An evening in Banares, the ‘City of Light’ – A travel photo essay

Readers of my monthly newsletter may have seen this image before, because I offered it as a free wallpaper download in the December 2012 issue (you can click the link if you missed it then and fancy emblazoning your desktop with it now, and if you’re not a subscriber then you can sign up here). That month, an assignment for GSMA Mobile for Development (which you can read about in my Journal here) took me to the city of Banares (or Varanasi) in Uttar Pradesh. North India felt very different back then. It was winter, and the nights were pretty cool. My translator hardly seemed to remove the thick scarf from around his neck, possibly even while he slept! Now, as yesterday’s festival of Holi signified, Spring is very much here.

During some free time between trips out to rural locations, I strolled down to the ghats, the steps that descend to the Ganges, the river that’s so sacred to Hindus. There’s so much going on down there, as pilgrims flock from all over the country and abroad to perform rites, people come in search of healing or else to die and be cremated, children play cricket or with kites, foreign backpackers and hippies play the tabla or even the West African djembe together, and much more. I just wanted to let it all unfold around me. Then, as darkness fell, the real magic began.

Back in Bangalore, I shared some of my images with writer Meera Vijayann, the recent winner of a CNN-IBN Citizen Journalist Award (read all about that here), and together we crafted this photo essay for you:

an evening in Banares the city of light link An evening in Banares, the City of Light   A travel photo essay

CLICK THE IMAGE to go to the photo essay.


An evening in Banares, the ‘City of Light’

For our third collaborative travel piece, writer Meera Vijayann and I headed to Banares (otherwise known as Varanasi) in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. With the holy River Ganges flowing through it, this is a city of tremendous spiritual significance for Hindus. Pilgrims flock here in their millions every year; many even resolve that it’s the place where they’ll die. This photo essay captures some of the activities that unfold evening after evening down by the riverside in this colourful and sacred place.

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Evening lights illuminate the banks of the Ganges, casting long shadows on empty boats docked at the ghats. In the distance, Dashashwamedh Ghat, the sound of bells fills the air as people trickle in and out of the Vishwanath Temple. Winter nights in Benares, India’s holiest city, are cold. Yet, the winds gently whisper in your ears as you make your way to the gathering.


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Families gather at the bank, lighting lamps to set afloat on the holy river. Legend has it that it was here that the Hindu God of Creation, Brahma, performed the first Ashwamedha yajna (horse sacrifice). As the sun sets, lamp sellers, vendors and singers make their way to the ghat, hoping to earn a quick buck and revel in the gaiety.


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The priests ascend the podium amidst drum rolls, blowing horns before they begin the Ganga aarti. The air suddenly fills with the sound of chants, and under the open sky, Hindu pilgrims and curious spectators join their hands in prayer.


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The priests hold up fiery lamps, chanting softly as a breathless crowd watches in delight. The incense wafts over the smoky evening sky, immersing the onlookers in its heady scent. Devotees break into song; singing praises to the gods as they make their offerings for loved ones.


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A haze of saffron, gold and yellow greets the eye in every corner. Loudspeakers blare bhajans and devotional music. Even amidst the chatter, chants and applause, an inner silence reigns. Young and old alike sit enthralled, quietly taking in the spiritual splendour of the evening.


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As the night blackens, boatmen wait to ferry passengers across the waters. The crowds slowly disperse, and hawkers retire to street corners with weary, blood-shot eyes. You can’t help but take it all in. Benares, at night, lifts your soul and leaves you wanting.


Postcard from Angkor, Cambodia

It’s only been a week since my last postcard from Vietnam, and already I’m in another country, Cambodia. I’m here for the MTV Staying Alive Foundation again, and like last week have a day to myself for a bit of exploring. The assignment was in Siem Reap, which happens to be on the doorstep of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat. At the end of my day’s mooching, just as the sun had passed the horizon, I saw this sight which made me chuckle, and decided it would make an excellent postcard for you.

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Two boys apparently running off with the day’s donations at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Buddhist temples in South East Asia tend to have donation boxes for devotees and visitors to contribute to the their upkeep, and Angkor Wat is no exception. Of course, these two little lads are not running off with the day’s collection, though it rather looks that way. They are helping out by taking the boxes for safe keeping overnight… and doing so very enthusiastically!

Postcard from Hanoi’s Temple of Literature

I’m currently in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, for an assignment for the MTV Staying Alive Foundation. That was what I was doing yesterday (see more on this in my upcoming newsletter), and today I’m at leisure to take in the city’s sights and sounds. I thought you’d appreciate a postcard, so here’s one from Văn Miếu, or the ‘Temple of Literature‘:

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A young Vietnamese student offers prayers for success in her studies at Hanoi’s Temple of Literature.

The temple dates back almost to the foundation of thousand-year-old Hanoi, and houses a shrine to Confucius and the site of the country’s first university, Quốc Tử Giám (the ‘Imperial Academy’). The Academy was at first intended only for the noble mandarins, but was later expanded to welcome other sages and scholars in the making. It remained the country’s premier seat of learning for over 700 years. While I was there, various young Vietnamese students had come to this monument to education dressed in their finest clothes (this girl is wearing the traditional áo dài) to pray that they’ll do well in their studies.