We opened our India month with James Knox’s photo walk through the streets of Calcutta; we’re closing it with another wonderful photo essay, this time from Varanasi. Luca Vasconi is an Italian photojournalist currently based in Turin.
Varanasi, inhabited for 4,000 years, is one of the oldest cities of mankind.
The famous American writer Mark Twain wrote: “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older than legend and looks twice as old as all this put together.”
Every morning at dawn, thousands of pilgrims make their way down to the ghats of Varanasi, to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganges.
They turn to the rising sun and, absorbed in their prayers, perform a complex series of Hindu rituals. They throw garlands of flowers and small candles in the river, make the water trickle through their fingers, reuniting themselves with the Great Mother. They present offerings to the gods and their ancestors. Then, they drink the water, in spite of the germs, bacteria and pollution of our days. They gather water in their hands, pour it on their heads from a brass container; chant sacred mantras and bathe, to rid the body from the contamination of sin.
Varanasi is one of the holiest Hindu cities
Each believer performs various rituals prescribed by their caste. All offer their tribute to the Great Mother, the river Ganges, considered a living god.
Every Hindu, at least once in their life, must go to Varanasi and bathe in its waters. According to Hinduism, Varanasi is the only place in the world where the gods allow men to escape samsara, the eternal cycle of death and rebirth.
This is the reason why, in the course of its millenary history, hundreds of millions of people have made pilgrimage to this city, the spiritual capital of the country, once known as Benares. Dying in Varanasi, the holiest of the holy cities of India, is the dream of every devotee.
The evocative rite of cremation, publicly executed on the banks of the Ganges, is rich in spirituality. The bodies of the dead are wrapped in a sheet on a bamboo litter, carried to the cremation ghat and placed on funeral pyres, to be burned on the banks of the Ganges. At the end of the funeral, the ashes are scattered in the river.
An ideal death for all the faithful who can afford to die here, provided they can afford to pay for enough firewood. Those who do not have money, have to settle for electric crematoria; much cheaper, but less sacred. The bodies of children, pregnant women, lepers, sadhus and of those who died from snakebites, according to the precepts of religion, cannot be cremated and are simply thrown into the river.
Despite being a popolar tourist destination, the city has not lost its character, and it is imbued with the spiritual. The ancient is alive; the city smells of the past, history is palpable in the air, oozes from every stone, it is reflected in the character and in the faces of its inhabitants. Ancient rites, customs and traditions have been handed down for centuries.
Varanasi was my first stop in India. I arrived in India in July 2010, at the height of the monsoon season.
I was literally struck by the energy that fills the city, by the magical atmosphere on the banks of the Ganges, the rituals of the pilgrims, the sunrises and sunsets over the river, the bustling markets, the maze of narrow streets of the old city, teeming with life and colours.
From the first moment, every corner caught my attention and my senses. Smells, colours, life, people.
Varanasi’s Muslim neighbourhoods
I was fascinated by the sharp contrast between the two souls of the city. The Hindu spirit, for which the city is known worldwide, and the hidden and unknown Muslim neighbourhoods, such as Madanpura.
Two worlds in total contrast. The bright colours of women’s saris, pilgrims rituals, sacred cows walking through the narrow streets of the city, exuberant people and presence of tourists in the Hindu part of town. Calm atmosphere, uncrowded streets, men dressed in white, fleeting silhouettes of women with long black veils, goats instead of cows, shy and reserved people, total absence of tourism in the Muslim world.
The minarets of the mosques stand behind the golden domes of Hindu temples.
Two souls, with very different philosophies and lifestyles, living in precarious balance. You can feel the underlying tension, which sometimes leads to serious clashes.
The crisis of the textile industry, and the increasing poverty among the craftsmen, political and religious extremists on both sides, haven’t helped peaceful coexistence between the two communities in recent years.
There was such a sharp cut between the two environments, both equally fascinating to me, that I even changed my photographic approach. I used colour when shooting Hindu neighbourhoods, where I used to the morning. Then, I switched to black and white, more suitable to steal the soul of the Muslim world, during my afternoon walks in Madanpura.