Varanasi: A Photo Essay
Some of my favourite things in all of existence are comic books, films, photographs, and surrealistic art. The marriage of storytelling and visual cues that carry forward a narrative is something that catches my attention every single time. Therefore, when Debanjan came up with these incredible images from our trip to understand more about life in Varanasi, I knew I had to make an attempt at reconstructing a pastiche narrative of things that are visible and things that can be imagined.
I relate the by lanes of Varanasi with the serpentine underground world of the Minotaur’s chambers, or something that came out of Pan’s Labyrinth. A secret world where life flows on its own will; where we are pawns and destiny plays us off against each other. Every time you walk along the narrow lanes and take in the heady atmosphere, you will be transported, out of time and place, into the magic of mythic Varanasi.
Emerge outside with your head held high and suddenly you come face to face with forlorn structures that still hold on to the glories of yesteryears. It is hard not to romanticize such architecture where the subdued opulence still manages to shine through years of neglect and debris. It is hard not to imagine what a full moon night could do to your heart if only your loved one graced those windows.
Also read: Field Notes: Kashi
Walk with me to the Ghats to explore a different façade of life in Varanasi. While you do, try to take in the juxtaposition of the old and new, living side by side. When obstacles come in front of you, you adapt, evolve, and overcome. Varanasi, thousands of years old, has managed to adapt to the changing socio-political landscape, the changing gender equations, and the skewed power game that is played in the real world Kashi. Yet it has managed to hold on to the inner mystic yogi that it is in its old sacred heart.
Varanasi has always been a large, bustling melting pot of cultures, beliefs, and customs that thrives on the sheer living force of travellers, tourists, and inhabitants of the city. If you are here for the first time, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the myriad variation weaved into the fabric of the morning ritual, the ganga-snan.
But I implore you to take a closer look. Look at the microcosm that is hidden underneath the cursory glance. Some who come here are compelled by choice, either to make a living or to take a part in some age-old custom that promises them health or wealth. But some, the rare ones, like the man holding his child, are just happy to be here, present in the holy land of Varanasi.
Walk with me to the ends of the ghat where the crowd thins out and you are face to face with the river, the silent mother that protects and nourishes the civilization you belong to. Stay back as the hustle and bustle around you dies out and you are left for some quiet contemplation. And if you are not the contemplative kind, then this the best place to seek out a bit of charas, bhang, or ganja (whatever be your favourite poison) from the sadhus and yogis, your fellow travellers of life and time.
Once adequately high (on philosophy and contemplation, of course), bear with me and try to spot those little boats that are floating on the river and are very eager to take you out on an aquatic stroll. Haggle a bit and negotiate a full tour of the ghats of Varanasi. You may have had ferry tours before, but this will be something that you have not anticipated yet.
This boat ride is an experience not to be missed. An opportunity, where you can still be in Varanasi but can dramatically change your perspective by taking yourself out of the land and looking at this place from the outside, is to be savoured. Preferably slowly. Follow the people and wander with your eyes as the river lulls you into a deeper trance.
As you return to the folds of this ancient city one more time, notice how quickly it calls you in. A gaping mouth that invites you inside into an anachronism. There are always countless stories waiting to be found inside. A gamut of colours, sights, and smells that meshes together in want of interpretation. Come inside, and write your own story, the city whispers in your ears.
And now we have come back full circle. Inside the narrow and winding bylanes of Kashi from where we had started our journey. Does it look different now? Is it a different lane? Is this a different angle? you ask yourself. But does it matter? Deep inside, you know the truth. The city has merely shapeshifted around you as it plays with your senses again. It is different now but it is always itself. Ever constant, mythic, and a land to be discovered a thousand times over.
Photographs by Debanjan Ray.
Have you visited Varanasi? What stories did you bring back?