Varanasi, also Banaras or Benares and Kashi, is a city in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh dating to the 11th century B.C. Regarded as the spiritual capital of India, the city draws Hindu pilgrims who bathe in the Ganges River's sacred waters and perform funeral rites. Along the city's winding streets are some 2,000 temples.
In Hinduism, it's believed that if a deceased's ashes are released into the sacred and purifying water of the Ganges, they will attain Moksha, the freedom from the cycle of life and death. So every day at Manikarnika Ghat, the most prominent and auspicious cremation ghat, around 100 bodies are cremated on wooden pyres along the river's edge. The ghat (steps leading down to the holy water) operates around the clock every day of the year.
Because of Varanasi's religious importance, almost 700 000 domestic tourists visit annually.
It's early February, and the weather is gloomy. However, domestic tourists are not bothered by any of it. Visiting religious and spiritual places is what Indians do on their vacation, and Varanasi is an important place for Lord Shiva worshipers.
In various ways, the current government of India has emphasised the importance of Hinduism in the country. However, the lack of critical thinking about that rhetoric amongst the Indian population has led to clashes between previously friendly multi-religious communities. Before leaving for Varanasi, my Indian friends expressed concern for my well-being because of their unfounded notion of Hindus becoming a minority in the country.
Along the Ghats, there are men giving blessings and painting a yellow mark or "tilak" on devotees' foreheads. Some do it for free, and most charge a lot for that service. People spend money on religion, travel, hotel, offerings to God(s), shopping and entertainment.
The dunes on the east side of the Ganges have been made into a Fun Parc with the luxurious Tent City next to it. You can do horseback or camel riding, have a go in a bouncing castle, munch on snacks and take a dip in the river. Across the river, cremations are performed.
I see this commercialised change in many religious places in India, which in different ways is supported by the current government.
When I visited Varanasi in 2017, I was informed that taking photos of the cremations was not allowed. However, six years later, almost every Indian have a smartphone, and everything is recorded. Not only by the tourists passing the Manikarnika Ghat in boats but also by friends and relatives attending the cremations.
In 19th-century Sweden, depicting adults and children who had passed away was common practice. People paid tribute to the deceased by taking a photo and preserving their memory. The images were placed in frames or albums and sent to family members as gifts.
The eldest son has several important ceremonies and responsibilities to perform when his mother or father expires. This is the term widely used in India when a person passes because of the belief in incarnation in Hinduism. He is also the one to light the fire on the cremation bed.
A man has his head shaved on one of the ghats in Varanasi. Some do it on the same day of the passing, some after ten days and others after one year.
Bathing in the Ganges is considered a way of washing away sins and negative karma and receiving blessings from the goddess Ganga. Therefore, giving offerings after the bath is considered auspicious, and these offerings can take the form of flowers, fruits, or other items that signify their devotion.
When I travel within India, I rarely meet women in public spaces. Yes, things are changing and are different in the big cities, but the most significant portion of India is not big cities. Food markets and religious places are different, here, women are equally represented, and I took the opportunity to take more photos of women in Varanasi. Here depicted another woman selling offerings by the Dashashwamedh Ghat.
Every evening around sunset, there is an Aarti performed, the biggest and most grandiose being at the Dashashwamedh Ghat, which draws a massive crowd of devotees. The seats by the ghat are limited, and many take the opportunity to attend the Aarti from boats for a better view.
The narrow alleys in the old part of Varanasi are a delight to stroll through. This is where people live their daily life and the pace is calmer than by the ghats. It is a maze of alleys and I find it almost meditative to get lost here.
Varanasi is very much like the rest of India; diverse. The contrast between beauty and ugly is manifested here and the reason why I continuously have returned to India. To, if possible, understand the soul of India. Spending a total of two and a half years in India has proven not enough for that task.