photo essay: faces of varanasi

In 2012 I watched a program on TV that gave me my first introduction to Varanasi, India’s holiest city and the world’s oldest living city.

The travel program followed National Geographic Magazine photographer, Art Wolfe, around the world on his shoots. Art Wolfe shot the epic Kuma Mela event which happens every thirteen years in Alabahad, Uttar Pradesh. Millions, and I do mean millions, of Hindu sadhus, babas and pilgrims converge upon the mighty Ganga River in Alabahad and wait their turn for a sacred dip in Mother Ganga during this auspicious time in the Hindu calendar.

The sight of all the colorful temples as a back drop to the millions of naked bodies covered in ash with knee length dreadlocks and women in bright sarees was quite a sight. Art Wolfe also visited the nearby city of Varanasi and captured some amazing shots of the 5000 year old city which is also along the Ganges River. Varanasi is the holiest Hindu city in all of India which attracts Hindu devotees throughout India as well as around the world.

After a bit more research about Varanasi….it quickly got added to my top ten travel list. In 2013 I traveled to Varanasi and wasn’t disappointed.

In fact, it changed the course of my life. Look what you’ve done Art Wolfe!

Varanasi is where I met my husband. I have been living in India full time since September 2013, dividing my time between Varanasi and Goa and what a ride it has been.

Needless to say I’ve had some pretty amazing experiences in Varanasi and seen some awesome sights….some good and some disturbing. Every day is an adventure is Varanasi.

“Faces of Varanasi” is a small collection of images of interesting people, family, friends and photos of local boys who are real characters and are like my little brothers. They work as tour guides, boat men and shop owners to make money.

I hope you enjoy the photos and faces that I’ve come to know in Varanasi!

HOLY MEN OF VARANASI

 

baba

Happy Baba…want to do a private puja with a holy man – he’s your man but be prepared to shell out some cash for your spiritual experience.

One can’t help but be mesmerized by the holy people of Varanasi that are everywhere. Their clothing, face painting, body painting and adornments are so unusual and intriguing.

Varanasi is Shiva’s home and what makes it so sacred and why you find so many Hindu followers visiting Varanasi. Many of the Shiva devotees cover themselves with ash as a sign of reverence to their god – Shiva. Shiva liked to go to the cremation site and sit by the fires and would then cover himself with the ash of the cremated bodies. Holy men still do this. They also give up all material possessions (including clothing) and ties to loved ones in their life to devote themselves to a life of prayer and religion. Along the riverfront there are many temples which attract the thousands of Hindu followers each month.

sadhu and tourist

Yoga anyone? An enthusiastic yoga student gets some help from a naked Sadhu.

 

sadhu

Meditation any time and any where…only in Varanasi will you see this!

 

sadhus

Holy men hanging out and chilling with some chillum

 

Varanasi Baba

What a colorful and interesting looking holy man. I am sure he has some interesting stories to tell. The brilliant and rich colors of his clothing and his white beard were so striking against his dark skin.

 

street baba

Good morning baba

 

Baba 2

Just another wonderfully adorned and dressed holy man at the nightly Aarti (fire and water ceremony) at the main ghat.

 

man in window

Holy man at the Nepali Temple

FACES OF MEER GHAT

When I first met Rahul in 2013 he had a shop which sold the typical Indian tourist garments, water, cigarettes….basically this and that. The shop was right outside the hotel I was staying at, Alka Hotel, at Meer Ghat in the heart of the old city and very close to the riverfront. Every time I arrived to my hotel or left I was promptly greeted with an enthusiastic “Namaste!”….”the rest is history” as they say.

The shop was also very close to another popular hotel called Ganapati.  Due to its strategic location it became the “go-to” place for all the tourists wanting information about tours, shopping, eating, train tickets and everything else. So the shop became a meeting place for all neighborhood boys who did tours, boat rides, had shops, did tours of the cremation ghats…just to name a few.

I would pass the days (almost six months) hanging out at the shop watching Varanasi “happen”. No day at Meer Ghat was the same. Food vendors selling idli, peanut masala, chai, samosa, lassi and whatever the seasonal specialty was came and went. There was no need to go anywhere else to eat well and to eat cheap. I was able to try new dishes and snacks just sitting there and the boys were always excited for me to try their personal favorites which they always bought for me. I wasn’t allowed to pay for anything.

