Varanasi: city of life and death

4 05 2008

I first went to India in 2004 and despite having been back three times since it is still Varanasi (previously known as Benares and before that Kashi) that is perhaps the most memorable place I’ve visited. I was there in the days leading up to the festival of holi and the city was crowded with people, with sound, with action, with life. It was in no way relaxing, I came away drained after just three days, but it is a place which made a lasting impression and one to which I must return.

Ganges at Varanasi

Varanasi claims to be one of the oldest living cities and despite there being others with a stronger claim. Mark Twain said:

“Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”(1)

The city is one of the holiest places in India being a sacred pilgrimage site for Hindus of all denominations with more than a million pilgrims visiting each year. It has the holy shrine of Lord Kashi Vishwanath (a manifestation of Lord Shiva) and one of the twelve revered Jyotirlingas of Lord Shiva, who according to mythology once lived here. Hindus believe that bathing in the river Ganga cleanses them of sin and that dying ,here ensures release of a person’s soul from the cycle of its transmigrations (see here for more information about the history and customs of the city).

A real traffic jam

In Varanasi the dead are cremated in public on the rivers edge at the ‘burning ghats’. Strangely these burning ghats are treated as a tourist attraction with the river boats taking visitors to observe the burning pyres. I felt distinctly uncomfortable with this until, talking with the boatman, he explained that the families see this a a joyful event – who would not want to die in Varanasi? – and welcomed anyone to share in it. This seems to me a much more positive life-affirming view of death than any in the West.

I was told of a tourist who died in Varanasi, but whose family refused to have him cremated, a real issue as there are no facilities for storing the bodies, which are normally cremated within 24 hours. To make matters worse, the family’s health insurance was invalid (they had not declared the known serious medical conditions of which he died) and they were insisting that the body be flown back to the UK. As a matter of goodwill the travel company arranged and paid for this, a remarkably generous gesture.

Morning time

Varanasi is a very photographed place, just see all the pictures in the Flickr group, but for a beautiful introduction to the people of the city I’d recommend this set by Flickr user entrelec (the French photographer Joel Dousett). For anyone seriously interested in the photographic life and history of this holy city there is one essential book: Benares Seen from Within by Richard Lannoy (Callisto Books, Bath, 1999)

Seen from Within

Richard Lannoy is an English photographer and one of the founding staff of the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, first visiting the city in 1953 and returning over the years to produce this monumental book of over 600 photographs, including 150 colourplates, with substantial accompanying text plus maps, glossary, bibliography and index. The above photograph of the cover does not do the book justice as the reproductions are superb. The scanned image below, however, gives some idea of the quality of the photography.

“Lighting lamps in honour of the Goddess Ganga during Diwali, festival of lights (1959) (p124)

Lannoy’s work captures all aspects of the city, not just focusing on religion or the ghats but including the country around the city – and the vast flat riverbanks across from the city – and crafts, producing some brilliant images of weaving and looms, plus the less well known Buddhist area of Sarnath (seen below).

Across the grass

In his introduction to the book Lannoy has this to say about his photography and what he was trying to achieve:

“My intention is to evoke the multitudinous diversity of Benares as vividly as I possibly can. I want to present the reader-viewer with the same kind of revelation as Benares has granted me – in all its complexity – without the falsification of reality by bogus spirituality or by sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist, to which photographic books are prone. I believe, firstly, that some photographs at the very minimum give real and important information about the world. But secondly, borrowing the language of anthropology, ‘photography can also communicate about culture, people’s lives, experiences and beliefs not at the level of surface description but as a visual metaphor which bridges the space between the visible and the invisible’ (Elizabeth Edwards, 1996)” (p427)

For a very different, fictional, view of the city I’d recommend the wonderful River of Gods by Ian McDonald here seen in a bookshop in Jaisalmer. There is more about the novel here.

In the wrong town

Varanasi’s more recent history has been both tragic and comical. In 2006 the city suffered a terrorist attack with at least 15 dead from a series of bomb blasts. Earlier this year the city suffered another sort of ‘attack’ this time from space invaders, with a wonderful report titled 8 bit Varanasi which concludes with “I look forward to returning to Varanasi; I want to find [invader] number fourteen”: a sentiment I can only agree with (although I expect the return of pacman by the time I get there).

Boats and water towers

Further photographs from my Varanasi trip can be found here.

— Words & Pictures by Paul

(1) Twain, Mark [1897], Following the Equator: A journey around the world. Dover Publications Inc.; New Ed edition (2 Aug 1990), ISBN 978-0486261133.




4 responses

7 05 2008

Oh my god! I think I would go mad if I were transported to that street scene. I’ve never seen so many people crammed into a single space in all my life and I couldn’t handle it!

7 05 2008
Inversion Layer

Gary, that’s one of the reasons I resisted going to India for a long time, but it turned out to be a place I really love. It’s overwhelming sometimes, but I keep going back for more.


25 12 2008
vish singh

i am looking for the 100 years panchang

Vish singh

25 12 2008
vish singh

very good photos

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