January 15, 2021
Photography and words by Ulka Chauhan
Introduction by Karin Svadlenak Gomez
Ulka Chauhan is originally from India, and has lived in Boston, New York and Cape Town. Currently she is dividing her time between Zurich and Bombay. Apart from photographing life on the streets of Zurich, she enjoys documenting the rich tapestry of colours, character and culture of all countries she visits. Although Ulka has travelled extensively, no place has touched her quite like Varanasi, the spiritual capital of India. In the pre-pandemic month of January, she set out to capture the spirit of Varanasi, and it was the energy of the people and the place that captured her. It was a transformative journey and through her pictorial story Ulka transports us on a mystic voyage to this timeless city of life and eternity.
“Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” - Mark Twain
Situated on the banks of holy river Ganga, Varanasi is believed to be the oldest living city in the world. For centuries, the mystique of this place has been attracting pilgrims from across India as well as abroad. People come to worship and offer their prayers to the river Goddess – 'Mother Ganga.' A dip in the holy waters is said to wash away all sins. There are more than 80 ghats (steps) leading down to the river. Some ghats are dedicated to worship and others that are dedicated to cremation. It is believed that if anyone dies in Varanasi they will attain salvation and freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth.
At the crack of dawn each day, the ghats are gently peppered with people performing their rituals. The quietude of the early morning, the soft sunlight glistening over the holy waters, the reflections of the row boats docked along the river bank are both calming and invigorating at the same time.
A monk recites the sacred texts as part of his morning prayers and meditation. The serenity of the moment…the quietude of the early morning, the soft sunlight glistening over the holy waters and the reflections of the row boats docked along the river banks; makes one realise the value of reflection and looking within.
A school of novice monks perform sun salutations and other yoga asanas as part of their morning routine. The young monks belong to the Brahmin caste and they are training to become brahmin priests and to follow a spiritual life. The daily practice of morning yoga on the ghats is an essential part of their training to lead a disciplined life and to stay connected with the energy of the earth.
Some pilgrims take a morning dip in Ganga to cleanse their body, mind and soul. Others wash their clothes in her waters. It is believed that those who bathe in the sacred waters will be free of all sins and attain salvation.
Worshippers make their way down the narrow alleyways of the old city to make their offering at one of the countless temples. It is estimated that there are 23,000 temples in Varanasi. Making an offering of flowers and coconut at a temple or a shrine is a way for the worshippers to pay their respect and stay devoted to god.
A story of Varanasi is not complete without speaking of it’s holy men. Varanasi is a spiritual home for India’s Sadhus. These men are revered as representatives of the gods and sometimes worshipped as gods themselves. They are ascetic wanderers respected for their holiness and feared for their curses. They wilfully renounce themselves of all earthly possession and dedicate their lives to the pursuit of spiritual liberation.
Apart from the Sadhus, Varanasi is also home to Buddhist monks at the Nepalese temple and Hindu pandits (priests) who perform the Ganga Aarti ceremony. An ash smeared Naga Sadhu who was sitting around a bonfire. His renunciation of all belonging is a sharp contrast to the big city lifestyles of short-lived materialistic pleasures. Another Sadhu clad in red, the intensity of his gaze exuded inner strength and resilience and he appeared to be detached from his surroundings.
At the Nepalese Temple, there was an elderly monk soaking in some afternoon sun in the temple courtyard. The ultimate ceremony of all takes place in Varanasi every evening as dusk descends. Throngs of pilgrims gather on row boats docked along the water’s edge and along the steps of the ghats to watch the Ganga Aarti. As part of the ceremony, the pandits circle glittering oil lamps, shells and tufts of horse tail in a clockwise direction. This is accompanied by chants and songs in praise of the mother Ganga.
As the ceremony draws to a close, the pandits sprinkle petals of marigolds in the air. The sight of the showering saffron is so magical, it is as if blessings are raining down from the heavens above.