100 Days in India Project
3/ 100 Varanasi Pilgrims
The Indian town of Varanasi, or Benares, or Banaras – given a variety of names because the original word is written in Hindi and, like many words we noticed in India, the English translation can be based upon the way the word sounds, and even that can differ from person to person. As one of the worlds oldest continuously inhabited cities, it is supposedly one of the most holy places for Hindu people. We were told it was because at that point the sacred river Ganges flows in a northerly direction, rather than southerly, but a quick check of our map showed several places where it meandered south from the Himalayas before taking a short trip north again. Everywhere we travelled in India we were given different accounts of history and facts, but that just makes it even more interesting.
Either way, its revered status is immediately obvious as it is absolutely full to bursting with Hindu pilgrims, and other sneaky pilgrims of different religions who just wanted to top up their religious energy. They arrive by the trainload, walking the final dusty miles through the busy narrow chaotic streets, heading towards the waters of this great holy, absolutely filthy, river.
When they arrive at the river they have to pick their way through the lines of poor beggars, starving children, people with leprosy, people with no eyes, limbless babies whose mothers would offer you the chance to touch their ‘miracle’ child for a couple of rupees. All of them had the same strong need to bathe in the river, buy poor quality plastic trinkets – including bottles of various designs in which to steal away half a litre of their own holy water for later – and perform funeral rites (more about that another day).
To get from the streets down to the river’s edge there are countless ancient stone steps known as ghats, each with their own name and purpose. One of the main entry points was the Dashashwamedh ghat and while my artist wife Fiona was sat there doing a sketch, usually surrounded by every fascinated child in the local area, I would just sit there watching the constant procession of people walking down and up the steps. I couldn’t help but notice the incredible myriad of worn and cracked feet coming past. Bare feet that have carried their bodies for miles across India to this singular point by the river Ganges in Varanasi. I very much doubt that I could walk for 5 minutes without footwear anywhere in India but shoes, for the pilgrims, are definitely optional.