The neighborhood boys and young men are so charismatic and sharp. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know them these past years and appreciate how they look out for me and help me any time they can. Their generosity extends beyond their means….never do they hesitate to share their meal or snacks with me when I know they’ve barely got enough money in their pocket for their next meal.

Most families living in the Meer Ghat neighborhood haven’t gone to school and are lacking reading and writing skills yet they make due. Others have had some basic schooling….but what impresses me is how this new younger generation has learned to speak English so well and how many of them have picked up phrases in different languages such as Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Spanish, French and others so they can quickly engage tourists in hopes of doing some business with them. Many boys have started working at very young ages out of necessity to help their families and have gained a tremendous amount of working experience very early in life.

I was personal secretary to most of these “entrapeneurs”….writing and replying to text messages from customers coming to Varanasi and setting up Facebook pages for them as well as local guest houses and shops that wouldn’t otherwise have access to getting things online. I was happy to help those who wanted the help.

Ajay

Ajay – Tour Guide specializing in religious groups coming to Varanasi and all around nice guy.

 

Arjun

Arjun – Shop owner selling snacks next to Sunrise Lodge on Meer Ghat. He’s got the sweetest little girl ever!

 

Babu

Babu – Tour guide and Mr. Fashionista! What can I say about Babu? Wow. He is one hell of a charismatic young man. Super nice, always looking sharp for the local ladies and an excellent guide.

 

boat boy

Boat man who takes tourists up and down the Ganga in the large creaking wooden boats. It always amazed me how easily these small guys handled these big heavy boats, they make it look easy. And let me tell you, it’s not. I tried!

 

boat dinner - rahul

Rahul – Boat man and excellent cook. Here he is preparing a tasty chicken curry for all the neighborhood friends on the boat. It was a fun night and fine feast.

 

eating lassi at ramnagar

Boat men enjoying lassi at Ramnagar, we had a fun day with lots of joking and laughing

 

local boat man

This was one of the boat men who wasn’t able to speak but was accepted within the neighborhood. Unfortunately, he liked the local whisky a bit too much and has gone missing for some months now.

local boy

Veema – local boat man

 

Manu at Holi

Manu – Owner of Sunrise Lodge and Jai Shive Restaurant on Meer Ghat. My home whenever I am in Varanasi. He is one of my favorite people in Varanasi, so nice and friendly. Here you see them in all their glory during the Holi color celebration.

 

Rahul

Rahul – My hubby

 

raju

Raju and Buchu – Raju came at the age of 9 years old from Bihar to work in Varanasi. His 15 year old brother worked nearby but mostly Raju was on his own staying with this family and working in their shop. It’s a story that happens all too often, as the neighboring state of Bihar is very poor and there are few work options there.

Renna and friend

Renna (right) – Tour guide and all around nice guy. He’s doing well in school and will go to university to study engineering (these stories make me very happy)….although his dream is to be a professional cricket player. Renna is a very popular tour guide because he has so much personality and is very knowledgeable about Varanasi. He gave me a tour once with my friends and it was a great day! He works with Varanasi Old City Tours.

 

Rohit

Rohit – Tour guide and guide for the cremation area. He comes from a difficult and very poor family but works hard and stays out of trouble. He is very respectful to me and always keeps and eye out for me.

Santos

Santos – Local tour guide who even speaks pretty good Spanish – self taught. Clever guy and very gentle and nice chap.

 

Sunil (2)

Sunil – Local guide who has been working for a long time. His English is superb and he’s so friendly and all his clients are always very pleased with his tours and the assistance he gives.

 

tour guy

Pankach – Tour Guide and one of the friendliest and happiest guys in Varanasi.

 

Lonely Planet and many of the guide books and travel advice you find online often discourage tourists visiting Varanasi from using the services of these street guides implying that they are not trustworthy and will cheat you. I can’t vouch for all of Varanasi, but I know the boys of Meer Ghat are doing honest work. They work hard and “know” Varanasi better than any outside guide a hotel might arrange for you.

