A trip to India with my photographer husband, Tim, found us celebrating the New Year in Varanasi, India. There’s actually almost nothing physically ancient in what claims to be the oldest continually inhabited city on earth. The city was once ruled by King Ashoka, but the Moguls, who invaded from the North and ruled India for nearly two hundred years ending 1707, made rubble of the place, and so you look in vain for anything built before the 18th century (although check out the ancient Dhamek Stupa – one of the few surviving ancient sites – if you visit).
However, that’s not really the point. What’s truly ancient here is the culture, and the rituals, and the feel of the place. Teeming multitudes of Indians (and a few rather out-of-place Westerners) stream into Varanasi looking for a spiritual fix – either cremating their dead at the burning ghats by the side of the Ganges and scattering their ashes in the river, or disposing of pre-burned ashes in the river, or washing away their sins in the river, or sending a blessing straight to heaven via the river.
It’s all about the river, as you may have guessed. The Ganges is itself a goddess, Ganga, and in mythology it flows straight to heaven. Further, if you die in Varanasi, or are burned and scattered into the river here, you are released from the cycle of birth and death that troubles human souls, and your spirit becomes part of the oneness of the universe.
What’s also timeless about Varanasi is the heat, noise, stench and hassle that happens when you cram way too many people into a small city with rubbish infrastructure. Add in a few cows, a large gaggle of stray dogs, a host of wild-eyed holy men (most are rumoured to be hucksters), and the hopes and beliefs of several hundred thousand out-of-towners, and you have a full-on spectacle. It’s not for everyone – and, frankly, for the first day or so, it wasn’t for me – but Varanasi turned out to be a memorable place to see in the New Year. Truthfully, it’s an ineffable place, so I’ll let the images do their work.