The ghats of Varanasi – A story of life and death.
We had been traveling India for almost two months before we visited Varanasi and it was a beautiful but exhausting adventure. The distances, the heat and the crowds... India constantly eats you up and spits you out again but beware: It's addictive. The magic and beauty you'll encounter in India is unmatched and will draw you back. Epic forts, ancient temples and bustling cities; there's something to see for everyone.
Varanasi (or Benares) is all that magic and beauty of India compressed into one city. It's one of the oldest cities in the world and it's high on the list of everyone who visits India. As a photographer it was probably even higher on my list of must-sees. We stayed for five days exploring the tiny alleys and backstreets and for me it turned out to be the highlights of India. One location in specific is amongst the most memorable I've ever been to: The ghats.
The ghats are the stone steps leading up to the banks of the River Ganges. Most of the ghats are bathing and puja ceremony ghats where people gather every evening to end the day. When the sun starts to set the ghats turn into a mesmerizing spectacle and true heaven for a photographer.
Young men play cricket. Some older men play cards or just sit and talk while they're surrounded by sleeping dogs. Vendors sell tea, fried snack and offerings. Men build boats, women wash clothes. Holy men perform rituals. Every few steps you'll hear: “Boat, sir? Good time for boat ride now.” And in the midst of all that hustle and bustle are cows, bulls, buffalos and goats roaming around as if they own the place. There is no movie or tv show more entertaining than what you'll see at the ghats of Varanasi.
Aside from the dozens of bathing ghats there are also two burning ghats and that's where the true magic and beauty of Varanasi plays out. The Hindu believe that if a deceased's ashes are laid in the River Ganges, their soul will go to heaven and break the cycle of rebirth.Witnessing the cremations made me realize how far we are removed from the rituals of death in Europe. Nothing's being hidden away here. It's raw and in your face. At first, I felt uncomfortable walking around and witnessing these – for us – private moments but soon enough I realized this another part of Indian life not different from any other part.
Bodies and wood are being carried down almost constantly and the cremations go on 24/7 and when darkness falls the orange glow of the fires in the distance are a surreal sight to behold. Watching these rituals from is a self reflecting moment and makes your mind slow down. No matter who we are or what we do we'll all end up there. No escapes.Every evening for five days we walked along the ghats of Varanasi and watched life and death unfold on the banks of the River Ganges
Words and Photos by Joris Hermans
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