I’ll start this post off with a quote from Mark Twain about Benares – or Varanasi, as it’s now called:
Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and it looks twice as old as all of them put together!”
The Buddha is said to have preached in Kashi, as it was then called, in the 6th century BC. Kashi is the permanent home of Shiva, one of Hindu’s most important and revered gods.
According to the book Benares – City of Light:
Here Shiva dwells in order to bestow the enlightening wisdom of liberation. Although Shiva is omnipresent, there are a few places that are especially transparent to his luminous presence. And of these few, Kashi, the City of Light, is the most brilliant of all.
People come from all over India to die here. for “death in Kashi is Liberation. From Kashi one makes the great “crossing” to the far shore. Death in Kashi is death known and faced, not feared. Death is faced, transformed, and transcended.
Varanasi is the most sacred and holy city in India. Yet for a first time visitor, it can be overwhelming. It’s not an easy place for a westerner.
It’s crowded, filthy, and there are plenty of touts and scammers, paradoxically. And yet it also has a subtle energy that rises above all that. And that energy comes from the sacred Ganga.
We got up well before dawn this morning to get some shots on the larger camera that Pieter shoots with – the Sony FS7. We wanted to get the sunrise, and also to get more shots of the worshippers at the ghats.
As we drifted along the shoreline, shooting, I noticed that other boats were passing us, full of tourists taking photos.
It must be very disconcerting for these worshippers to come down to the sacred Ganges at daybreak to pray and do their rituals, only to be gawked at and photo-opped by hundreds of tourists sitting metres off shore in boats.
Mind you, that’s what we were doing too – except our camera was bigger.
But it occurred to me that this had become something of a sideshow – like a zoo. And it’s a shame really. There’s an undercurrent of tension here in Varanasi. The locals don’t like the tourists invading their sacred space, their reverential privacy – and I completely understand that.
This is the only place I’ve been to in India where I’m constantly told I can’t take photos – not of sacred places, of which I’m respectful, but of regular activities, and even of people in the street. Today I took a shot of a person walking past, and he aggressively bailed me up and demanded money.
Normally if I take a photo of someone I ask their permission first, and usually that permission is given, but here I’m constantly told no – or if it’s a yes, it’s conditional upon a payment. Even some of the sadhus – the holy men – demand money if you take their shot.
This man didn’t though –
… he just wanted me to buy something from his stall. There was nothing there I wanted to buy, so I offered him some money because I had imposed on his time taking photos. He refused, but I insisted – and he was very grateful.
Getting back to our day – after the early morning shoot we went back to our hotel. Pieter had to do some admin work, Rachit had to line up tomorrow’s filming, so Jennifer and I went for a walk through the labyrinthine system of tiny alleys, jammed full of fascinating stalls.
We stopped for a chai, made fresh and served in the traditional clay cups.
Late in the afternoon as the light became more interesting again we reconvened for more filming – this time it involved various shots of moi walking along the ghats.
We also shot some more pretty pretty footage.
Tomorrow we shoot some staged sequences – and then the next day we’re flying out to Bombay for some shooting there.
It’s taken me a little while to slip into the energy of this ancient city, but now I understand what all the fuss is about…