I travelled to India during the winter of 2013/14. My photographs have remained until now, unedited and unrewarded yet the experience and memories will never be forgotten. Last night I went to a lovely Indian restaurant with my love and travel companion during this adventure. We reminisced on a trip that was incredibly glorious and yet at times often disturbing. We discussed the places, the journeys, the people and of course the delicious food we were lucky enough to encounter on our trip.
Today I began to to look through the images and my plan is to write about each area we visited and hopefully bring it all back to life before the memories become less vivid. I have decided unusually not to do this in order of our journey, but as the mood takes me.
Today I have chosen Varanasi. Not because it was my favorite place, on the contrary it was a place that made me feel uneasy. We basically added it to our itinerary from other traveller recommendations and our guidebook descriptions without really considering the reality of what we would witness.
Varanasi is in the heart of the river Ganges, I had heard a lot and watched many a travel documentary covering the area so I was aware of the fact that pilgrims come here to wash away their sins in the holy water. Others come here to die and have the privilege of being cremated here in the burning ghats, to be released from the cycle of birth and death.
We arrived early morning by train and arranged a tuk tuk to take us to our booked room, tired and just wanting to get to our room we were a little unhappy about it still being vacated by the previous tourists luggage. A little while later, this issue was resolved. Our room overlooked the ghats, and was what you would expect in our approx £5 a night price range.
Once settled in we ventured to explore and get some food. It is not until you are amidst the chaos that you become aware how busy the place is with Indians and tourists alike. The aromas of spices and death emerge together to create something unlike anything else. We had booked three nights in our room here, and soon started to discuss that it it was maybe a night to many.
There was a lot of hippie type tourists here, the type that get less hassle because they carry a sense of belonging mixed with a lack of a camera or any obvious sign of wealth, previously I have viewed these people with envy whilst trying to battle my way through a row of touts.
We met a guy in a cafe one evening who described himself as a ‘Spiritualist Pilgrim’ . He quickly admitted to having drunk a lot of ‘Bhang Lassi’ that day which is basically a hash smoothie, popular with a lot of tourists but not something we had felt the need to experience. I started to ponder how anyone could believe that they have discovered the deepest and valued meaning of life when it was unlikely he would even remember our conversation the following day. The conversation over dinner was awkward, eye opening and as he walked away it made me think that some people who claim to be spiritual are maybe just ‘Junkies in Hippie Clothing’. I am in no way disrespecting spiritualism, on the contrary I think of myself as a fairly spiritual person and dislike that some people are in fact giving it a bad name around the world.
In our time here we spend our days exploring the manically busy backstreets and wandering around the ghats. One day we visited the main burning ghat, nothing can prepare you for witnessing this unique style of cremation. The necessary wood is lined up, all of different prices and ways of burning and all sold by the kilo. The bodies are brought to the ghat upon the wood, there is no caskets, the bodies are clear to see and many flock to the area to watch the process. I believe that children under two are not cremated because their souls do not need to be purified and instead are set adrift in the river along with pregnant woman.
I did not take any photographs whilst there, I felt it would have been disrespectful. It is someones funeral, the end of a life and a religious belief I know little about. I did not even feel as a tourist I should be there. We, who are privileged to travel and experience other cultures should ensure we do not offend or step over any lines when doing so. I am uncomfortable with the fact that tourism works alongside the deep rooted religious nature of Varanasi and I could not bring myself to stay in the vicinity for too long. I will say the experience forced me to view how I evaluate death and some of those images will haunt me forever.
Prior to our arrival we had planned a boat trip along The Ganges. This was clearly a popular trip for tourists and locals alike, but despite the ongoing touts trying to encourage us to join in I could not bring myself to embark onto one, not being a great fan of open water anyway, the reality of what else was also sharing the water, took away any thoughts of a gentle cruise along the river I might have previously had.
Since arriving back home I have spoken to a variety of people who have traveled to Varanasi and others who knew nothing of the ghats. I have since discovered there is also an Indian tribe of cannibal monks who reside in the area, thinking back I believe we saw some of them on the banks, and I am grateful in my ignorance, that I did not know anything about this then.
Varanassi is known as the city of death so this was never going to be your typical travel post. I do not regret my time here and I mean no disrespect to anyone in my writing of this post. I know that there is a lot more to the place than what I have mentioned. The fact that I only took fifteen photographs here during a trip that I have thousands of photos from, forces me to be honest and personal in my writing.
Have you been to Varanasi? What are your memories?