Varanasi or Benares. The Holy Grail of India according to many travelers. It’s one of the oldest cities in the world sitting on the banks of the river Ganges and that’s exactly why it’s so important to Indians. Everybody wants to die in Varanasi and/or be cremated on the banks of the holy river.
After the cremation, the ashes are being sprinkled in the river and that’s when the deceased reaches Nirvana. From all over India people travel to Varanasi; to die or to bring the dead, sometimes even with the corpse on ice in the trunk of a car. Life and death are not that far apart in India.
We almost decided to skip Varanasi but I’m glad that we didn’t. Especially for a photographer, it is one of the most interesting cities of India. Culture, history and religion compressed into a city with the tiniest alleys and backstreets that almost don’t see daylight. There are little shops with sweets, lassies, fruit and every kind of food imaginable but that’s not why we came to Varanasi.
The Ghats that lead up to the river is what I wanted to see. That’s where the locals are and where they play cards and cricket or just relax in the evening. And that’s exactly what we did too, every evening when the sun started to set; just relax at the ghats of Varanasi. The light turned into a magical glow again like everywhere in India went the sun goes down and as a photographer, it’s an awesome few hours to be out.
Our hotel was located around 0.8 miles South of the Dashashwamedh Ghat. That’s the main ghat where every evening a ceremony is performed and where all the tourists go. Go little further and you’ll find the main burning ghat called Manikarnika. That was our walk every evening at sunset; from our hotel to the river and then all the way to the main ghat and back. Just walking, talking and watching the people doing whatever they were doing.
Close to our hotel, there weren’t too many people. The kids were mostly playing cricket while the older men were playing cards. Some people were bathing in the river and at some point, there were even buffalos in the water and a boy was cleaning and grooming them. A little higher up the stairs, a little girl was watching over the buffalos with a big stick over her shoulder. Every evening she was there looking over her herd.
At some point, we saw a fire and I immediately knew what was going on. Cremations. We’ve had arrived at one of the two burning ghats. It was the smaller and less ‘famous’ one but this meant we could freely explore and look at what was going on. We also visited the famous Manikarnika burning ghat but pushy ‘guides’ kept bothering us there.
Not here, though. We saw bodies wrapped in bright orange robes lying on the floor higher up the stairs waiting to be brought to the river. Piles of wood ready to sell and close to the river, a few fires that were still going.
It felt a little bit strange to just watch what was going on but that feeling soon went away and we sat there for a while.It’s a place that makes you think about life for a minute before you go on with it again. We stayed for 5 days and that’s what we did every evening. Walking the ghats, watching life, talking about it and photographing it. One of the most memorable things I did in India.
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Belgium based documentary and portrait photographer Joris Hermans has been combining personal and freelance work for the past ten years. Currently, he’s traveling indefinitely around the world with his girlfriend and together they aim to experience the world and show the countries, cultures and people they visit. You can follow their travels on theworldaheadofus.com and Instagram @theworldaheadofus.