In Varanasi, the ancient city on the banks of the Ganges, the river is an intrinsic part of spiritual life for Hindus – she is Ganga, the mother goddess. Bathing in the Mother allows one to wash away the sins of lifetimes. The dead are cremated on its ghats, their ashes returned to Mother Ganga, their souls released from moksha, the cycle of rebirth.
There are also more pragmatic purposes to the Ganges – its water is used by countless dhobi wallahs who launder on its banks; boatmen ply its surface taking pilgrims and tourists from ghat to ghat, the locals wash, bathe and swim in her, and, ultimately, she becomes the repository for every piece of refuse, sewage and waste that comes from human and animal habitation of the city.
The Ganges at Varanasi is so heavily polluted that its waters are septic. Undeterred by this, the people of Varanasi continue to bathe in the Ganges and to use her banks and her ghats when praying. Mysteriously, Ganges water is mysteriously rich in dissolved oxygen – a remarkable phenomenon given its pollution.
In visiting Varanasi, I was immediately struck by its contrasts. The images in Sons of Ganga show these contrasts and explore the seamless intersection of what people in the West often deem to be a division between the religious and secular. In Varanasi, this distinction is blurred, often to the confusion and, sometimes, revulsion, of visitors from the West.
When you stand on the ghats overlooking the Ganges, a tremendous sense of calm and serenity settles upon you. Yet, just metres ahead, men and women splash in the turbid waters of the river, seeking to cleanse themselves of physical and spiritual stains. Behind, large cattle low and defecate on the steps, while touts linger within earshot. The air is heavy with the acrid scent of funeral pyres on the cremation ghats. The hubbub of life by the river is suddenly broken by the ringing of bells and chanting as another corpse, swathed in marigold, is borne towards the pyre, where it will be immersed in the Ganges before it is ceremonially immolated before the burned remains are returned to the river.
I was responding on a quietly instinctive level to this confusing and complex kaleidoscope of the spiritual and unsanitary. As a visitor, it was impossible for me to understand the centuries of cultural and religious tradition that normalised life on the banks of the Ganges. Instead, driven by a desire to create my own understanding, I found myself entering spaces usually occupied by the people of Varanasi:
I walked the ghats and explored the alleyways of the old city. I sat down, waited and was invited to photograph inside akharas (wrestling arenas/gyms) on the banks of the river. I conversed with a retired banker on an evening stroll by the river, a boatman who lived in a shack on the ghat, children who wanted to be photograph and then asked for baksheesh (donation) in recompense, Shaivites who prayed and bathed in the river and a band of young men who washed in the river, exercised in the akhara before heading out to their work in various IT and business companies in the city.
Sons of Ganga shows my exploration of these spaces. This exhibition was held at The Cracked Gallery in Highgate as part of the FotoFreo 2010 Fringe Festival.
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