The more you travel, the bigger the world gets.
Its 25 years since I was last in Varanasi – one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities. My previous visits have always haunted me, and made me want to return.
Even as far back as 1897, Mark Twain remarked that Varanasi “is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
Travelling across India between education fairs in Chandigarh and Kolkata, I returned to Varanasi for a one night stay. I would have loved to stay longer, but when one night is all you have, the decision is whether you choose not to use it, or cram in as much exploring as possible. Varanasi is all about the Old City, an extended section of the city that hugs the banks of the sacred River Ganges and teems with humanity, with everyone seemingly on a pilgrimage to pray, perish or peddle, not necessarily in that order. For that reason, I chose a hotel right in the heart of the Old City, overlooking the river bank.
Thankfully the Old City has barely changed in the last quarter century. It’s still one of the most fascinating places I have ever visited.
The best time to view Varanasi is always at dawn, when the city is just waking. Normally you would hire a boatman to row you slowly up the Ganges river, viewing the many piers, jetties known as ghats. Unfortunately the river had recently experienced a 20 year flood, and was many metres above its normal level.
Lower ghats and riverside promenades were still covered by the river. Normally the area where these boats are moored would be a stone promenade well above the usual waterline.
The police had banned the majority of boats from the river unless you were willing to pay them a bribe. Most boats were tied up, but some hardy pilgrims still convinced boatmen to take them between bathing ghats, often in dangerously overcrowded boats. Needless to say none of the passengers in this boat can probably swim.
This meant I had to explore the Old City at dawn – which gave me an entirely different perspective to the one I would have gained from the deck of a slow rowboat.
The Old City of Varanasi has almost no roads. It is characterised by a vast and infinitely confusing labyrinth of narrow pedestrian lanes known as “gallis” that have been added onto and built over for hundreds, even thousands of years in some areas. These miles of tight tunnels and alleys branch off in every direction – just wide enough for a person, an impatient hoon on a motorbike, or a cow with treacherously wide horns. The whole tapestry of Indian life plays out in these narrow lanes.
Corner tea shops selling masala chai – milk tea spiced with cardamom – are the anchor of every neighbourhood in the morning. Indian men gather to drink, read, and plan their day.
Walking through the back lanes from ghat to ghat meant that I was invited into a number of the old buildings that overlook the river, where inevitably locals were either taking in the beautiful vistas themselves, preparing to bathe, or playing with children.
Varanasi has a history of more than 4000 years of continuous settlement, and a great deal of the riverside buildings are many centuries old.
Cricket is practised almost religiously in India, and in the courtyard of a haveli overlooking the river I found a father tossing a ball to his young toddler son. The child was barely able to lift the cricket bat, but already possessed a keen swing every time his dad tossed the ball.
Descending down a tunnel to the Ram Ghat, I passed a man proudly carrying a pail of river water back to his family. Hindus hold the River Ganga at Varanasi in such regard that they believe that even the sight of the river absolves sin.
Hindus believe that bathing in the river at Varanasi bestows holy blessings and elevates their status when they are subsequently reincarnated. For pilgrims to the city, there is a specific order of locations that they must bathe for the greatest benefit.
Women in particular are masters of a particularly involved ritual that enables them to bathe in one set of clothes, and then dry off and change into dry clothes without ever exposing their bodies.
This pilgrim was just chilling in the sun after a morning bathe, brushing his teeth with his fingers and small twigs specifically trimmed for the purpose. I couldn’t work out whether the cow was his or not. He seemed more humourously intrigued by my attention than anything else.
Scindhia Ghat is popular with locals in the morning, and provides a view upriver, of some of the unbroken line of more than 100 piers, steps and river promenades known as “ghats.” Scindhia Ghat is notable for the submerged Shiva temple that almost entirely sunk in the mud soon after it was built in 1830.
Also taking in the morning sun at Scindhia were some of the many wandering holy men known as “sadhus” that are common throughout Varanasi. These guys were getting a buzz with a chillum (stone pipe) of marijuana before meditating for the day.
Back up in the narrow lanes of the Old City, traders were opening up and morning markets swinging into life. In particular, Varanasi is a major Indian centre for silk weaving, and there are many, many silk, saree and brocade traders.
I couldn’t figure out what this guy was selling…
One narrow alley held a very long queue of young women, waiting for the chance to pray and make offerings at a neighbourhood shrine specifically for those hoping for a marriage and healthy babies.
Sadly India has been given the dubious rank of one of the countries in the world with the poorest legacy of human rights for women, so they possibly have plenty to pray for.
The combination of the red dot on the forehead of this woman, combined with the large number of bangles and heavily henna’d hands indicate that this woman might have got married very recently, so she could be giving thanks, or may be praying for a pregnancy.
Varanasi has more “holy cows” than any other Indian city I have ever visited. Cattle are considered a totem of the God Shiva, represented by a bull. The cows in Varanasi tend to be very placid (thankfully, given the narrow lanes they share with everyday pedestrians) and are both tolerated and revered. I wonder if they are considered reincarnations of pilgrims. They pretty much eat everything, particularly newspaper and household garbage.
One of the most unexpected sights was of a cow curled up tightly in the entrance to a house, almost like a guard-dog. A man bent to pray at the sight as he walked past.
One of the areas of the Old City at Varanasi that inevitably leaves the most indelible images for westerners is Manikarnika Ghat – the riverside “Burning Ghat” where human cremations have taken place 24/7 for hundreds, even thousands of years.
I downloaded this particular photograph off the web. It wasn’t taken by me, as I was unable to go out on a boat, but it is what Manikarnika would look like when the river wasn’t in flood. It does put the following photographs (which were taken by me) in perspective however.
The fires never go out at Manikarnika. Cremation at Manikarnika is the holiest event that can take place on the Ganges. To be cremated here means direct elevation directly to heaven, without any further reincarnation. Families pay large amounts for cremation here – even more if they use sandalwood on the funeral pyres. Not surprisingly, it is forbidden to take photographs of the cremations themselves, so I focused on the firewood merchants themselves.
The wood for the funeral pyres at Manikarnika Ghat comes in a continual stream from downriver, some of it being trucked hundreds of kilometres, then delivered to the ghat by barge. Normally the cremation pyres are built along the riverbank, pretty much right where these boats are now – however with the river in flood, the cremations have temporarily been moved up onto higher terraces near the yellow flag you can see in the background.
The wood merchants are extremely fit, strapping guys who carry huge loads up to the wood piles for selling to families for the cremations.
Wood is sold by the kilo. The most commonly burned wood is banyan. The pyre for the average cremation takes 150-200kg of firewood, all up costing between 500-1000 Rupees. Sandalwood is by far the most expensive wood fetching huge prices, however wealthy families like to add a few kilos to the cremation pyre, as it lends a particularly nice smell to the smoke. In case you are wondering, there is no discernable odour at the cremations apart from the smell of wood smoke. Hindu devotees believe that it is the will of the gods that there is no offensive smell associated with the human cremations at Manikarnika
While I am out with my camera, photographing the images that captivate me, I also have an audience, particularly from windows along the alleyways, quietly alert to everything that happens in their neighbourhood.