By Louis Kleynhans
Read Part 1 here
The expedition that we were on was called “a Photographer’s Pilgrimage” and the plan was to visit two of the holiest places in India and document the life of the Holy Men. We visited Varanasi and Amritsar.
Varanasi’s ancient flames
Varanasi is the holiest place in the Hindu religion. The numbers of people visiting are absolutely staggering and we really struggled to wrap our brains around it. One hundred and fifty thousand people arrive every sunset and sunrise for Arty (prayers) on the banks of Ganges River (Holy River). If you can imagine about double what we get at a rugby test – they manage that twice a day. The chaos in the street was a nightmare, we had to move our heavy photography equipment through the crowds. We eventually managed to get a boat that we could use on the River, making life a lot easier. It meant that our gear was protected and we could also be manoeuvred into spots where it was easy to shoot from.
Varanasi is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. For the Hindus, this is the most sacred spot where they can pray and be cremated. It is believed that a believer will go straight to heaven if they get cremated in Varanasi, in the fire that is said to have been burning non-stop for over 2000 years. There are hotels where people are waiting to die, and while the trains from Varanasi are empty and easy to get a ticket for, the trains there are full of bodies on their way to cremation.
It was a real eye opener to see how they cremate people and throw the ashes in the river, right next to where other people are having their Holy bath. There are bodies and carcasses floating on the river, with huge crowds of people coming for prayers. I immediately realised that there was no way I would ever get used to this scene.
Amritsar’s temple of gold
Amritsar was on the other extreme of the spectrum. This is the Sikh’s holiest place, and the home of a Temple made of gold. The Golden temple is the largest structure in the world made out of gold. Where Varanasi was characterised by a sense of chaos, the Golden Temple was well organized and super-efficient. We got an exclusive tour from the director of the Golden Temple. Again, we couldn’t wrap our heads around the stats. Two hundred and fifty thousand people pray at the temple every day. They have free accommodation for a hundred thousand people, they serve a hundred thousand free meals a day. Everything is donated and the volunteers on pilgrimage help to prepare the food, serve it and then wash the dishes.
A prayer made at the Golden Temple counts double what a prayer made anywhere else does. This make this a very popular pilgrimage. The temple is surrounded by water, and it’s very important to pray in the water. They have a lot of guards that patrol the edge of the baths to make sure nobody drowns.
This was a very moving trip for me, you can’t help but be moved by so many people praying and worshiping their God. Most importantly, it reminded me that all religions are different. It’s not for us to judge.