Varanasi, India

I should start by saying that this is my first ‘real’ blog post, and it isn’t one of my better photographs, but certainly takes me straight back to the sights, sounds and smells of the ‘burning ghats’ that line the mighty Ganges River at Varanasi.

Apparently Varanasi is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.  It is an amazing assault on the senses and every morning you can see people in the river going about their usual business, washing themselves, their clothes, praying, meditating and swimming.   But importantly, Hindus believe that if you die in Varanasi you will reach salvation and achieve freedom from the cycle of birth and reincarnation.

Because of this there are ‘burning ghats’ on the banks of the river where open cremations are held all day every day.

Unbelievably, you can see people carrying bodies on stretchers through the narrow streets and down to the riverside.  When they get there the body is weighed and the amount of wood required to cremate the body is calculated.  If the family can afford it they buy some sandalwood to add to the fire (which improves the smell).  After the cremation the ashes are floated down the river with flowers and incense.  If you are a Hindu priest, a Saddhu, pregnant (or (bizarrely) die because you were bitten by a snake) you aren’t necessarily cremated, but just put into the river on a small raft with flowers and candles, and float away.   Taking a boat trip is an incredible must-do experience!

This photograph shows widows whose husbands have just been cremated and they are having their heads shaved (with a straight blade razor) to show that they are in mourning. I loved the raw humanity of Varanasi and will definitely go back soon – if you get the chance, just go!