Varanasi, India: Life Along the Ganges River

For me, India is a challenging country to visit. It is unabashedly raw and in your face, with a frenetic energy that buzzes morning, noon and night. Even after spending 10 days in the city of Varanasi, I never became fully immune to it’s chaos. Things never fully stood still for me. Through my lens, moments held an underlying current, a slight movement, a blur.  

Locals taking a boat ride on the Ganges River in Varanasi, India.

Varanasi is a city of very narrow passageways, holding roughly 4 million people alongside free roaming cows, stray dogs and screeching motorbikes. I’m the kind of person that feels most calm when my surroundings are somewhat clean and organized, so maybe it was the confusion of sounds, sights and smells that had me feeling a little off-kilter in India.

I felt continually on alert when I walked the alleys of Varanasi, and spent little time there. Side-stepping cow dung and piles of garbage while attempting to steer clear of motorbikes left little time to enjoy glimpses of the beautiful but hidden temples that sat right up against tea shops and spice stores.  Space is a precious commodity in India, and given the tight alleyways and sheer over-population in Varanasi, the only time I felt like I could fully breath was when I was actually on the Ganges River itself.

Boats at sunrise on the Ganges River in Varanasi, India.

The Ganges River is considered sacred by Hindus and is personified as the goddess Ganga. It is a hub of activity at all hours of the day. It is the Ganges River where the Hindu come to bath away a lifetime of sins; to wash clothes; to drink it’s purported healing waters; to work as boatmen; to set candles afloat with their wishes and intentions; to celebrate; and if they are lucky enough, to die. 

The Hindu come to the Ganges starting early in the morning, believing that bathing in the river washes away sins and provides liberation from the cycle of life and death. I was fascinated by the bathers and worshippers who entered the river's waters and performed a variety of sacred rituals. I was particularly drawn to the beautiful saris worn by the women - they were magical.

A burst of color on the Ganges River in Varanasi, India

Two women in beautiful saris perform spiritual rituals in the Ganges River in Varanasi, India.

A father and son taking an early morning bath in the Ganges River in Varanasi, India.

It is very common to place a small candle inside a cup made from leaves and flowers and float it down the river. Little girls peddle baskets of these all along the waterfront. Watching the small candle being gently placed in the river and float away had a calming and magical feeling to it. 

Wishes floating on the Ganges River in Varanasi, India.

One of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, Varanasi is regarded as one of Hinduism’s most holy. A Hindu is considered extremely fortunate if they are able to die in Varanasi, or have their body transported here once they’ve passed away.  The Hindu believe that if a deceased’s ashes are laid in the Ganges River at Varanasi, their soul will be transported to heaven and escape the cycle of rebirth. As a result, funeral pyres at the “burning ghats” are lit 24 hours a day, seven days a week (photos of the actual cremations is forbidden).

Striking to me were the carrying of dead bodies through the streets, the unguarded way in which bodies were burned, the very public exposure of the cremations. Such physical closeness to death was jarring. Maybe it was the openness of life and death in Varanasi that made me feel uncomfortable.

A local woman collecting water from the Ganges River in Varanasi, India

The ghats (walkways and steps) leading down to the Ganges River pulsed with constant activity. While not as crowded as the alleys, they were full of locals wanting to bless me, massage me, take selfies with me, or take me on a boat ride. The attention grew tiresome fairly quickly, but given the openness of the ghats, I walked them every morning and evening anyway and watched the local life. 

Predawn boats on the Ganges River: Varanasi, India.

Every morning, there were people doing laundry, whether their own or the towels and sheets of the local hotels. They would soak the items in the Ganges River, slam them against rocks, then either hang them to dry on lines and railings, or lay them along the hills.

Early morning laundry on the Ganges River in Varanasi, India

Clothes hanging to dry along the Ganges River in Varanasi, India.

Photographing life along the Ganges became easier as the days progressed but in my mind’s eye, the city was constantly pulsing, always moving. Colors swirled, people melded together.

To see a full gallery of my images from Varanasi, click the button below