Varanasi reminds me of the garden of earthly delights. Everything I see is bizarre and people are absolutely everywhere. Actions that exist here do not exist there. There is a sense of privacy though within yourself and your very physically intimate neighbors because everyone is in the movement together that no one cares about you specifically. So much life happens within this painting and within this city. Varanasi is a constant festival. I take the same path everyday but everything is always changing. I see circuses and gatherings of spectacles. Noises, reflections, glows, magic, booths of enchanting vendors and mysterious gypsies. Everything is moving and everything is in conversation with something else.
The ghats in Varanasi are the different areas on the banks of the river. I am in Assi, which is one of the holy ghats. People bathe in holy waters when they can. The other holy ones are spread out along the river. The river is a visible life line. I now know what happened after death. I know what hell looks like. Hell is a ghat called Manikarnika.
On the life line river I can see everything within one glance. I get the gist of being alive vs. being dead. With closer observations though i pick apart and notice the billions of little specific people and images of life and death. Loss, sorrow, prayer, energy, fire, ashes are in hell and this ghat is surrounded by pure normalcy. On both sides of the regularly sized ghat, where people go to disappear into the holy water for eternity, women bathe, men practice their morning yoga, children splash, boaters nap, old men douse their bodies in bubbles of soap, people lay out 20+ white sheets for drying, men set up their prayer belongings to pray for the sun and life, women bless the water. I see every shade of pinks, oranges, blues, greens, yellows. I see the beauty of anything that isn’t black and cannot reflect the beautiful subtle golden sunlight. A whole world can be seen along the river without looking closely. In a general sense there is death and 5 feet away there is life. A body is burned and a body is washed. A dead body lies a stone throw away from the vibrancy of the uniquely chaotic life here. The cremation ghat is seen through a dark haze. This haze comes from the smoke of course but it gives an abstract yet pressing sense of pain, danger, insecurity, inevitable immortality, and hell. Fire has a home in what seems to be undesignated areas of Manikarnika. The ashes of the wood have stained the stone steps black. Every other ghat, especially the ones directly next to it, have maroon steps that absorb the sun beautifully. Charcoal black and orange fire. As though a catapult had constantly hit an already destroyed city with balls of the most orange flame. Varanasi is a city of unimaginable literal and metaphorical contrast. Orange in manikarnika means something else. In every other ghat orange is a color worn by beautiful men walking around for change with tall batons in their hand for god knows what reason. Orange is a color here which fits in nicely. I always love to see orange in my peripheral because it adds to the grand image of the Varanasi that represents everything in life.
People here are so present though that the presence of death does not impede their life. They know that death will happen and unlike most people in the world, they do not care. It is all in the garden of earthly delights. The death panel is so close to life, only being separated by hinges. People in the painting and their faces are all the same. I can even tell it is the same world because of the energy and portrayal of relationships, activities, chaos, privacy, and purposes…you name it. Varanasi is the real life world of the portrayal of life in the painting. It is really incredible and overwhelming and disturbing but real and casual.