Posts Tagged ‘Benares’

This morning, the sky still opaque with the persistent Varanasi fog, and a damp chill in the air, I set out to release a photo of my dear friend Serena into the Ganges River. I’ve been living on the ghats of Benares (the ancient name of this city) for over one month, each day thinking about and wondering when I would find the perfect moment. The moment came today because I leave here in a few days.

I would have done it yesterday with my friend Seema, who has helped me with translation in interviews, and my friend Nandini, an eleven-year old who is one of the many children who sell candles, except when I reached inside my camera bag for the photo it was not there.

My intention was to buy a candle – which is a small bowl made of dried banana leaves, festooned with flowers, and a candle nestled in the middle – from her and some of the other children, and have a small ceremony with their chatter and playfulness as the music and representation of life celebrated.


The candle-selling children, who range in age from about seven to early teens, tout candles to support their families. Some come from multi-generational silk weavers who’ve lost their businesses to China who undercut Benares’s price of silk by nearly half by using machines versus the traditional hand looming used here.

When I ask the children about school they all assure me that they go but I see them on the ghats at all hours on my near daily strolls. I met a social worker on one of my strolls who confirmed my suspicion; they do not go to school but work all day. The positive side is that some of their time is spent in playing together, talking with and learning to speak English with tourists, (with some of us treating them to chai, biscuits and camaraderie) and perfecting their art of persuasion. Putting a candle into the Ganga ensures ‘good karma’ they tell potential customers.

Instead of a lively celebration for my friend it was a quiet one with only me and a handful of flat-headed black-winged gray birds with bright orange beaks and orange-ringed eyes in attendance. I walked to a secluded spot by the river’s edge where remnants of a straw statue of the Goddess Saraswati lay composting into the river.

There was a four-day celebration in honor of Saraswati last week, a bit of a story in itself. It was a curious affair where, in part, young, inebriated pelvic-thrusting men followed a truck with glaring lights and blaring music through the night streets with a plastic replica of the goddess positioned to watch their devotional carousal. The distortion of their perverted worship lay in ruins on the bank of the Ganga.

Goddess Saraswati embodies the attributes of learning, music and art. Serena had a fond appreciation for her. It seemed the ideal spot to set my banana-leafed marigold candle afloat.

Because Serena had refused to give into death, the only discussion of it between us came in an e-mail that she sent to me when I was in India in 2008. She told me that her doctor said her cancer was not the worst of her problems, it was the staph infection she had developed in her lower abdomen. Her grim words came as a shock; she was told to put her affairs in order. I had seen Serena four months earlier, and while it was evident that she was struggling, she didn’t appear to be close to the threshold of death.

I was able to speak with her twice upon my return home before she slipped into first a confused place and then a comatose one. I felt weak in her presence, not knowing how to converse with her. I was ill at ease to discuss death, assuming that she would not have appreciated my candor given that she continued to believe she was going to heal. So there was no mention of her afterlife wishes, and with the countless hours of time we had previously spent together, I couldn’t recall it ever being a topic of discussion. But a few days before Serena’s passing her father told me that he had talked with her about it. He said he had to use a hypothetical situation – a car accident – since she refused to talk about the possibility of her death. She told him she wanted some of her remains to go to India. At the time he could not recall, but thought she had said she wanted her friend Barbara to take them. A few days after she died, her father e-mailed me saying, “We know Serena loved and still loves you or she would not have chosen you to take her ashes (if you will) to India the next time you go.”

I am not sure what transpired between that e-mail and the one I received from him a few months before leaving for this trip to India in which I asked about taking some of her remains with me. I was told it was not a possibility, that it was now unclear what Serena’s wishes were based on a notebook they found amongst her things that included last wishes that were apparently not in her handwriting.

Serena spent a year traveling in India, but told me that Varanasi was one place she never visited and always wanted to. It was likely where she would have wanted to have some of her remains, since those that choose the Ganga River in Varanasi as their final resting place do so in the belief that they will avoid rebirth. Her belief in eastern philosophies overrode those of her strict Catholic upbringing.

Since I was not able to release her remains into the river, an image seemed like a good substitute. All of my pictures were in storage in anticipation of moving and traveling; the only representation was in the form of a photo magnet. I made a photocopy of it, wanting a picture that would easily disintegrate in a sea of a million bodies.

I considered setting fire to the photo but decided instead to stand it up alongside the edge between the marigolds and the bowl and only light the candle. The river’s current was slight but enough for the bowl to quickly whirl away from the shore. It went a short distance and then turned back towards where the remains of Saraswati lay, as if to touch the feet of the Goddess. With that it changed course and floated down the river. I watched it for some time as it bobbed up and down in the green waters. After several minutes the paper photo fell onto the candle and burst into flames. I felt the sensation of liberation for a dear friend who had always wanted to come to Varanasi.

