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Glimpses of Varanasi in a single day

Anthropologist and photographer: Emilie Arrago-Boruah @emie_boruah

All photographs copyright Emilie Arrago-Boruah. REPRODUCTION PROHIBITED, means that the resale and reproduction, even partial, in any manner and form, of Emilie Arrago-Boruah’ photographs are prohibited. Anyone wishing to use the contents must have to ask in any case written authorization to Emilie Arrago-Boruah.

How would you describe Varanasi as a traveller from outside India? 
I visited this holy city, called also Benares or Kasi, for the first time in 2001, when I was 25. I had just finished studying philosophy and was gradually moving towards anthropology. The arrival is rather frantic because it’s a bustling city, chaotic and constantly busy. You come to visit this sacred city without a code, whereas all the Hindus who flock there every day in their thousands, to bathe in the sacred waters, have been lulled from early childhood by the benefits of Kasi… come to Kasi and die. There’s nothing serious about it. Death is not taboo here, as Norbert Elias described it in Western societies. People come to Kasi to wash away all their sins and hope for true deliverance, moksha in sanskrit, the supreme goal of every Hindu. Dying without being destined to reborn in the ceaseless stream of rebirths. 
So it’s time to settle down as a photographer. Wait and watch. There was an incredible crowd that day on the banks of the Ganges (Photos 1 and 2). I found this photograph not so long ago. This is an archive. There were probably feminine rituals that day (Photos 3, 4 and 5). What interests me in these photos is that I was able to capture the crowd, in all its diversity, its expressions, its life. A friend recently told me that you could see colour in it. It’s a great compliment as it is a great challenge when you choose to do black and white, especially in India where everything is colourful. 
That same day, sitting in front of all this fervour, a sadhu was looking out at the horizon. In India, a sadhu is a person who has left the mundane life behind, an itinerant ascetic who has abandoned everything. He was absorbed by the horizon, above the crowd, until he noticed my gaze on him. He dived back into the horizon and I was able to immortalize the moment (Photo 6). 
After that, I walked along the ghats for a few kilometers, away from all the fervour. I heard a lesson being recited aloud by children. I was very close to a school. That’s when I realised that I was also being watched just as much (Photos 7 and 8). Photography is an exchange, a moment of complicity, a look at others and life. 
Now as anthropologist, working mainly in north-east India, in Assam, for the last 20 years (photo 9), I’ve been going back to India ever since. These few snapshots are the archives of my early days in India, the glimpses of Varanasi in a single day.