An Indian woman is bathing in Varanasi, India at the Dev Deepavali, which means the Diwali of the Gods. The festival is celebrated in Varanasi and it falls on the full moon and takes place fifteen days after Diwali. The steps of all the ghats on the riverfront of the Ganges River, from Ravidas Ghat at the southern end to Rajghat, are lit with more than a million earthen lamps the so-called diyas in honour of Ganga, the Ganges and its presiding goddess.
The name of the Ganges is known all throughout the land of India. In these Ganges photos by Kristian Bertel he explains about how this river that runs 1,560 miles from the Himalayas all the way to the Bay of Bengal is more than just flowing water.
Varanasi and Mother Ganges in India
On the banks of the River Ganges in northern India, the colorful holy city of Varanasi has been an important cultural, historic and religious centre of India for more than 5,000 years. Presided over by Shiva, Varanasi is the most important Hindu pilgrimage site in the world. Described by Mark Twain as 'older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together!', this city offers a spectacle visitors never forget. The ghats, which are stone steps along the river banks are the main focus of religious activity. The colorful holy city of Varanasi, also Benares, a famous Hindu pilgrimage site perched on the banks of the River Ganges, Ganga, Here pilgrims come to sit on the many ghats, which are riverbank steps leading to the sacred Ganges, and to have a ritual bath and perform puja to the rising sun, in accordance with centuries of tradition. It is believed that bathing in the sacred waters results in the remission of sins and that dying here circumvents rebirth. This is why many old and sick Hindus come to the city to die, surviving their last days on alms given to them by faithful. Their funerals take place on the river banks, where their bodies are burnt on funeral pyres and the remains are tossed into the water.
Photos of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, India
The River Ganga is a sacred river for the Hindus and you will see traditional rituals and bathing occurring at all times of the day. On the Eastern banks, the River Ganga is flanked by a 300 meter wide sand belt, beyond which lies a green belt, a protected area reserved for turtle breeding. The western crescent-shaped bank of the River Ganga is flanked by a continuous stretch of 84 ghats, or series of steps leading down to the river, stretching for almost seven kilometers. These ghats were built by Hindu kings who wanted to die along the Ganges, and they built lofty palaces along the river, most of which are now hotels, to spend their final days. You can walk along the river and see all of the ghats, but the best option for viewing the ghats is to charter a boat and see them from the river. Hindus consider it auspicious to die in Varanasi, so some ghats are known as burning ghats, where over 200 corpses per day are cremated in full view before their ashes are eased into the Ganga. Unfortunately, with all the life the Ganges brings, pollution is also brought. Some of the worst waterborn diseases are dysentery, hepatits, and cholera. Money is being raised by the government and other groups such as the Swatcha Ganga to clean the Ganges. Nonetheless, the Ganges is still the purifying waters for the Hindus of India.
Taking a boat ride along the Ganges you can sense the role the Ganges River plays in the lives of devout Hindus, take a dawn or dusk boat trip. Start from the sacred Dasashwamedh Ghat and head upstream or toward the southern end, near Assi Ghat. At sunrise, bathers flock to these 90 or so ghats, preparing for a purifying dip into the holy water. And at sunset, hundreds of diyas which are clay lamps are lit and floated across the river. In this photo people are standing at the river banks in Varanasi, India.
The water of the Ganges
A visit to Varanasi, also known as Benaras or Benares, or as Kashi meaning 'resplendent with light', is an experience unlike any other. This is the epitome of a holy city, inundated with religious pilgrims and sacred cows, yet it is also a city firmly grounded in the commerce and reality of day-to-day existence. A visit here is thrilling but exhausting, and never boring. The Ganga is the largest river in India with an extraordinary religious importance for Hindus. Situated along its banks are some of the world's oldest inhabited cities like Varanasi and Patna. It provides water to about forty percent of India's population across eleven states, serving an estimated population of 500 million people or more, which is larger than any other river in the world. The main causes are the increase in the population density, the enhanced per capita pollutants discharged to the river and the meagre dry season water flows in the river due to upstream uses. A number of initiatives have been undertaken to clean the river but failed to deliver desired results. Because of the establishment of a large number of industrial cities on the bank of river Ganga like Kanpur, Varanasi and Patna, countless tanneries, chemical plants, textile mills, distilleries, slaughterhouses, and hospitals prosper and grow along this and contribute to the pollution of the Ganga by dumping untreated waste into it. Industrial effluents are about twelve percent of the total volume of effluent reaching the Ganga. Although a relatively low proportion, they are a cause for major concern because they are often toxic and non-biodegradable.
