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 woman bathing ganges

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.

varanasi women baskets

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.

Varanasi Muslim weavers madanpura

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 apple basket

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.

Varanasi Muslim men sitting madanpura

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.

Scroll down for full photo story – For more of Luca’s work, check his website and Facebook page and follow him on Twitter

Varanasi sari red

Varanasi puja woman

varanasi wedding

Varanasi crazy man

Varanasi woman sweeping

Varanasi prosthetic leg

varanasi woman red sari

Varanasi Madanpura

Varanasi boy running

Varanasi muslim boy goatVaranasi muslim man wives

Varanasi Muslim boy

Varanasi rickshaw burqa

Varanasi Muslim men sitting madanpura

Varanasi Muslim woman madanpura

varanasi girl red dress

22 Responses

  1. antonette - we12travel

    Wow these pictures are (once again) gorgeous. It’s interesting that people believe they can travel somewhere to escape from the circle of life …

    • Margherita

      Thanks Anto for nice comment. The pics are amazing, check Luca’s site for more!

  2. Alli

    Marghertia, what camera(s) do you use and also what lens(s)? Your photos are very captivating, especially the woman in the red veil with the blurred background. How long were you in India for and what time of the year?

    • Margherita

      Hey Alli! I was in India for 4 months, from June to September. I think Luca was there around the same time as me. I’ll ask him about the lens! Thanks for your nice comment.

  3. Dave Cole

    The portraits here are some of the most visually impacting I have seen. I read a Pico Iyer story about Varanasi and many of these images complement and expand upon that literary introduction. Of the places in India that I want to experience, Varanasi is one that I cannot miss.

    • Margherita

      Thanks Dave. I have been to Varanasi myself and loved the place, the atmosphere is mystical and very spiritual. Luca’s talent is incredible. Check his website for more of his storytelling!

  4. Lauren

    These photos are incredible, I try to imagine what life would be like to live here in one of these communities. I would love to know some of their personal stories…

    • Margherita

      Thanks Lauren, glad you loved the pics. I will let Luca know, and ask if he has any more stories.

  5. noel

    What a fascinating way to portray both communities in color and in black and white – such a wonderful way to show the great divide and the images are totally stunning. I love portraiture

    • Margherita

      Thanks Noel. Luca is a great photographer and storyteller, I will pass him the message!

  6. Hannah

    Wow that’s really interesting that there’s such a large group of people including pregnant women and children that cannot take part in the custom cremation. Love these photos- the one of the young boy and the goat is my favourite 🙂

    • Margherita

      Thanks Hannah for your nice comment. I will let Luca know. He’s an amazing photographer and I’m so proud to feature his images on my site.

  7. Ryan

    Wow…absolutely phenomenal photos! Blown away by the compositions and the people captured. So amazing!

  8. Anna | slightly astray

    I loved this post. It was so interesting! It’s fascinating to learn about the rituals in other countries. And I loved his strategy of visually illustrating the contrast between the Hindu/Muslim sides with vivid colors versus black and white. That really speaks a story!

    • Margherita

      Thanks Anna! Will let Luca know. It was a wonderful photo essay!

  9. Chris Boothman

    Definitely a stunning collection of pictures you have included here. You have really captured the vivid imagination of the reader by including the various shots and close-ups of the locals. I always found it interesting to learn about the many cultural rituals that take place in the hidden suburbs of this part of the world. It really shows how different all corners of the globe are and makes us better individuals when we learn and respect these norms!

    • Margherita

      Thanks Chris. Glad you liked the post! I will let Luca know.

  10. Chris

    It’s been nearly thirty years since I was last in Varanasi and I still dream about it. Your photos are very evocative and its a great write up. It looks like we will be going there within the next six months, so thanks for getting me inspired again.

    • Margherita

      Thanks Chris. I’m really glad the post inspired you, and I’m looking forward to reading about your visit!

    • Margherita

      Hi Aditi, all pictures are by Italian photojournalist Luca Vasconi, as stated in the article.

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