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Nilanjan Ray : Life in a Sacred City – Varanasi


It’s very touching: by way of introduction, the Indian photographer Nilanjan Ray sent a note from Cartier-Bresson dating back at least 30 years. He doesn’t need it, his photos are superb. Here is his reportage on the sacred city of Varanasi and his text.

The Sacred city of India, Varanasi showcases a lifestyle that can aptly be described as ‘desi’ or deep-rooted Indian. This religious and conventional city has ignored the glitz and glamor of the modern world, preferring to restore and perpetuate a culture that beautifully defines true Indian traditions and values.

However, it may be wrong to say that Varanasi is completely untouched by today’s cosmopolitan culture. While society’s elders are doing their best to preserve India’s age-old traditions. The city’s youth are leaning towards a more liberal, western lifestyle. Today, the Varanasi lifestyle is a blend of ethnic exuberance and urban politeness. Religion has played an important role in Varanasi for centuries. Formerly known as Kasi or Benaras, the city has found its place in religious manuscripts, historical and political transcripts dating back thousands of years. It is one of the few cities in the country where you can see three religions – Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

Varanasi is the oldest surviving city in the world. Its antiquated origins have witnessed several important historical twists and have allowed its culture and lifestyle patterns to mature over the years. Varanasi is awakened by beating cymbals, bells and singing hymns at the temple. The city is an early riser and an early morning stroll along the Ghats will see joggers, wrestlers, priests, sages, and devotees busy with their respective activities. While this is the quintessential image of laid-back old Varanasi, however the modern city life paints a different scenario. The city life is livelier, with the honking of cars and rickshaws and the hustle and bustle of schools and office commuters marking Varanasi’s usual morning lifestyle. Varanasi has a variety of educational institutions that’s why it has become the center of education for all the religions worldwide. People say it is the capital of education because of its great contribution towards education.

Varanasi nights are calm and peaceful. There isn’t much nightlife apart from the daily Ganga Aarti and cultural programs held throughout the city. One thing that remains from time immemorial is the city’s immense love and passion for arts and culture. Varanasi is deeply involved in all forms of art and aesthetics. Several famous artists have started their artistic journeys from this city. The city is a lover of sports as well. It is one of the very few cities in India where wrestling or akhara is still practiced and performed.

Varanasi reflects a lifestyle that is unique and is loaded with old charm and antiquity blending beautifully with modern conveniences.

Nilanjan Ray

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