Ganges during religious festivals
During religious event festival seasons, over 70 million people bathe in the Ganga over a few weeks to clean themselves from their past sins. Some materials like food, waste or leaves are left in the Ganga for ritualistic reasons. An analysis of the Ganga water in 2006 showed significant associations between water-borne and enteric disease pop and the use of the river for bathing, laundry, washing, eating, cleaning utensils, and brushing teeth. Water in the Ganga has been correlated to contracting dysentery, cholera, hepatitis, as well as severe diarrhea which continues to be one of the leading causes of death of children in India. Cremation anywhere along the Ganges is desirable. If that is not possible, then the relatives might later bring the ashes of the deceased to the Ganges. Sometimes, if a family cannot afford firewood for cremation, a half-burned corpse is thrown into the water. For the living, bathing in the Ganges is just as important. Hindus will travel miles and miles to have their sins washed away in these holy waters. For years Hindus have declared that there is nothing quite as cleansing as the living waters of the River of Heaven. This "pure" water is suppoce to wash their sins away.
A visit to Varanasi is an experience unlike any other. This is the epitome of a holy city, inundated with religious pilgrims and people bathing in the Ganges, yet it is also a city firmly grounded in the commerce and reality of day-to-day existence. A visit here is thrilling but exhausting, and never boring.
The river that draws all kinds of people
The river is Ganga Ma, 'Mother Ganges'. Her name and her story is known all throughout the land. It is the story of how she poured herself down from heaven upon the ashes of King Sarga's sons. Her waters would raise them up again to dwell in peace in heaven. Not only that, but anyone who touches these purifying waters even today are said to be cleansed of all sins. The river Ganges draws all kinds of people and life seems to continually be bustling at its side. On the platforms and ghats are barbers cutting and trimming hair, and children flying their kites. You may see young men wrestling, exercising, or in deep meditation. Washermen are beating their clothes on stones at the edge. Multi-colored saris and all sorts of wet clothes are laid out to dry in the sunshine.
The Ganga is the most sacred river to Hindus and it is also a lifeline to millions of Indians who live along its course and depend on it for their daily needs. This river has been ranked as the fifth most polluted river of the world and the pollution has influence on not only humans, but also more than hundred fish species. Pollution can make some people stay away from the water.
The life at the sacred river
Varanasi, once known as Benares or Banaras and Kashi, is a historical city in northern India. The city is sacred to Hindus and Jains and also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with settlements dating back to the 11th century BC. Many Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi brings salvation/nirvana and so they make the trip to the city when they realize that they are close to death. For some, the culture shock of the burning corpses in plain view and the feces overflowing from the Ganges can be a bit overwhelming. However, the scene of pilgrims doing their devotions in the River Ganga at sunrise set against the backdrop of the centuries old temples is probably one of the most impressive sights in the world. The city can be scorchingly hot in the summer months so, if possible, time your visit to fall between October and March, and bring something warm to wear for chilly days and nights, instead.
Photos from the Dasashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi
One of the largest, the Dasashwamedh Ghat offers good views of the river and the hustle and bustle along its banks. This is believed to be where Shiva sacrificed ten horses. Legend has it that the sacrifice was performed by Brahma to pave the way for Shiva's return to Varanasi after a period of banishment. Other special ghats are the Asi, Barnasangam, Panchganga and Manikarnika. Home to the shrine of Lord Kashi Vishwanath, one of the twelve revered Jyotirlingas of Shiva, which are shrines where he is worshipped in the form of phallus of light, the current version of Kashi Vishwanath Temple was built in 1780 by Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore on the banks of the sacred Ganges, and is the place of pilgrimage for millions of Hindus every year and it is the most sacred shrine in Varanasi. Dasashwamedh Ghat known as 'the ghat of ten sacrificed horses'. From here, there is a great view of the riverfront. The river is life, purity, and a goddess to the people of India.
Dasashwamedh Ghat is the main ghat in Varanasi on the Ganges River. It is located close to Baba Kashi Vishwanath Temple and is the most spectacular ghat. At this ghat you can see the grandeur and glory of the Holy Ganga Aarti, which is a worship with fire. Here a group of priests perform Agni Pooja every evening, where a dedication is made to Lord Shiva, River Ganga, which is the Ganges River, to Surya, which is the sun and to Agni, which is the fire and to the whole universe. It is a spectacular event and more profoundly a religious ritual which has taken even a foreign eye to its core spirituality and thus becoming a major tourist attraction in Varanasi.
Photographing a wide variety of places in India
Kristian Bertel has nine years' experience photographing and he has photographed a wide variety of places in India. He fell in love with Varanasi, a colorful city in the Uttar Pradesh province of India, where people bath in the Ganges river from the many ghats. He is a contributor to National Geographic Creative and National Geographic Your Shot and his photographic passion is to show photographs that reflect the daily life in India, as he sees it. He works as a photographer and he is available for editorial assignments all over Europe, Asia, Africa and in the Middle East. For further information and inquiries please:
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More photographs from India
If you are interested to see more photos and imagery from India, you can see one of the slideshows, which also appears on the photographer's website.
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