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Varanasi, along the ghats, May 7, 2010

Varanasi, along the ghats, May 7, 2010

Varanasi, also known as Banares, is considered to be the holiest city in India. Indeed, it is the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism, and hence it is often associated with exotic and colourful rituals and traditions. All along the riverside ghats – stepped stone embankments – tourists and pilgrims join a swirl of commercial and religious activity, giving the place a constant sense of movement. If you’re not being sold flowers, boat trips on the Ganges or head massages, then someone will no doubt try to save your soul. Watching the laundry men and women hand-washing and beating clothes with wooden clubs makes for great spectacle. Yet, despite expectations of anthropological oddities and curiosities, Varanasi seemed to outdo itself in creating some of the oddest scenes imaginable.

I was exhausted when I finally arrived in Varanasi, at the end of a two-month trip around the north of India, and could feel the holiday’s end hanging over me. To some degree I had lost touch with reality, smoking too much, feeling dissipated, unmotivated, tired and a little bothered – a state of mind I’ve written about in a short story. As an atheist, I don’t have much time for expressions of religious sentiment and was far from charmed by Varanasi, having rather lost my patience with India at that stage of the journey. Consequently, I only ventured out in short bursts, shuffling through the heat haze and trying assiduously to ignore the constant offerings of goods and services. Yet, in those relatively brief forays I was continuously impressed by the array of colours, costumes and, indeed, behaviour that I witnessed, of which I’d like to think this shot offers at least a taste.

There is a lot going on in this scene, and I consider myself lucky to have been in the right place at the right time. There is much that I love about this shot – the forward stare of the lady to the right of frame, seemingly untroubled by the bag on her head; the bright and sharp uniforms of the marching band members, whose body language has a sort of poised cheekiness about it. This contrasts with the wonderfully grumpy face of the other woman with a bag on her head, which rather comically looks like a giant, sagging ice-pack. Most of all, however, I love the way in which the band-leader, dressed in black and holding a trumpet, seems to be staring into the distance in a state of satisfied, yet humble thanks or lofty contemplation. The patchwork colours of the background testify to the intensity of the visual experience at Varanasi, where chromatically speaking, anything goes.

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