Varanasi Ghats and Dev Deepavali Celebration

25 Nov 2021

Copyright © 1993- Ganesh H. Shankar

Last week I was at Varanasi to do photography of Dev Deepavali celebration and in general to photograph ghats of Varanasi. Here are a few images from this short trip. Before the trip I googled enough for the kind the images made at Varanasi and decided on what not to attempt. However, I only had a vague idea on what to attempt. I was keen on making some images around the theme of death. It is believed that those who die or get cremated at Varanasi will free themseles from cycle of birth and death and attain "moksha". I understand people bring bodies of their beloved ones even from far off places to cremate them at Varanasi. I was hoping to make some images around these strong beliefs and the context around cremation grounds. I did explore this while I was at Varanasi. It was a tough experience though. Watching 20-25 bodies being cremated in front is not an easy task to witness. I am just wondering about those who work there at cremation grounds, throughout the year and for decades. What would be their concept of death? I did get some sense of it by observing life around those "ghats".

Varanasi has many Ghats. Two of them (Manikarnika and Harishchandra ghats) have cremation grounds. In other ghats we see various other rituals, like, offering prayer to the river Ganges, taking holy dips in the Ganges and other Hindu rituals. Here are a few images from some of these ghats.

Dev Deepavali Celebration

View from the Ganges river

People witness the celebration at the ghats from a boat, late evening. Diya in the river while the moon rises. The light was magical but the exposure was very tricky to manage.

Morning at Ghats


A note on how I treat these images below, especially I would like to clarify my views on the people in these images. I literally believe in what Bertrand Russell said about 'advanced' human life:

Organic life, we are told, has developed gradually from the protozoan to the philosopher, and this development, we are assured, is indubitably an advance. Unfortunately it is the philosopher, not the protozoan, who gives us this assurance. -Bertrand Russell

In that sense, I don't distinguish my own life from that of an ant or an elephant. In the grand scheme of Nature what Russell said makes all the sense to me. As an extension I don't consider my own life to be either superior or inferior to any life that you see in these below images, be it of a human or an animal. The attire of the people, the job they do, color, culture, creed does not matter. With all the respect to people in some of the images below I do believe I am one among them. The purpose of sharing these images is just is to reflect on the concept of death and the contrasting context that I noticed at Varanasi Ghats.

Punarapi jananam
Punarapi maraNam
Punarapi janane
JaTare shayanam
Iha samsaare
Bahu dusthare
Kripaya paare
Paahi murare
    - Aadi Shankaracharya

Literally this sums upto:

The cycle of birth/death/birth/death is very difficult. O, God please save me from this cycle.

It is believed that people who die/get cremated at Varanasi will get liberated from this cycle. I found what is written here at Manikarnika Ghat interesting.

In particular, even in the death there is a sense of celebration. I think from Nature's perspective (which I deeply believe in) that may not be true. In Nature every life form appears to preserve its life, till it reaches a helpless point and before finally giving up. This appears to be what Nature wants of its creations (why?). I think 'celebration' here may be a philosophical concept of us humans for a peaceful yet helpless and inevitable finale. However, if the 'celebration' here means being liberated from the cycle of the birth and death then we can't question that belief, at least till science comes up with one interpretation for quantum mechanics! Even then, Kant will be not be happy (Critique of Pure Reason). There is a limit to what we can know through our (even augmented) senses. Further, we don't know what we don't know!

That said, at the outset, lighting and decorations around the burning pyres here seem to endorse what is written above, literally. Needless to say this is a common celebration in all the ghats of Varanasi on this day of Dev Deepavali. Laces of serial lights and oil lamps (diyas) everywhere. Everyone sitting around the five burning pyres (in the below image) appear to be completely at ease. People walking up and down through the ghats appear to be at ease too. It is like wilder beasts at African savanna watching one of them being caught by a pride of lions for a few seconds and then moving on. Life moves on and appears to settle down on a new normal. Varanasi seem to remind me that human life is just yet another life form in the grand schemes of things in Nature. That also reminds me of the discussion between Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore on the nature of reality. To me Einstein's argument appears closer to reality, whatever 'reality' means.

