Of Gods and Men

The notion that a whole city can exist on a spiritual fault line where the boundaries between the secular and spiritual worlds are almost indivisible can surely only occur in India. Varanasi, the city of Shiva and considered by Mark Twain to be older than time itself, claims to be such a city.

Pilgrimage is not only common in India, the Hindu faith itself requires its followers to make long journeys to temples, mountains, river confluences and religious gatherings. These journeys not only serve as acts of worship but also assist people on their spiritual pathways to Nirvana. Many of these end points of devotion and pilgrimage are considered to be tirthas, a term denoting an auspicious location where the dimensions between the temporal and the spiritual world are in constant collision,  as if two inter-continental tectonic plates are incessantly rubbing up against each other. The whole city of Varanasi is considered such a location.

Varanasi, or Benares, or even Kashi (the former names still interchangeable across India) is the End Time City of Michael Ackerman’s seminal photographic volume of the same name,  a volume of work feted for its haunting depiction of the city’s perennial relationship with death. The whole city is considered in Vedic literature to be a cremation site though in reality the dual smoking pyres of Manikarnika and Harischchandra ghats betray the only regions where cremation occur. Similarly, the whole city is a place of pilgrimage, with hostels,  hotels and segregated accommodation collectively called Bhavans providing accommodation for pilgrims. The only difference is these pilgrims have come to Varanasi to die.

Richard Lannoy,  author,  photographer and mystic,  spent many years living in Varanasi and wrote a chapter in ‘Pilgrim’s India’,  an anthology of narratives and poems,  explaining the relationship between pilgrimage and tirthas in Hindu faith. Understanding this relationship is fundamental to understanding the nature,  value and power of pilgrimage not just in India but to any sacred site around the world.

He explains that pilgrimages are intentionally difficult journeys of devotion. By making a long journey to these powerful places, pilgrims achieve a degree of personal growth. The act of pilgrimage serves as a bridge between the known realm of earth, nature, society, and the unknown world of divine beings, from the ephemeral and illusory to reality and eternity. A tirtha refers to ‘crossing the ford’ – to cross is to be transformed. Among the holiest Hindu tirthas are sacred rivers, especially the Ganges. Its entire length is sacred, yet at some points it is believed that its sanctity comes to a focus. One such point is Kashi.

My photographs are my attempt to portray Varanasi as a tirtha where powerful yet benevolent Indian deities exist coterminously with  millions of living people in a city who’s primary spiritual function is to provide a platform for deliverance into another world and another life. Deities patiently watch as people go about their lives, watching from walls, inside shops, from the very fabric of the city, as time slowly unfolds and humans age and eventually reach their own personal time for deliverance. The deities are portrayed as absolutes and the humans as liminal, temporary and fey figures in the midst of a fantastical world. These photographs portray the sacred space which is End Time City.

Michael Ackerman’s End Time City can be viewed here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vP3xlZRRCo