One-year anniversary tribute to Serena – Death from Cancer of a Misogynist Mindset

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I adore dogs. Actually I am fond of all animals. But dogs share a special place in my heart. Their social nature, their devotion, their companionship – D-O-G / G-O-D

This dog wanted someone to play with. In his excitement he started rubbing his head in my hair.

One of the most difficult things about being in India is seeing the condition of the dogs, most of whom are feral, street dogs that spend their days scavenging for food and their nights roving in packs. I often hear them fighting amongst themselves in intimidating territorial barks. During the day many of them can be found standing at perfect attention in front of shops or eateries, hoping a benevolent soul will share something with them.

Last night I sat on the ghats feeding a scrawny white dog some chapati. The dog was initially reluctant and leery of me; they are often abused so are naturally reserved. But once she realized I was a friend she ate the bread with a fervor, and was soon joined but what look liked her sibling who wanted to be fed too. Afterwards she sat next to me in appreciation and let me pet her tiny head. Before taking leave she held up her paw and held my hand with perfect grace and camaraderie. A beautiful display of affection. The young guy sitting next to me said the dog could feel the love.

The dog situation is particularly painful in Varanasi where I’ve been told sterilization is not legal because this is a holy city. Therefore, there are puppies everywhere. Everywhere.

This pack of puppies does not look to be doing well. It has been very cold here so they lay near or in the warm embers of a fire pit.

This is one of the puppies from the above pictured pack. I found it strange to see a full crockery of milk sitting untouched next to them. They almost appear to lethargic to imbibe in it. Very sad.

This doting mom of new puppies has her home on a pile of fly-infested garbage. It broke my heart to see them in this state.

I found this large pack of two families sleeping inside the entrance of a temple.

I encounter a number of very pitiful looking dogs; this being one of them. I’ve noticed that the sickest looking dogs hang out around the sweet shops.

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I’m in Varanasi, one my favorite places in India. I’m staying in Assi Ghat where I lived when I was here in 2006. It’s the southern most ghat on the Ganges.

Each section, referred to as a ghat, has steps that lead down to the river.

One of my primary reasons for returning to Varanasi, also known by it’s ancient name Benares, is to photograph each ghat from the shores of the river, up the steps, and through the winding alleyways that lead into the bustle of the city.

A project that could take some time with the multiple ghats, I didn’t get to it during the six weeks I was here last time because the sadhus (holy men) came to town after the Kumbh Mela gathering. Instead I spent time getting to know and photographing them.

Another great way to see the ghats is from a boat. When I switched hotel rooms the morning after my arrival, my luggage was fetched and moved by way of boat. The morning glide offered a perspective of life on the ghats from the eye of the Ganga.

Flying kites is a favorite past-time with the children playing on the ghats. These boys were offering a slightly different variation then I’ve seen before with their knickers hanging low.

The pollution levels in the holy river have reached staggering proportions; it has been declared unfit for human bathing. It is however, a practice that continues unabated; both natives and pilgrims alike partake of its sacred waters. Bathing and laundry soaps have been banned, but that does not stop them from being used. The Ganga washes bodies and clothes, as well as sins, dishes and water buffalo.

One of the most important applications of ‘Ma Ganga’ is the release of the deceased. It is believed that moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirth) is attained if the Ganges is one’s final resting place. Unfortunately, bodies are only partially burned when put into the river, adding to the pollution problem.

There is also industrial waste, urban waste water, and raw sewage contributing to the contaminated waters. The Ganga, the most populous river basin in the world, has become the breeding ground for 1.5 billion litres of sewage a day, from the 692 villages, towns, and cities that deposit into it. Dr. Sudhirender Sharma, in his paper The Ganga, says ‘The river – an ancient symbol of purity and cleansing has become a great open sewer along much of it’s length.’

Yet, with all the pollution and impurity the Ganga has swirling in her waters, to be near the river creates a tranquility, a sense of timelessness. But Sharma and others campaigning to save the Ganga, wonder for how much longer.

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It’s hard to say what made Benares, said to be the oldest of all cities, feel so otherworldly. But I imagine it had something to do with the Ganges River, and the Sadhus who were there after the Kumbh Mela celebration had ended in the neighboring city of Allahabad.

Benares, also called Varanasi, is referred to as the ‘city of death’. Some migrate to the banks of the Ganges as they approach old age so their ashes will become part of the river, hoping to avoid rebirth. It is purported that to have the Ganges as one’s final resting place removes them from the cycle of earthly incarnation. Old, withered widows line the narrow streets of the Ghats, arms outstretched shaking their metal bowl, begging for alms.

As I sat on the bank of the Ganges in a world that I was sure must have been a figment of my elaborate imagination, or perhaps a dream, I wondered, what is this life about. Why are we here? Why was I in this place? The only answer that came, each time that I’d ask, was that I allow myself to fully see and feel the suffering, open my heart to it, and endeavor to help alleviate it, in whatever small way that I can. And though small it may seem, it is important to remember that each of our deeds is like a drop in the Ganges that makes up a mighty river that carries souls to heaven/nirvana.

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