Backpacking India pt 3: Varanasi

Backpacking India pt 3: Varanasi

During the first half of 2014, I decided to pack my bags, say goodbye to what I knew as ‘life’ and spend 3 months traveling around Northern India. These blog posts are to share my journey with you.


Varanasi, or ‘the holy city of India‘ sits on the banks of the river Ganges, in Uttar Pradesh. Varanasi (or Banaras) is known for being the most spiritual part of India, and this is reflected by the amount of devotees attending various religious ceremonies every day. Some Hindus believe that death at Varanasi brings salvation. It became my home for 6 weeks, and this is my experience of it.

As night settles, the Ghats stay full of life.

As night settles, the Ghats stay full of life.

My entire trip was somewhat based around a 6 week stay volunteering in Varanasi. Allow me to backtrack for a moment and explain:

A year before arriving in India I was going through a bit of a rough time, and decided that I needed something to focus on; something new, exciting and adventurous. It had been 5 years since I had last strapped on my backpack and been for a ‘big trip’. As I had always wanted to visit India, and always wanted to volunteer, I began googling ‘volunteering in India’. After getting over the shock of the extortionate price asked by many charities to volunteer, I added in the keyword ‘Free’ to my Google search. After reading through a few posts, I found an article titled ‘top 1o places to volunteer for free, in India’ (or something along those lines). On this last was a company called Fairmail. In a nutshell, Fairmail works with children from disadvantaged backgrounds, trains them in photography, encourages them to explore their creativity and take photos which are in turn made into greeting cards and sold worldwide. The children receive a percentage of the sales, which pays for their education, housing, medical etc.

I applied to become a volunteer there, and joined the 12 month waiting list.

Fast forward 12 months and I step off an 18 hr train journey tired and hungry (I had forgotten to bring snacks so had bought some spicy bombay mix which served me as lunch, dinner and breakfast). 

I was met by Dhiraj, a former student and one of the managers of Fairmail Varanasi. As we were driving to my guesthouse, the first thing which hit me was the apparent lack of any kind of road rules. I had felt the same way when I first arrived in Delhi, but this was next level of not-giving-a-single-fuck when it came to driving. The roads were a mess of rickshaws, cowshit, bikes, potholes and goats.

It took quite a few days to adapt to the pace of Varanasi. I remember constantly being on edge as I walked around during the first few days, as at any one time you could: Get charged by a cow/get run down by a car, motorbike or rickshaw/step in shit. This was mixed with the constant loud noise of the traffic,  the ceaseless bombardment of flies, and the heat (which reached a scorching 47°C while I was there. Let that settle in for a moment. Forty seven degrees). Varanasi is not the place to go and relax.

Varanasi blog  (51 of 56)I’m aware that I may be sounding negative, but for all the stresses and difficulties faced, there were many moments of beauty.

The city sits on the banks of the ‘holy river’ – the Ganga. Each morning devotees awake early to bathe in the river and each night, Aarti is performed, where priests perform music while burning incense in front of the eyes of hundreds of followers. It is truly a beautiful sight.

Devotees bathing in the Holy Ganga at sunrise.

Devotees bathing in the Holy Ganga at sunrise.

A man dries his face after bathing in the Ganges.

A man dries his face after bathing in the Ganges.

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The nightly Aarti ceremony being performing alongside the river.

The nightly Aarti ceremony being performing alongside the river.

The view of Aarti from a boat in the river.

The view of Aarti from a boat in the river.

The first 3 weeks of my stay were spent in a guest house in Assi Ghat (Ghats are essential temples, which line the Ganges river). During my last 3 weeks, I decided to move into the Fairmail office, in Nagwa (a village to the south of the Ghats). My experience here was great, as it allowed me to glimpse into the lives of those living in this area. As I was living in the office, I was also able to spend much more time with my students of Fairmail.

A Sadhu at the Ghats. He had been growing his hair for 21 years.

A Sadhu at the Ghats

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A sad sight in Nagwa - it seems like the village is built on top of layers and layers of trash.

A sad sight in Nagwa – it seems like the village is built on top of layers and layers of trash.

Playing cricket in Nagwa

Playing cricket in Nagwa

A rickshaw driver resting from the midday heat.

A rickshaw driver resting from the midday heat.

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My local chai lady. I would stop here each day for tea.

My local chai lady. I would stop here each day for tea.

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Guys chatting outside their shop

Guys chatting outside their shop

Onlookers watch during a wedding ceremony.

Onlookers watch during a wedding ceremony.

Chemistry

Chemistry

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While I was in Varanasi, it was leading up to the Indian elections. These kids were supporters of Modi (whose face they are wearing).

Varanasi blog  (34 of 56) Varanasi blog  (37 of 56) Varanasi blog  (38 of 56) Varanasi blog  (53 of 56) varanasi extra1 (3 of 10)My experience volunteering at Fairmail was also excellent. Alongside other volunteers, we taught the students lots of useful tips for taking better photos. One thing which I contributed was the use of flash photography in their work.

Anil during one of our lessons on flash photography

Anil during one of our lessons on flash photography

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The Fairmail family. Students at Fairmail.

 

Having fun during our lessons with the Fairmail students.

Having fun during our lessons with the Fairmail students.

I highly recommend a visit to Varanasi for anyone visiting India. Be prepared for a total bombardment of all your senses, but once you adapt to the pace of life, you might learn to love it.

The locals rightfully say “Full power, 24 hours”. Truer words have never been spoken.


 All Varanasi photography taken with a Fuji X100s and processed in Adobe Lightroom.


Kids dance during a wedding.

Kids dance during a wedding.

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A cow invaded the wedding reception. Expect the unexpected in India.

A cow invaded the wedding reception. Expect the unexpected in India.

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My yoga teacher and I

My yoga teacher and I

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Jess – one of the other volunteers – testing out lighting setups for our classes.

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My beloved bike. She served me well (I still can’t believe I cycled on those roads).

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This beautiful lady was passed as we were playing with light setups. She was happy to pose for a photo.

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A kid playing in the park

A kid playing in the park

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An extremely bizarre sight. Cows fighting while trash burns beneath them.

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Yes - the mustache is real. I got my portrait taken by an Old Skool photographer, who shot on an old box camera. He printed the photo in Black and White and coloured it by hand (hence the Blue eyes).

Yes – the mustache is real. I got my portrait taken by an Old Skool photographer, who shot on an old box camera. He printed the photo in Black and White and coloured it by hand (hence the Blue eyes).

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