Varanasi, The Eternal Paradox

Varanasi Red.
[Varanasi Red, the red from neon light reflects through the gullis of Varanasi's complicated core]

Dazed from the heat, groggy from my seventeen hour journey on the train, I look across the street to a crowded market in the direction of a row of cycle rickshaws. I stood there hunched under the weight of my backpack, bathing in sweat, dwarfed by a giant billboard of Amitabh Bachchan that couldn’t help making me smile. It read “Uttar Pradesh mein dum hai, kyonki yahan jurm kam hai. (UP is strong because there's less crime here).”I tried to decipher the place, take it in slowly, process the sights, sounds and smells from all I had read about it. This is Varanasi-the Hindu holy city, the place to die, the home of the Ganga, a place to bathe and be purified.

Clothes on a Wire
[A old man put up his dhoti up to dry after a dip in the ganga. ]

Many go to Varanasi in search for ‘Kashi’, the luminous abode of the gods, one of the holiest tirthas (literally a "crossing" or sacred place where mortals can cross over to the divine, or the gods and goddesses come to bathe on earth), where many return to die in the hope that they may achieve moksha, the salvation of the soul from the cycle of birth, where it is said that Shiva himself whispers the mantras of salvation into the ears of a dying person. It is a place that is believed to have been in existence since the time of the Mahabharata, a city where Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon at Sarnath or where Adi Shankaracharya taught Hieun Tsang,the Chinese traveller. It has an ancient history that Mark Twain once famously described as "older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together."

Dyeing by the Ganga
[Orange, Dyeing by the Ganga.]

I walked across to what looked like a farmer’s market with women in faded sarees sitting on their haunches selling produce – those huge things had to be pumpkins and oh such lovely pink guavas. But there is no time to look, not until I have found a hotel and checked in; and then I will be free to roam.

A rickshaw-wallah stood there patiently, coaxing me with a smile, tempting me to unburden my luggage and rest my feet on the steel frame of his rickshaw. As I sit there on the worn out rexine seats of the cycle rickshaw I fidget from side to side cramming my hand deep into my pockets searching for the piece paper with the address of where I needed to go. “Dashashvamedh”, I finally announced after locating it. My first impression of Varanasi is that it sounds like the hundred tinkles of cycle bells gripped up in a mass of humanity.

[Cycle-rickshaw wallah on the streets of Varanasi ]

Peddling Shadows on the Street
[Peddling shadows on the street of Varanasi.]

Thees rupiah,” [30 rupees] the rickshaw wallah repeated. “Pucchees”[25] I negotiated by habit. As he concedes his feet catch my eye and I realize that he is pedaling my weight and the weight of my luggage barefeet all for a cost less then a haircut in Bombay. I give him his 30 rupees and I disappear into the city’s complicated core, its narrow gullis and kopchas (lanes), a narrow labyrinth too small for even a cycle rickshaw to pass.

So the Pink Flows


Vishwanath Galli smells of alu-kachoris, jalebis and marigolds. Long tailed green parrots came and went from the rooftops, flapping and squawking, while an armed paunchy policeman spat a stream of scarlet betel juice onto the broken pavement but I walked on with the crumpled piece of paper in my hand. I came across to a row of vendors along the front of the buildings on my right: there a girl in a blue school uniform stood at the open-front stall selling brass pots and pans.

“Ganga-fuji” I asked.

“Theeshra Gulli Right koh !” (third lane to the right), she said nonchalantly as she tried hard not to look me in the face.

[The old doors Varanasi's old havellis all clumped together in the giant maze that is the city]

I looked ahead and there squeezed between two buildings in a space less than 3 feet ran the gulli. The alleyway was no more than crevice- it appeared unthinkable to walk in it but as people entered and left I thought again. The light was dim and the cool damp air weighed down on my shoulders as I walk with others in a single file, often walking sideways to avoid the almost unavoidable rubbing of shoulders. The lane bends and is already blocking the entrance from sight behind me. Dodging a wet heap of cowdung on the road I walk on as the alley makes another bend and then meanders off to the right. There was a sign above the lane announcing my hotel and I double checked its name with the piece paper in my hand. With my hotel finally found I entered its curtained environ only to return a few minutes later luggage less with a camera in hand.

The River....

[Dashashvamedh in the morning]

Down to the Ghats - Varanasi.

Ganga has an Office.
[The ganga has an office]

It is now time to find the Ganges and when I do I sit myself on one of the many steep steps that make up Dashashvamedh ghat, the main bathing ghat that also bears witness to the aarti in the evening. Of the lakhs of pilgrims that come to Varanasi each year, many of them will stop to bathe here first. The city’s waterfront stretches out on either side, a long curve of the river bend made into a series (eighty or so) of stepped waterfront ghats, each with a tall fleet of steps from the Ganges to the level of the city’s winding streets. The ghats are the theatres of life that bring the magic of Varanasi to life; you can stroll the entire three kilometer stretch over a whole day and never be bored. As I sit here sipping on my chai(tea) in a kulhurh (earthen pot) watching pilgrims bathe, they stand in my sight, waist-deep in the glistening water at a distance of perhaps a few unwound sarees. In unison they cup the river in their hands and then let it stream down their face. I imagine it is lukewarm, filmed with soap, oil and Himalayan alluvial, water that both soils and cleans at the same time just like the city it flows in.

