India! Varanasi! The Ghats!
The ghats in Varanasi are the areas of steps that lead down to the holy river of the Ganges – Ganga (Ma Ganga) as she is more commonly termed in India. These platforms and stepped areas are places were life can be seen there both as it happens or as in the reflections of the activities that take place.
There are places for everything: for washing, for swimming, for puja (although puja, the act of ritual prayer and offering, can take place anywhere at all it appears, being as it is an intimate and intrinsic part of life and not fully separated into prescriptive places or practices), for laundry, for buffalo washing, for the cremation of bodies and for both laundry and drying.
Whilst spending time in the city, walking the ghats – the same places, sometimes at different times, usually daily – gave me the opportunity to see the ever evolving life, colours and textures of the spaces.
One day there would be scores of white washed sheets and vests and lungi stretched out in seemingly infinite lines, the next day in contrast there will be bright girl’s dresses in bold floral colours and t-shirts in multiple hues but the one certainty will be of the vast array of meters and meters of saris newly washed and stretched out on the hot stone of the ghats to dry.
If I started my walk early enough I would see children and teenagers rolling large, tied bundles of clothing down the steep steps which lead from the cooler, maze-like streets of the city, down to the hot stony plateaus of the ghats. These young people looked sadly like stick legged members of the tortoise family, laundry bundles for shells, making their slow way (but surprisingly spritely considering the weight) to the top of the steps, their backs bent doubt and their loads at least twice as wide as they were, before emerging from under these heavy packages and unceremoniously pushing them off the top step. Child labour is still rife in India. Family businesses conscripting their nearest and dearest in order to make a living.
These bouncing bundles swiftly found themselves in the murky depths of the river Ganga, being pounded and slapped on rocks worn smooth and flat by constant use. Saris once washed and exhausted, lay newly clean and flat on the stone walkways, sometimes weighted down by rocks against the threat of a chance gust of wind but mostly held fast but the iron will (and maybe good karma or puja) of it’s cleaner that it not move, get dirty or be lost before it be dried and repackaged into large shell-like bundles for the return trip up the steps to an unknown shop in the maze, for the few rupees payment and collection by its owner.
These vast seas of sari silk are a sensory delight. The colours and textures on the dusty white stone are a bold contrast and provoke a similar but more playful delight to the one I get when looking at the bolts of fabric all tightly and neatly stacked in the tailors shop. Playful because the fresh air creates ripples in the resting saris as they test their rocky anchors to see if they can slip their moorings and set themselves adrift across the long network of ghats and across the river to the other side.
The colours shimmer as they move and as the daylight changes from the softer morning light to the bright harsh heat and sunshine of mid day. Each day brings a new set of saris, a new colour combination. Each set seeming more striking and more fanciful than the last. Colours clash together in haughty collaborations I would never consider. The textures of the newer fabrics competing with the contempt at the older softer more pliable fabrics. The combinations are never the same. The saris are never the same. I can leave my room above the ghats metaphorically hungry for life and return back fully satiated on a diet of colour and texture.