Varanasi has many faces. For some it is a holy city and a must visit pilgrimage. For some it is a place to experience India’s cultural diversity. Some come here to learn fine arts and a lot many come in search of making a living.
When I announced that Varanasi is one of the places I am planning to visit, many people had questions to ask. My aunts wanted to know if I am going on a pilgrimage, and my mother snubbed them and responded that I am just travelling(him? Pilgrimage? ). My sister-in-law asked me what I am planning to leave behind in Varanasi. Traditionally, a pilgrim to Varanasi leaves behind something very dear to him, indicating a recessive attitude to earthly matters. I told her that this nomadic has no possession but himself to be relieved of. Not true, of course! Varanasi, or Kashi as it was once called, has been a traditional destination of the spiritually inclined and is a must-do pilgrimage for the devout Hindu. My father insisted that I visit the Kashi Vishwanath temple, and called up every day I was there, to make sure I did. I was there at the night of Maha Shivaratri, a festival dedicated to the lord of Kashi. He wanted me to visit the temple then, but I was deterred by the crowd of thousands who would like to be at the temple on the auspicious night, and preferred to postpone my visit. Pilgrims to Kashi have many things to do beyond the visit to Vishwanatha temple or a traditional holy dip in the Ganges. They make offering to the forefathers in heaven, pray to sun god, perform pooja or just meditate.
Ghats of Varanasi
Photographers throng Varanasi from all over the world to capture the essence of India’s religious life. While most of these people come to experience and capture something that they don’t get to see in their daily life – like the bathing in the Ganges, the aartis and other rituals, only a few good men manage to go beyond documenting these activities and capture the essence of the vibrant Varanasi. I had long discussions with a professional photographer and made my preparations of what to expect at Varanasi that can feed my camera. But in the end of my five day visit, I realized that one short visit can serve to be no more than an introduction of what Varanasi is. There are other tourists who come here to witness the India in their minds, to learn music and other fine arts, or just to see the place and enjoy a boat ride.
Boat ride on the ganges
Locals never call their city as Varanasi. When I asked my boatman Naresh about how they prefer to call their city, he said it is either Benaras or Kashi, in that order.
“So you never call it Varanasi?”
“No, we don’t call it Varanasi”
Pilgrims and tourist have given livelihood to many people like the boatmen in Varanasi. But like everywhere in India, there is more supply of services than demand, and competition is high. You won’t manage to take a walk on the ghats without a boatman offering his services. When you walk on the streets, there are rickshaw-wallas who look at you with a hopeful eye. And the variety of merchandise on the streets varies from simple flowers of offering to expensive banarasi silk. Guidebooks don’t fail to warn the tourist of the dangers from strangers too. Varanasi is a city of many people, many immigrants, pilgrims and travellers. Some one I met mentioned that the city has a charm that holds people when they come in, and they find it difficult to leave. It is hard to disagree, especially when so many people come to Varanasi just to die on the bank of river Ganga.
Read more about Varanasi on paintedstork.com
* Images of Varanasi
* Travelling to Varanasi from Corbett
* Arriving at Varanasi
* Many perceptions of Varanasi
* First day at the ghats
* Boat ride on the Ganges
* An encounter on the ghats
* Photo Essay: Ganga Aarti
* Life on the ghats
* About Varanasi