|Varanasi (Benares) |
|This is an early-morning shot of the ghats at Varanasi, a holy city on the Ganges River. You can see people taking their morning baths here in the Ganges. Much of the religious life in Varanasi revolves around the ghats or "boardwalks" by the Ganges. This photo was taken from a boat in the river, in April 1990. Hindus believe that the river Ganges is a goddess, and that by touching her (in bathing) they can become purified of their sins. For them, the Ganges is both pure and purifying, despite the fact that the Ganges at Varanasi is full of sewage and industrial effluents. This dichotomy clearly shows the difference between ritual purity (as a religious category) and mundane cleanliness (as a hygienic category).|
|This picture shows the temple in the picture above, as well as the whole sweep of construction in the old city around it. Many of the lanes in the old city are only a few feet wide--wide enough for foot traffic or a motor scooter, but too small for a car. This congested quality helps to enhance the feelings of vitality and exuberance that one so often finds there. In the foreground are houseboats, one decorated with the makara or crocodile, which is a symbol of the Ganges. .|
|Varanasi is full of magnificent temples, given its importance as a pilgrimage site, and the fact that endowing and building a temple are seen as meritorious acts. This shows typical morning activity along the ghats, with people crowding into the temple, and others taking their morning baths in the Ganges. The morning light in Varanasi is genuinely luminous (the early morning sun falls on the city) and if one can make it out on the water before the sun comes up, the city literally glows in the light of the morning.|
|Here's a close-up from the picture above. In both the morning and the evening, the ghats in Varanasi are the hub of the city's activity--People come to take their baths and to go to temples, but also simply to sit, to enjoy the day, and to check out the scene around them (the possibilities for watching others are almost endless).|
|One of the most famous sites in Varanasi is the cremation ground at Manikarnika Ghat. The purplish blob in the lower left is a corpse on a bier, the pile of wood to the lower right is waiting to be arranged in a pyre. Everywhere else the cremation ground is outside the city/town limits, and is considered an inauspicious place (due to associations with death). Yet in Varanasi it is in full view in the center of the city. On one hand, this is to remind people about the ultimate end for us all, and to make people confront this reality (and although it sounds a little morbid, watching bodies burn there was surprisingly soothing). Since death in Varanasi is believed to confer final liberation through Shiva's grace, this is also a reminder of this promise--and Varanasi has a substantial number of older "retired" people who have moved there, and are waiting to die there. The final reason the cremation ground is in the open here is because of its associations with Shiva, the city's patron deity.|
|As the city of Shiva, Varanasi the full spectrum of religious practices, including people whose practice draws on his horrific (aghori) aspects. This sadhu is walking the ghats wearing a turban topped by a human skull--perhaps to show dispassion from the world, perhaps to remind his viewers of their own mortality, or perhaps simply to shock viewers and distinguish himself from the rest of the crowd.|
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Page maintained by James G. Lochtefeld.
Last modified 7 February December 2007