All the pictures on flickr.

Hi, We are templateify, we create best and free blogger templates for you all i hope you will like this blogify template we have put lot of effort on this template, Cheers, Follow us on: Facebook & Twitter


Musings.. said...

Lovely post and great pics.. Reminds me of my visit many years back from college!!


V said...

This trip must have been excellent in more than one way.
The pictures show it :)

[See I'm reading]

Pragni~The Dream Catcher~ said...

the pictures are so vibrant.. beautifully composed yes, but the colors are just so vibrant.. like they v been freshly done with jewel toned water-paints.. wish I could get tht effect..

perspective said...

You're so totally talented...
loved your description of the galli..and how it led to ur hotel... totally loved it!
I think I was there for a few moments...

I wish you all the very best!

neo said...

Its my hometown and I must say that it seems more mystical and colorful when watched through the lens of a visitor. :)

Some say that its the oldest living city on the planet, even older than Rome.

I have lived 21 years in this city and still can't map the infinite gullies. They carry a life whose dynamics are better lived than described! Sometimes you will be amazed that such narrow lanes can allow cars to go through them.

Govar said...

Amazing pix. I just loved the effects... kinda makes everything looks great. How did u get this effect? SLR with some special lens? Would be great if you can share some tips - meetgovar at yahoo dot com or

Tapan said...

great pix, great writing.

Anonymous said...

Get over it, its not that great a place for you to romanticise it to this extent.

indscribe said...

boh't umda, khuub likha hai

yugesh said...

man, did u miss BHU?..i afraid not!..well then did ya forget to mention or it's not worthmentioning?

Akshay said...

musings - thank you for the comment, Varanasi is a wonderful place - glad my piece reminded me of your trip in college.

v - the trip was excellent, I never doubted you read my blog.

Pragni - if varanasi is one thing it is photogenic. Impresses upon a photographer's imagination if nothing else.

Lavanya - thanks means more coming from you - glad you liked the piece love your work on flickr.

Neo - I'm told the it the longest existing settlement in one place but the city we see today as Varanasi is not more than 300 years old. Varanasi was destroyed several times only to be rebuilt.

It seams must older but, older than time.

Govar - This my new Camera a Nikon D200 - its a great piece of work, I shoot it on a vivid function, some of the picture have adjusted colour.

tapan - thanks.

anonymous - personally I didn't think I romanticised it at all.

Neha said...

half the charm lies in the bright colours that small town india wears. and you do a super job of capturing it all. as always, enjoyed the post, but this time, more for the pictures.

oxy_moron said...

Hey Akshaye,

Love the pics..i've been planning on getting a good camera for a while now..think Nikon D200 it will be:)

Though you can find me on the Dashashwamedh ghat almost every evening, it's still great to see it in such beautiful pictures. Great Work!

Karnail said...

Well written but try to avoid putting so many photos on the blog, this makes the loading slow and reading(understanding) the script difficult. Its excellent on Flickr.

GuNs said...

Congrats in the Indiblogs award and the various published articles. I had lost the link to your blog when I moved to the UK a few months ago but am glad Suyog posted a link to your blog in one of his posts.

Please do check out some photos on my blog that Ive put up (mainly to test the transition from Zoto to Picasa) and leave your comments/critique there.


apu said...

Beautiful. Much enjoyed. Made me wonder though if it really is so beautiful, or you chose to leave the seedier side out. (Not judging, just wondering, maybe because it seems too lovely !)

kuwar said...

get feel very cool with dadar galli pic.

may i add your link address on my blog

Raffael said...

Great stuff....Beautiful Pictures.....

Poetry said...

The moon is gone.

She fled as dawn approached.

Dawn as a slowly opening eye.

White sea birds skimming over the water,

looking for an early morning snack.

The mirror brightens.

From a blood moon at dawn to a mirror

reflecting waking life...


I woke her to take the moon.

Her campaign was swift and terrible.

Metallic and fierce.

Glaring up in the twilight.

But the moon was both implacable and unreachable

and in the end the war against the moon failed.

As dawn rose slowly from her bed, the moon slipped away.

But in the end, all that was lost,

was a little sleep....


1 June 2007

Burning Moon

Moon Fire

Blood Moon

smoked Moon

Smoky Moon

Smouldering Moon


4 June 2007

After the storm, my mine cleared.

And a high wind arose and blew the tropics north.

Anonymous said...

We are denizens of this great city however we live in new settlement areas away from The Ghats & Old City. Your beautifull photographs and accompanying essays had mad alive this city, which is world's oldest living city. Every Indian should know that Varnasi's contribution to the enrichment of human civilization is immense and unparalleled and unrivalled across the globe. My salute to this great city. A movement has been launched to save this city, for more details, all concerned please visit to

vineeta said...

As usual a treat, the pictures and the text. And at a time when Im thirsting to travel, this is a total carrot dangler. I have to go.

Nima said...

what a talent you have! Great pictures. Vibrant colors and life in all your photos. The write-up opens up the city to you. Can't wait to touch the grounds of the holy city! Hopefully in the near future.

lostinarc said...

amezing going to paint one of yur photo...

lostinarc said...

great going to paint one of your picture..

Anne said...

amazing photos. I spent some time in Varanasi a few years ago. Right now I'm debating whether I should go back. Your photos help me lean towards Yes. Thank you.