The River of Life and DeathIn the late afternoon against the backdrop of the setting sun both locals and tourists were drawn toward the Ghats of Varanasi as if summoned by certain unseen force. Walking in brisk movements they filled the few roads leading into the main area where the ghats faced the Ganges River. All heavy transports were not allow into the streets nearby, while trishaws carrying tourists manage to squeeze into the back lanes and small alleys bringing tourists closer to the ghats. But we will still have to walk the last stretch of the road that’s packed with people and hawkers peddlering at the roadside.
The evening puja is one of the main highlights of Varanasi and during the week we were there it was more congested than usual as they were also celebrating the Saraswati puja as well. This hugely popular celebration of Goddess Saraswati also includes street parade by elaborately decorated vehicle accompanied by musicians and dancers as they dance their way across the city. It attracted thousands of Indian from all over the country and a large numbers of foreign tourists too. Our boat was already waiting at the bathing steps when we reach the main ghat but the river was so full of boats you could hardly see the river in the darkness. Hundreds of boats of all sizes loaded with people jostling for vantage point to see the puja ceremony. Smaller boats anchored themselves to the bigger boats forming a barricade while other boats, which came later try to squeeze to the front. There were so many boats tied together you can practically walk across the river from boats to boats.
As the sky get dark spotlights brighten the whole place resembling a huge outdoor rock concert as thousands pack the main ghats bathing steps. Soon the sound of ringing bells filled the night sky and smoke from the incense engulfed the crowd drawing their attention to the beginning of the puja ceremony by Brahmin priests. There were singing and loud music follow by offerings of incense. Then came the Aarti ritual in which light from the wicks soaked in ghee or camphor is waved in circular motion, in clockwise manner around the deity.
Shooting from our rocking boat was not easy, as I couldn’t use a tripod. I have to use a longer lens as our boat was also anchored quite a distant away from the bathing steps. I need to push up my ISO for a faster shutter speed even thought I was using a 70-200 f/2.8, as the priests were continuously moving during the ceremony. The whole ceremony lasted more then an hour and I was already getting tired standing on the boat. We left just before the ritual ended to avoid the crowd.
Apart from the evening prayers the early morning hours are equally popular as pilgrims flock to the ghats at Varanasi to take a dip in the holy Ganges, which is believed to absolve one from all sins. It is here where life and death happen together. Pilgrims offer their morning prayers to the rising sun, while next to it the dead are cremated in open burning with the ashes flowing down the Ganges River. There are almost 100 ghats along the banks of Ganges River at Varanasi. Dashashwamedh Ghat located close to Vishwanath Temple is probably the most spectacular ghat and is packed with people in the morning and during the evening puja. The best way to see the ghats is an early morning boat rides down the Ganges River just as the sun rises over the riverbanks for a panoramic shot of the ghats. After that take a walk along the bathing steps for a close-up of lives and death unfolding right before your lens.