photo essay: varanasi, stories told and untold

No, I did not fall in love with Varanasi at first sight as I had been led to believe would happen by the countless travel glossies and blogs I’d read which eulogised its charms. In fact, I hated it at first sight.

It was crowded, dirty, and noisy. Touts pulled me in desperate attempts in all directions to try and sell me boat rides and Banarasi sarees. Rickshaw drivers were ready to rip me off for a 10-minute canter. The sweetmeat shops had “unsanitary” written all over it in CAPS.

I was booked for three days in Varanasi—the land between the Varuna and Assi tributaries which join the River Ganga, or Ganges in English nomenclature, to form the north and south borders of the city. Its name was corrupted to Benaras during the British Raj.

My heart dreaded the stay as soon as I entered the precincts, pleading: “Let’s just cut the trip short and go back to the serenity and comfort of home.” A small voice in me whispered: “No. Varanasi does not happen every day. Live through it.”

Petulant, I wound my way through the chaos to the ghats, and love started to happen, albeit slowly, and more so at sunrise and sunset. When the entire place looked like a painting bathed in thick brush strokes of Prussian blues and rich ochres.

By the time my three days were up, a strange transformation had taken place without announcement. As I boarded my rickshaw for the railway station, an hour’s ride away, my heart whispered once again, this time to the city, longingly, “I’ll come back. Promise.”

When did this change happen? Beats me. All I know is, without my knowing, Varanasi took a part of me away.

Whilst I had pouted, my camera, knowing better perhaps, danced in glee at the stories it encountered, both told and untold, as the photo essay below is testimony.

What was your encounter with Varanasi like? Love at first sight, or hate? And by the time you left did you feel the same way or differently? Do share in the comments section if you’d like to. 🙂


“Varanasi is the story about the love affair between Shiva and the River Ganga. She changed her natural course just so as to be with him,” a Banarasi explains to me with stars in his eyes. Look closer and you will indeed find a Shiva lingam at every ghat; the flow of the river at Varanasi is against its current.

Both at sunrise and sunset, the people of Varanasi pay homage to her for her presence. A ritual unchanged for thousands of years. One of the most spectacular aartis [prayers] is the one at Assi Ghat, more so because it starts at 4:30 am, is followed by yagna, recitation of the Vedas, and morning ragas, and ends with a yoga session. What better way could there be to start one’s day?


If the city’s by-lanes reminded me of sensory chaos where everything was louder, brighter, and smelled more, the ghats were reminiscent of the peace one reaches by surpassing that chaos, and I mean that not just in the literal sense.

The ghats are especially spectacular in the mornings when Varanasi awakes with prayers and rituals, both by priests and commoners. All equally symbolic and meaningful to the devotee.


The opposite bank of the river. Deserted and empty allowing the River Ganges to flood in peace without causing destruction to the holy city.


Devi Sureshvari Bhagavati Gangge Tribhuvana-Taarinni Tarala-Tarangge
Shangkara-Mauli-Vihaarinni Vimale Mama Matir-Aastaam Tava Pada-Kamale ~ Excerpt, Ganga Stotram [Ganga hymn]

Translation:
[Salutations to Devi Ganga] O devi Bhagavati Ganga, the goddess of the devas, You liberate the three worlds with the [merciful] waves of your liquid form,

O the stainless pure one who resides in the head of Shankara, may my devotion remain firmly established on your lotus feet.


A two-hour walk took me from one end of the ghats to the other: The ones in the north older, less touristy, more poetic.

It is said there are 88 ghats in Varanasi, with Assi Ghat at its southern end. They were mainly built in the 1700s when Varanasi was under Maratha rule. May I add each ghat is unique. Most serve as bathing and prayer ceremony ghats; two are used exclusively as cremation grounds where corpses are burnt round the clock.

There is an interesting legend about Manikarnika Ghat, the main and bigger of the cremation ghats. Parvati, consort of Shiva lost her jewels here provoking Shiva’s anger, who cursed the ghat to burn forever with the dead.


Aah those by-lanes and tamatar chaat shops [the latter is typical to Varanasi] where I was jostled and pushed till eventually I mastered how to “move” with the flow. 😀


Amidst Varanasi’s haywire innards are pockets of tranquility. Take for instance Kasiraj Kali Temple, just off Godowlia Chowk—an exquisite, intricately carved stone temple dating back to 1886. It was built by Maharaja Ishwari Prasad Narayan Singh (1822 – 89) and is the private property of Varanasi’s ruling family.


Take heart, dear culture buffs. Varanasi is not just all about religion and mythology. It has historically been and still is a centre for music, dance, theatre, and learning, and the birthplace of many a leading artist, writer, and scholar.

Imagine my wonder when I walked into Bhartendu Bhavan, home of Bhartendu Harishchandra (1850 – 1885), father of modern Hindi literature and theatre. Writing in multiple languages, his works aimed at social reformation. It is a lovely house, an oasis of peace with high walls right in the heart of the city. I was told one could rent the rooms from his descendants who still own it, as part of an art residency program. Now wouldn’t that be lovely!


From temples to culture to mosques. Aurangzeb’s Mosque or the Alamgir Mosque at Panchganga Ghat was built over the ruins of a destroyed temple by the controversial Mughal ruler Aurangzeb. Why, there’s even a mosque built by him plonk next to Kashi Vishwanath Temple, the city’s holiest of holy temples which I must confess I was rather taken aback to see. But everyone is okay with it. That is what the city tries to teach one, I slowly learnt … Tolerance, at every level. ❤


If Varanasi is beautiful from the ghats, it is even more so from the river, across the wide expanses of the Ganges, at sunrise and sunset. See the image above and I hope you will understand what I mean.


Evening aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat, Varanasi’s main ghat. One cannot go to Varanasi and not attend this grand spectacle, where the superlatively large crowds of tourists on land and water vie with the aarti for attention.

According to Hindu mythology, Brahma welcomed Shiva to earth by sacrificing 10 horses, right here at Dashashwamedh Ghat. Das means 10, ashwa means horse, and medh means sacrifice.


And once night falls, and the holidaymakers have checked into their hotels, the locals step out for a last stroll and a quick dip in Shiva’s and Varanasi’s beloved Ganges.

“Blessed are those who die in Benaras for they are freed from the bondage of reincarnation. But more blessed are those who live in Benaras, close to the River Ganga for it is she who decides who stays with her. Why, it is she who even decides who will visit her!” The last part was directed at me by an elderly, withered woman by my side, as we, two strangers, sat on the wide steps of a deserted ghat. I looked at her quizzically thinking maybe it was said in jest, but all I saw was pure faith. On the train back to Delhi, I wondered if the river would call me again.

– – –

My explorations of Varanasi was a combination of a heritage walk by Roobaroo Walks and personal random meanderings.

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