There is an endless number of interesting faces, places and scenes to photograph in Varanasi. Last week I shared some photos of the ghats along the river – where most of the tourists hang out; but in this city of 3 million and its environs you can go just about anywhere in the city and find things abuzz with all sorts of activity. In this post we go “inland” – into the streets and alleyways of Varanasi, to the Ram Nagar fort, and to the nearby town of Sarnath, the site of Buddhism’s earliest days.
We happened to be in town during an interesting confluence of religious holidays. The Hindu “Durga Puja” festival, which was winding up on the 3/4/5 of October, culminates in processions to carry large Durga idols for immersion in the Ganges. This was to be closely followed by “Bakrid” (Eid ul Adha), the Feast of Sacrifice, on October 6. In preparation for this holiday, Muslim celebrants were bringing animals from throughout the city for the annual ritual sacrifice. Busy times in Varanasi!
Above, this Durga procession could be heard from half a mile away as they came down the street with a group of drummers. Just in front of me, they paused to light a firecracker – and the kids started jumping in the air when they spotted me taking pictures. We followed them down to the beach (photo below), where they performed the traditional immersion. I’m not going to pretend to be any kind of expert on the overall festival – you can read more about it here – but from what I observed, it involves setting up “pandals” (temporary, tentlike temples where the Durga idols are installed), we saw straw effigies in wooden frames and copious amounts of flowers being offered to the river (assume this was related), and then in the end these idols follow the other offerings into the Ganges. It seems like a lot for the river to absorb, but just downstream, we saw enterprising men in boats collecting the floating wood frames and taking them apart, likely to be repurposed for some other use.
The group of boys below was going in the opposite direction, and they seemed to be having a great time piled into the back of the cart. When they spotted me taking pictures, two of them came running over and insisted I take their portrait!
One of the places we went that day (we were out and about for 9 hours!) was the nearby Ramnagar fort. The part tourists are allowed to see was not all that spectacular – it houses a museum with extremely dusty old cars and lots of weapons, and there is a small temple in the back, through a passageway filled with BATS!
The Ramnagar Fort is the residence of the Kashi Naresh, the cultural patron of Varanasi and a member of the royal family of a Brahmin state which currently no longer exists. I didn’t know this when we visited the fort, though – but now I know why the guards there didn’t allow us to wander around the grounds.
Above: Ramnagar Fort – can you spot the monkey?
Finally, we also learned that Varanasi is also an important city for Buddhism. When, at the age of 35, Siddhartha Gautama – i.e. the “Supreme Buddha” of our age, reached enlightenment, he went to a forest near Varanasi to preach his first sermon, and met his first disciples. This forest is the Deer Park of Sarnath, about 13 km from Varanasi. The Chaukhandi Stupa, which is believed to mark the spot where he met his first companions/disciples, is shown below. It’s about 1500 years old.
And no description of our day exploring Varanasi and its surroundings would be complete without mentioning Buli, our rickshaw driver. With a pink scarf around his head, he offered to drive us all around the area, and asked a very fair price for doing so. Before we got started, he pulled over to load up with betel nut, and then we were on our way. Every now and then he’d spontaneously start singing “la-la-la” and chuckle, “My music.” He suggested places to go and told us about admission prices and how to avoid the odd scam here and there. The photo below suggests he was unfriendly, but in fact he was extremely jovial and friendly, but when he was driving (betel nut aside), he was completely focused on his work. If you go to Varanasi and want to hire him for the day, give him a call at 9335029645.
This is the third in a series of posts about our trip to Varanasi. See previous post “Varanasi by Night” or “Death on the Ganges.” You can also browse other Varanasi photos in my Varanasi album on Flickr. Like the one below.