It’s true that everyone is looking to make a buck….but that’s what we do when we work….we work, we get paid. It pains me every time I see tourists haggling and chiseling down the prices for a boat ride or a 3 hour walking tour of the area just because they think the guides are not worthy of getting paid more and they want to save $1. Really! This thinking is closed minded and ignorant. The prices are fair and the quality of information and service tourists received is top notch.

Varanasi is a difficult place to navigate. Try getting lost for 3 hours on your own in Varanasi….then the tour price will seem like a steal! Everyone is so keen to follow the trend these days to eat and shop “local”, why are so many tourists (and, yes, this includes backpackers trying to save a rupee) so unwilling to support the young working guides, boat men and shop owners to get one foot forward in life?

I have been to family meals at their homes for holidays, weddings, gone on excursions, watched them play, joke and fight as brothers do. The boys of Meer Ghat have grown up together and their families have lived in these their respective family homes for generations.

Now they are getting savvy about Social Media too and all have Facebook accounts so they can keep in touch with clients and future clients. They are also are starting to jump on the Trip Advisor bandwagon with listings of their own and prompting clients to write reviews for them….and it’s working. These 13, 14 and 15 year olds are getting new clients from good referrals each day from all over the world.

Rahul grew up with all these people, he knows everyone in the Meer Ghat and the Main Ghat area….and by default, now I do too. It’s been a fun experience to really get to know the locals and be able to break the barrier from tourist to friend….or auntie as they call me.

shop guy

Vinod– Shop owner and yogi…not! We’ve had many a chai here passing the time and trying to bring in customers.

 

Commission – Myth or Reality

The dirty dark secret is that yes, it’s true….Varanasi is a heavily commission based city. It’s what all the locals live off of. However, tourists shouldn’t be alarmed by this. The silk shops, boat rides, restaurants, aromatherapy shops that you might be taken to and buying things from are still giving you good prices and discounts. The commissions that the locals earn by bringing customers to shops or boats don’t effect the prices or quality of the items you are paying for. If you went on your own you would pay the same prices, the commission is coming out of the shop owners pocket as a thank you for bringing customers. Commission is not evil, it’s just what makes Varanasi go round.

Manu and baby

Manu and Arjun’s baby girl…she gives the best hugs around!

 

Ajays family

Hanging out at Ajay’s house with this silly cast of characters….what a picture! Their personalities really come through here.

 

neighborhood girl

Neighborhood little girl dressed up for one of the many local festivals.

Neighborhood girls

Local girls dressed to the nine’s! Usually they are running around in ragtag clothes barely clinging to their little bodies but Varanasi people take their celebrations seriously and always come out dressed to impress.

 

neighborhood boy

Sunil’s nephew looking especially surly this day.

wedding kids 2

Looking good for the wedding celebration

wedding kids

My first “Indian Wedding” in Varanasi

wedding

The bride and groom in all their glory. This was an arranged marriage which is still quite typical in Varanasi and throughout India. The bride is 16 and the groom is 20….marriage is still done at quite an early age and the wife will leave her family to go live at her new husbands family home.

Sitar Player 2

Babaji – Very accomplished sitar player and teacher. You can find him playing every night at Ganga Fuji restaurant which is near The Golden Temple.

 

 

Sitar Player

Shardhah in sari 2

Shardah – My beautiful sister in law all dressed up for a Hindu festival puja (ceremony).

crowd on stairs

I love the surprises that happen in Varanasi. I started the day with a simple walk on the Ganga and was ushered into this photo of an Indian group visiting Varanasi from South India. An unforgettable moment for me. These unpredictable moments is what makes my heart warm more and more to Mother India.

 

old woman on river 3

Woman washing her clothes in the Ganga.

 

young girl at river

Young girl taking time out on the river. She is sitting on one of the many slabs set along the river for locals to use for doing laundry. During the day you can always hear the slap slap slap as people slap their wet clothes on the slab to get the dirt and soap out.

 

water buffalo

I’m ending my “Faces of Varanasi” photo essay with this handsome guy. I couldn’t resist including his adorable mug here. The water buffalo are ever present in Varanasi and love being in the water. I would pass a lot of time watching them chill out in the Ganga.

 

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