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.

 

Muslims and metalworkers: A day in Moradabad

Once again, writer Meera Vijayann and I team up to bring you a glimpse of life in India. This time, we’re visting the country’s brass capital: Moradabad, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. This is a great chance to wander off the ‘Lonely Planet Trail’, for the city does not even feature in the ‘Bible of guidebooks’. The population of the core and old city areas is predominantly Muslim, and this photo essay documents how the city’s metalworkers and those immersed in the Islamic faith spend a typical day.

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Life, in Moradabad, begins at dawn. Straddling the banks of the Ramganga River, the city wakes up with the first call to prayer. The dust settles, and the minarets of the Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque) rise in the distance, above tumbledown houses and crowded streets. Along the bridge, women hang their washing, the colours of their saris glistening in the heat of summer, and people speed past on motorcycles, on their way to open shop.

 

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Religion is taken very seriously here. Many families still opt to send their children for a madrassa education, hoping that their traditions will be protected through religious instruction. Curious, young boys listen to the mudarris (teacher) in silence.

 

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Confident, a student stands up to recite verses from the Qur’an. A few of the boys look up at him in awe, as he begins his recitation. The muddaris is patient, and listens attentively. The light of the afternoon sun softly illuminates the courtyard near which they are seated. And, time passes slowly.

 

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Devout Muslims like Master Irfan, find a quiet spot at the Jama Masjid to observe prayer. Holding a tasbeeh, he slowly performs the dhikr, reciting short sentences glorifying the greatness of Allah. Moradabad’s older Muslims hold the 17th Century mosque in high regard, as it has been helped institutionalise Islam here.

 

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After the prayer, a silence descends. Its minarets towering into the skies, the Jama Masjid is a regal sight. Constructed by a noble, Rustum Khan, on the orders of the Emperor Shah Jahan, the intricate artistry above its columns are characteristic of early Mughal architecture.

 

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Back home, life returns to normal. Young men gather to catch up on the day’s affairs, discussing business and family matters. Wearing flowing, white kurta pajamas, they stand in the narrow lanes, waiting for more friends to join them. Often, this is how life passes every day.

 

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In a street nearby, artisans work together, moulding a base for a new brass vessel. Home to skilled craftsmen, the city is widely known to be a treasure chest of handicrafts and brassware. In Old Moradabad’s busy alleys and clogged streets, these artisans pore over their work, oblivious to the world around them, listening only to the constant humming of their tools.

 

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Outside his home, another artisan holds a brass plate down with his foot as he hammers along its edges to create a pattern. A neat pile of new plates is stacked near him, yet he does not waste a moment in admiring his masterpieces. In Moradabad, time is precious; by the late afternoon, the activities in the market close by grind work to a halt.

 

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Down at the Ramganga, buffaloes enjoy a dip, away from the heat and dust of the city. Neck-deep in the shallow part of the river they wallow lazily, before they are led back to the farm.

 

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It is when the roads to town start emptying, and the sun slowly begins to set, that the women come out of their homes again. They make their way to the bridge to collect their day’s washing, and return home, carrying bundles of colourful cotton above their heads. Tomorrow, at the first call to prayer, they will rise again.

 

Qawwali at Nizamuddin Dargah

Through this photo essay, journey with writer Meera Vijayann and I to Nizamuddin Dargah in the Indian capital of Delhi. There, we’ll witness its electrifying Qawwali singers belting their lungs out to this type of Sufi devotional music that’s been popular in the Subcontinent for hundreds of years. Make sure you first click ‘play’ below, so that you can listen to Allah Hoo, one of the most well-known Qawwali songs, as you read.

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travel photographer tourism india delhi nizamuddin dargah qawwali arch 26067 Qawwali at Nizamuddin Dargah

At the corner of Humayun’s Tomb, the Nizamuddin Dargah rises, a stony edifice of smoky grey. Pretentious at first sight, yet rich in soul, Delhi is no ordinary city. At the grand entrance of the dargah’s inner courtyard, you begin to forget the deafening chaos and prepare to lose yourself in its music.

 

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As dusk falls, people hurry into the courtyard. Outside, flower sellers call out to visitors, offering rose petals for a coin or two. After the death of the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya, some believe, these Sajjada Nashins (guardians who tend to the shrine) continue to fiercely guard the dargah.

 

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Offer your respects at the mazār (tomb) of renowned poet Mirza Ghalib as the evening namaaz (prayer) draws to a close. People of all ages and faiths gather soon after, and under open skies, the Qawwals begin their routine, their voices reverberating through the compound.

 

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As the singers break into a Qawwali, enraptured listeners look on. Though few classical Qawwal families have carried forward the 750-year old tradition, its purity remains largely unaffected. Drowning in the melody of harmoniums, verse and song, the evening begins.

 

travel photographer tourism india delhi nizamuddin dargah qawwali singers tourist 26058 Qawwali at Nizamuddin Dargah

Tourists regularly visit, trying to fit in, donning palm woven caps to honour both saints and singers. Unassuming travellers over the years have played a role in lending the Qawwali a worldly touch. Frayed denims, branded watches and fashionable attire have encouraged Qawwals to spring in film songs, love poetry and Persian verse to embrace their presence.

 

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Classic Qawwals don’t merely recite, sing and compose; they also explain the subtleties to their listeners. The houses of Qawwali usually begin with the famous verse, Saba ba suen medina rukon Azin duago salam barkha, asking the morning breeze (Nizamuddin Auliya) to pay their respects to the Prophet on reaching Medina.

 

travel photographer tourism india delhi nizamuddin dargah qawwali singers musicians money 26013 Qawwali at Nizamuddin Dargah

After an energetic performance, the evening draws to a close. Amidst cheers and applause, those who remain shower currency on the performers. As the mellow, soothing sounds of the harmonium fill the complex, a strange restlessness descends.

 

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There is no better way to end the day than by relishing the flavours of Delhi’s streets. As the crowds gradually disperse and leave the dargah, they find several community cooks sitting outdoors, serving a delicious choice of meats and lentils to the hungry. Soak in the atmosphere sitting on a wooden bench, sipping on chai or digging into a plate of kebabs. You cannot help but leave with a sense of fulfillment.