A couple of times every year, I decide to get lost.
In Varanasi, the birthplace, I start at one of the ‘mouths’ into one of the city’s old gullies, either by Assi Ghat or Harischandra Ghat or Gadaulia, from where I could leave behind my vehicle and set off on foot. After years of exploring these neighbourhoods (alone or accompanied) which are part of one of the oldest continuously-living civilizations on Earth, I have become pretty familiar with the labyrinthine ways. And yet, every time I venture out, I discover places I have never seen before, or I see familiar places with surprising new eyes, or I land up in unknown parts, lost without direction, but happy to keep moving.
These walks around Varanasi’s gullies and out to the ghats on the banks of the Ganga river have been a welcome spurt of chaos and surrender. I know that, if I’m walking in the general direction North, the river will be to my right and the motorable road on my left. Walking around in these ancient by-lanes, I’m surrounded by old homes, multitudes of excellent chai-wallahs, some of the best samosas on Earth, traffic on foot and bicycles and motorbikes, and I wade past cattle with their swinging tails and avoid their excrement on the stone-paved paths, and I see old temples and shrines on the way, and tiny music academies and language schools and factories and mills and playing children and religious pilgrims and tourists and bhang shops and bakeries and kauchari-wallahs and dogs and cats and rats. The experience is the entire universe minimised to a dense, Indian maze.
When I want to get out of the claustrophobic commotion, the ghats are usually a close clearing away. I take a right and find the steps, and boom, the world opens up. The smell of the river wafts up to me. Sometimes its pleasant, sometimes its dead. There are close to a hundred ghats, and when its not too or too flooded, one can walk end to end, and each one has its own unique history and quality. Or, one can take a boat over the holy river itself, see the ghats’ majesty from a distance, feel the splash of the water close up, get a glimpse of life as it has moved here for thousands of years.
In recent months, Varanasi’s old gullies and temples have come into special scrutiny, as the central government has purchased hundreds of old homes from their owners around the popular Vishwanath Temple, only to demolish them to build a wide ‘Kashi Vishwanath Corridor’ to encourage religious tourism. For someone who marveled over the heritage of these old homes, I was disappointed at this decision. No one temple is worth hundreds of other little histories of the city. The new corridor will no doubt give a more modernised look near the temple area, but this project will also snatch away much of the soul of these neighbourhoods.
I’m only an amateur photographer, armed with no weapon greater than my old iPhone camera. But there is a certain magnetism of Varanasi’s ghats, gullies, and the Ganga that makes even the most pedestrian of photographs look breathtaking. Here is a small assortment of some of the many photos I’ve taken over dozens of times of ‘losing myself’ in the old town.