
You could always take the pictures if you want, such as of this snake charmer below, just be prepared to pay – it’s up to you. NB. You’ll notice that the snake charmer keeps his money under the cobras, most sensible place really.
While walking back to the guest house I came across a set that was being used for the filming of a Bollywood movie at the rivers edge. The crew had assembled a rig containing lots of hanging fabric and here is a shot of a couple of the actresses or extras in between takes.
I was getting the eyeball from one of the crew who was sitting in the most comfortable chair in the most shady spot (probably the producer) but no one really seemed to mind. I’ve shot on film sets before and as long as you don’t trip over and unplug any cables or make noise during a take no one will pay much attention to you.
Here’s a tighter shot of the two women at rest. A totally artificial image showing two actors on a film set, who’s to know? It can be our little secret….
As darkness falls the candles are once again lit for the nightly Puja ceremony. Prayers are offered and blessings are given to the river as they always have and probably always will be.
The day in Varanasi draws to end and the city sleeps in preparation for doing all again tomorrow as the sun rises on another day.