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
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.
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.
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.
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.