What always fascinates me is how the people always seem to step into their own time warp. Each ritual in Varanasi is almost a festival of samridhi and samigri. And the pathways with their narrow galis and steps leading to top stories as steep as ladder, the staircase is itself a story. Raghu Rai
Varanasi has been a cultural center of northern India for several thousand years, and is closely associated with the Ganges. Hindus believe that dying here and getting cremated along the banks of the “holy” Ganges river allows one to break the cycle of rebirth and attain salvation, making it a major center for pilgrimage. The city is known worldwide for its many ghats, embankments made in steps of stone slabs along the river bank where pilgrims perform ritual ablutions. Of particular note are the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the Panchganga Ghat, the Manikarnika Ghat and the Harishchandra Ghat, the last two being where Hindus cremate their dead and the Hindu genealogy registers are kept here. (Wikipedia)
Varanasi is a holy destination for many Indians who revere the purification qualities of the Ganges River. On daily basis, thousands of religious pilgrims bathe in the river, believing in it’s restorative nature.
You’ll notice the man in the white shirt offering to sell small candle/flower offerings that the bathers can float on the river to offer blessings to their Gods and to the sacred river.
I watched this interesting looking fellow amble along the ghat one morning. He was carrying a pillow case size sack over his shoulder along with his flute. He gradually came to a stop on a small platform on one of the mid level ghat platforms, sat down and started to play his flute while swaying slightly. So far….. nothing unusual in a place where dozens of photogenic activities are occuring on a constant basis. Then he used one hand (while still playing the flute) to open up the sack and allow these two very large cobras to emerge and rise up to the music and the swaying. Wow!
Vendors and boatsmen and boatswomen offer services all along the river; mostly taking pilgrims out on the river to view the city from the water.
As a result of its religious heritage, the city has a significant population of religious holy men (Sadhus). Some portion of these men are just donning costumes and playing the part to make a living selling portraits to photographers, but most (probably) are living ascetic lives honoring the Gods.
This Sadhu was certainly colorful and photogenic but also a little testy at times.
There are 4 to 5 million sadhus in India today and they are widely respected for their holiness. It is also thought that the austere practices of the sadhus help to burn off their karma and that of the community at large. Thus seen as benefiting society, sadhus are supported by donations from many people.
This fellow was my personal favorite of the dozen or so Sadhus I photographed. With an easy going personality and sense of humor, he was a pleasure to work with. He also demonstrated a remarkable level of physical flexibility with an easy ability to rise up and sit down without any support. His body was a pretzel!
The Ganga Aarti is held each evening on one of the most prominent ghats along the Ganges. Lasting approximatley an hour and drawing hundreds and sometimes thousands of spectators, it celebrates the centrality of the river in Hinduism. But let me turn the description over to an expert:
“Ganga is not only a river. She is truly a Divine Mother. She rushes forth from the Himalayas as the giver of life, carrying purity, bliss and liberation in Her waters. Ganga is not only water. She is nectar – the nectar of life, the nectar of liberation. She is a source of inspiration to all who lay eyes on her ceaseless, boundless, rushing current. She irrigates not only our farms, but also our hearts, minds and souls. She is the Mother Goddess – giving freely to all with no discrimination, hesitation or expectation. Her waters purify all who bathe in them, all who drink from them. In fact, She is the remover of contamination.”
“Each evening as the sun’s last rays reflect off the boundless waters of Mother Ganga, we gather for Ganga Aarti. This divine light ceremony is filled with song, prayer, ritual and a palpable sense of the divine. Aarti is the beautiful ceremony in which dias (oil lamps) are offered to God. Parmarth.Org
These ladies were undoubtedly the most decked out ladies I have ever seen. The clothing, the jewelry, the tatoos, the various piercings ……. it all worked. They were amazing and gathered astonished looks from others who without these women, would have been outfit leaders by themselves.
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