As expected people are busy in their own world. There are many wood selling shops for pyres around the cremation ghats - business as usual. After all it is one day for them in their decades of existence around the cremation grounds. They need to live too. It is said that we live by offering our services to others. This is no different here. Weighing balance is ready to weigh next 25Kg of the wood for the pyre. Workers around the shop are ready to offer their service for the next customer I guess.

A chicken is standing near there must be looking for some food grains. While a gull flying near the bank of Ganges river scanning for a fish. Criss crossing wires in the frame below are part of the new order which did not impact my aesthetic sense in the composition of this below frame.

A man was busy clearing ashes for some reason. May be he is preparing the place. The dog nearby reluctantly opened its eyes, looked at me once and went to sleep again. The laces of flowers appear to have served its purpose by decorating the path of the last journey from human point of view.

A boy was carefully pouring oil into diyas for that night's Dev Deepavali celebration. I consciously decided to include the pile of wood there to be used in pyre in the composition. I liked this conceptual contrast. I was hoping to return to this place to make an image of glowing lamps at night along with the pile of wood but that did not happen.

Witnessing about 20+ bodies being cremated at one place was very hard for me. I was thinking what would it be like for a worker who work there for a living everyday. May be it is like any other job, at least that is how I console myself for now. This also confirms my belief that we are just another life form in the Nature. Any special status for human race is uncalled for. I do think Einstein and Russell are right in their careful observations (references above). Probably this is the natural conclusion of a more intelligent species from another planet about human species on the planet earth.

On one of the ghats I found these below hanging pots interesting. As you know, these pots are used in death related rituals. I had two thoughts:

Journey continues - the river flows and so are the people on the boats and the people you see here in the form of pots.

The second thought being, how (and why) Nature made each of its creations love itself and defend itself. At the end Nature itself decides the next course which no one knows what it is. In humans this love seems to reach bizarre levels of complexity - in the form of 'karma' and rituals. Incidentally it pays for other humans to survive even in death. Probably this is no different in the rest of the animal world. Corpuses are food for other creations of Nature.

I made this image below one evening, the next morning there was a change! One pot was missing!

One morning I found this below burning pyre at Harishchandra Ghat. Everything appear to be unpretentiously at ease. Be it people on the boat or the man obliviously sitting near it or even the dog nearby. Yet another hour at Varanasi ghat, yet another moment in Nature. Our priorities and Nature's appears very different. Baruch Spinoza is right when he said:

Whenever, anything in nature seems to us ridiculous, absurd or evil, it is because we have but a partial knowledge of things, and are in the main ignorant of the order and coherence of nature as a whole, and because we want everything to be arranged according to the dictates of our own reason; although in fact, what our reason pronounces bad is not bad as regards the orders and laws of universal nature, but only as regards the laws of our own nature taken separately. (from Ethics by Baruch Spinoza)

When I looked above the pyre I saw a kite buoyed probably by the smoke and hot air from the pyre as if the soul got liberated from the vicious cycle of life and death.

This wall post below on one of the ghats appeared interesting, it roughly translates to:

Smart City
Metaphysical. Religious. Modern.

May be that is what Varanasi is. We see deeply religious people who meditate and those who help such people and make their own living. Of course we also see other people who are very curious about Varanasi and visit Varanasi for this unique experience of seeing all this at one place.

Summing Up...

I think Varanasi reminds us that Nature democratises not only life but also death. Everything comes together at Varanasi. This includes offering prayers at the banks of Ganges to sailing lamps in the river to taking holy dips in the Ganges river to the celebrations and festivities at all the ghats even amidst burning pyres. I have not seen this diversity of experiences at any other place. It also has strengthened my belief that we are just another species on this planet earth!

I hope to return to this place again in the near future, probably to wonder more about myself, an yet another creature in the Nature.

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