In the pre-pandemic month of January, I went to Varanasi, the spiritual capital of India, to photograph the city of life and eternity.  Equipped with my camera and a backpack full of lenses, I stepped out at the crack of dawn each morning and was out photographing until way past dusk.  I climbed up and down the steps of its Ghats, I sailed across the Ganga to the river bank on the far side, I interacted with the holy men (the sadhus, pandits, monks and pilgrims) I explored the narrow gullies of the old city and I hopped across several row boats to get good vantage points to view the aarti ceremony.  Mystic voyage is a series that evolved while being confined at home under lockdown.  As I revisited my pictures, I thought of the priceless life lessons that I learnt from my time in this timeless city.

On my first day, I awoke in the early hours of the morning for a sunrise boat ride.  I wanted to see the golden rays rising over the sacred waters.  It was a cold and misty morning with a sense of mysticism in the air.  There was no sun.  Instead a dense fog engulfed the city and neither side of the bank was visible as we rowed along the river.  The only thing in sight was a lone boat drifting along.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

 A sadhu clad in orange climbing the steps after he had made his offering to the rising sun.  The divinity of the ordinary moment - the golden glow on the steps, the dramatic scale of the Ghat in the back, the symbolism of the boat on the right and the Om to the left - made me feel like I was experiencing something extraordinary.​​​​​​​ 

A monk in red attire reciting sacred texts as part of his morning prayer and meditation.  The serenity of the moment…the quietude of the early morning, the soft sunlight glistening over the holy waters and the reflections of the row boats docked along the river bank…made me think of the value of reflection and looking within.​​​​​​​

A school of young novice monks perform a series of sun salutations and other yoga asanas.  Their discipline and commitment to this morning ritual made me realise the importance of beginning each day mindfully.​​​​​​​

Pilgrims drying their saris after having washed them in the holy waters.  Watching this cleansing ritual I thought about how washing away negative emotions is essential for personal growth.

A grandmother, daughter and baby travelled to Varanasi on a pilgrimage and were on their way to make an offering at a temple. Seeing the narrow gullies dotted with people paying their respects at the old city’s countless temples made me think of the importance of faith and belief.​​​​​​​

Peppered amongst the throngs of pilgrims and tourists are the holy men of Varanasi.  I came across this ash smeared Naga Sadhu sitting around a bonfire.  His renunciation of all belonging made me think of the sharp contrast to the big city lifestyles of short lived materialistic pleasures.

A little further down I came across another Sadhu.  The intensity of his gaze exuded inner strength and resilience and he appeared detached from his crowded surroundings.  It made think of how a certain amount of detachment can free oneself of the pain and suffering caused by too much attachment.

At the Nepali Mandir I came across an elderly monk soaking in some afternoon sun in the temple courtyard.  The gentle persona of the monk made me realise the value of being calm amidst chaos.  ​​​​​​​

Every evening as dusk descends, throngs of pilgrims and tourists gather on rowboats docked along the waters edge and along the steps of the ghats to watch the ultimate ceremony of all – the Ganga Aarti.  The positive energy of the ritual combined with the strong vibes of the crowd made me think of how energy is so contagious.​​​​​​​

As the evening progressed, the pandits circled oil lamps in a clockwise direction as part of the ritual.  The symbolism of the glittering light against the deep night sky made me realise that darkness must be present in order for light to shine brightly.​​​​​​​

As the ceremony drew to a close, the pandits sprinkle petals of marigolds in the air.  The sight of the showering saffron was so magical, it was as if blessings were raining down from the heavens above.​​​​​​​

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