“This road is incredible,” I noted to the taxi driver as we sped from the airport to Varanasi city. “I know, Modi is a great man,” he responded. The changes in the main tourist areas of India, an indeed, the country as a whole since I first visited nearly 13 years ago are astounding. Modi may not have a perfect record, but he’s spending money like never before on making sure India’s infrastructure joins the 21st century. Despite this spending on public infrastructure, India is still India in the best way possible. Varanasi is no exception.
Getting off the new road and into the city was exactly as I remembered. The chaos, overcrowding, non-stop honking, and the orderly fashion in which the locals and visitors alike approach it remained unchanged. Varanasi is chaos. That is, until you reach the Ghats. The main attraction for visitors is, of course, the holy river, Ganga Mata. There is nothing quite like the spiritualism one can encounter here.
Reaching the Ghats the following morning around 30 minutes before the sun came up, I was greeted by the familiar sounds of years ago. The splashes of the devout bathing in the waters, the chanting of the early risers, “Sir, boat? Sunrise time is close. This is the most beautiful time,” “Sir, chess set, sir?” Nothing had changed. Varanasi is still one of my favourite places in India.
During my visits to India, I have visited the headhunters of Nagaland, the peaceful farmers of the Ziro valley, the former human-sacrificing tribes of Odisha, and even those who have dedicated themselves to Ram. While these cultures provoke awe with their traditions, nothing quite brings you to the modern reality of India like the river Ganges.
Life on the Ghats of Varanasi is like no other place. The living, the dead, tourists, hippies, those waiting for the next life, and those wanting to sell just about anything they can are all gathered in one place. It is not uncommon to see a tout offering a trinket to a Frenchman puffing a chillum with a Sadhu. Such is life on the Ghats of Varanasi.
My goal during this visit was to spend the sunrise of each day exploring the Ghats and the rest of the day simply experiencing the city with my wife. The holy men are a permanent fixture on the Ghats, and for the most part, they were not going to be my subject this time. I wanted to show a more rounded perspective on life by the river. For this, I could not discount the holy men, nor the visitors, nor the tourists, nor the boatmen. These pieces all make up the chaos and amalgamation that is Varanasi.
With that I will leave you with a selection of images that I captured. For me, this was Varanasi. This was the city I remembered and anticipated with such passion. In five days, I attempted to sum up the mornings I had strolling the river. My only regret, on the final day, my friend (only known as Baba Paradise to me, and I “Australia” to him), was not there for a final portrait. Here, then, is Varanasi as it was.