Posted by steven greaves photography on May 15, 2010 · 


The summer sun bakes the plains of the Indian subcontinent and, with it, Varanasi. Cows meander aimlessly in the narrow alleys finding shade where they can. The flies swarm in piles of cow shit as it bakes in the sweltering heat. Kids play cricket matches in the wending streets or along the Ganga; their cries resound through the narrow lanes. Others cool off as they dive from the ghats into the fetid waters of the Holy Mother. Although the heat is oppressive, life continues here as it has for over 5,000 years. 

We are in Kashi, the abode of Lord Shiva and one of the oldest continually-inhabited cities in the world. Situated along the banks of the river Ganges, Kashi is central to the Hindu religion of India. According to the scriptures, it is the only place where one can escape the cycle of life and death and achieve “moksha.” To die here liberates the soul and it is for this reason that the elderly from the subcontinent come to depart this life in the flames that burn eternal. 

Despite my best intentions to get to Calcutta or Goa, I have decided to spend my time in India here. On each visit to India, this city has mesmerized me. I had never stayed more than a few days, always eager to move on to the next location….so much to see…so much to do. Things have now changed. There are stories here- ones of life, ones of death. It is a surreal place, like a dream world, like some netherworld. It is a gateway to heaven. Equally calmed and disturbed, I am fascinated. 

The tourist crowd has migrated northward to more manageable climes and sit on tea plantations in Darjeeling or smoking chillum in the streets of Kathmandu or Manali. In a $2 a night flea pit, I sweat with a small fan spinning above my head. For the solitude though, I’ll sacrifice the heat. I share only the city with the saddhus, locals, pilgrims….and the touts. 

Babu and Mona are on my payroll. At 18 and 17 respectively, they are my street mafia and “fixers.” From different castes (Babu is from the “milkman” caste and Mona is Brahmin), together they patrol the streets around Manikarnika Ghat (the main burning/cremation facility) conducting the “business” of “the boss.” Babu has a childish face and looks more Asiatic than Indian. His red, pan-stained teeth, however, betray his pedigree. Babu speaks English well; he has surely picked it up from years working these alleys parting travelers from their rupees, euros and dollars. Like Babu, Mona is waif-thin. Quick with a smile and an offer of chai, he is the comedian and resident “cool guy.” Everything is “Shanti, shanti” in his world. Nothing moves too fast for Mona. He has a way of bending time so things slow down. I have found it a wonderful trait and am infected by his demeanor. Each morning we meet for chai and discuss the day’s plans and the tasks I need accomplished: “Go to these ashrams and get me meetings with the bosses.” “Find out about this hospice. Can I go, interview and photograph the old people?”  They are my source of information and my “in” to life….and death… in Kashi. 

The Ghats burn day and night. They have for 5,000 years. At Manikarnika ghat, the smoke rises in plumes from the charred wood and corpses. Barefoot Dhom (low caste Untouchables) workers stoke the flames as lives lived pass into the ether. Men dressed in white longi and shawls gather around the pyres and watch as their loved ones find “moksha.” Unlike in the West, death is on display here. It is unhidden, not pushed aside as taboo. It is celebrated and is yearned for by the many who have made Kashi their home in twilight years. They sit in ashrams and hospices waiting for their passing. Families watch over and usher them towards nirvana. Many appear to have already passed on. Their frail bodies lay on simple cots. With blank stares they draw last breaths as the body reluctantly follows the mind and soul. 

But, in this city of the dead, Kashi is alive. Locals continue daily routines as their parents and their parent’s parents have for centuries. Pilgrims flock to the shores of the Ganga each morning to bathe and offer their blessings. In the glow of dawn, puja candles float on her tranquil waters as boatmen ply the ghats offering their services. The ghats are awash in vivid color palettes as women in their saris attend to children or elderly family members. Beaded sequins catch sunlight in a dizzying kaleidoscope of pink, green, blue, yellow and orange. Old men with wizened faces and white beards close their eyes and mutter blessings into the cacophony, seemingly unaffected by the splashing of nearby children. Sage like, they attend to higher pursuits. 

Much like the river Styx that, according to Greek mythology, separated the land of the living from Hades, the Hindu texts seal Kashi’s role as the land of the dead. But for those that live here, Kashi bears its’ namesake (The City of Life)

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