India… an experience I can only begin to grasp.


A brief photographic account of twenty days of travel in India.
[Oct. 28th, 2005] Re-publication: this is part of a series of post that either myself or Clara posted during our sabbatical. Since I did not travel with a computer at the time, I never posted my travel photography together with these posts. So I have decided to re-publish some of these articles including now the photography I did at the time (this was my second year since I had started photography). All the images are from Varanasi, India, since my camera got stolen soon after I left this city. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did!

One of the many rowers making a living transporting people up and down the ganges in Varanasi, India, Asia. ..This means of transportation allows for a different perspective of city.  From the water you can get a clear sense about the sheer size of the river walls and the quantity of people that partake of it. (unknown/Martin Herrera)
The “Big Karma Cleaning Bureau”, a.k.a. Ganga in Varanasi. We went for a sunrise boat ride in the Ganges river, to see the people performing their pujas (ceremonies). The Ganges is like a big karma cleaning bureau with many alternatives for sinners and saints: offerings of sweets, candles, bathing, meditation and so on.

We are now in Rishikesh. Nepal was an awesome experience. We just loved it. The people, the mountains and everything was graceful and filled with blessings. India… I would say it’s been a fascinating experience for many other reasons quite different from Nepal. Nothing in this portion of the trip would in any way resemble a vacation, but rather an intense, at times arduous and at others flowing journey.

Our first stop was in Varanasi, perhaps not the best way to get to know India, but certainly and interesting one. By ‘mistake’ (to be generous with the use of the word) I put tea tree (natural antiseptic) in my eye, instead of my usual – and more pleasing I have to say – eye lubricating drops. To my defense, this was at three in the morning, without light and I was very, very tired. In any case, this put my eye out of service for an entire day, when I was finally able to open it again, and more importantly when I had the courage to look into the city again. In perspective I would say it was what I needed to be able to adjust and sink in to this new reality and rich experience.

Narrow street, entrance to a hotel, where another of India's sacred cows dwells in the garbage that in many instances end up killing this holly animals. (Martin Herrera)
Entrance street to out hotel in Varanasi, India. If first impressions count as much as it’s said, imagine my reaction as I was walking in after many hour of travel. This first encounter set the tone for several days in this city. It took me a while to adjust and settle.

A view of Varanasi city from our hotel room, depicting the poor conditions most people live with in this city. Varanasi, India, Asia. (Martin Herrera)
View from the balcony of our hotel room in Varanasi. The outside view it’s definitely more precarious than the hotel itself. Yet, rarely have I been up to this point in my life, so close and exposed to what I consider extreme poverty.

After that we visited Kajuraho, Orchah and after a night in the Delhi train station (a whole experience in itself), we are finally in the north. I like Rishikesh much better than any other place. Perhaps this is a result of many disappointments before, whenever I expected to find a more serene and specially silent town, only to arrive to endless horns, street chaos and brutal harassment of the rickshawas and whallas.

Full moon, night ceremony in honor of mother Ganges.  Varanasi, India, Asia.  ..Even though this ceremonies are attended by hordes of tourists, they remain a true manifestation for locals to express their devotion to the Ganges. (Martin Herrera)
Fire Ceremony: When we got to Varanasi, India, we were told that it was a “most auspicious” day, that the moon on the night before was a “bad” one, which required a lot of pujas from them, and today they were “celebrating” with a fire ceremony. We thought, WOW, how lucky are we, to get here on a special day. We didn’t know at that point that there are so many festivals and ceremony days in India, that a day without them, is really a special day.

Here I have managed to seclude myself in a safe, but much more importantly, silent place. I had not noticed up to now in my life how much the constant noise puts me off-balance. As well – I have to admit – that finding a restaurant that offers meals that appeal to my taste, specially raw salads that I dare to eat, has made a significant impact in my appreciation of this area. After this we are going to Delhi and back to LA.

Night offerings (pujas) to mother Ganges in Varanasi, India, Asia.  ..This man was chanting his mantra while repeatedly vowing in some sort of trance. (Martin Herrera)
People performing ritualistic repetitive meditation motions during the fire ceremony.

A man offers (pujas) to mother Ganges in the sacred river in the city of Varanasi, India, Asia. (Martin Herrera)
People also like to share their offerings (in this candles) to mother Ganges.

During the lengthy night in the New Delhi train station, we managed to hang in there beyond the inherit intensity of the whole experience. Late at night, there were areas were walking was impossible due to the bodies lying around, and the constant pursuit of people offering to help, and my mind wondering if each wanted to screw me off. This has been for me a sad realization of India. I fear and dread the people that approach me due to my inability to discern good from bad, thus leaving me shielded as well from those probably few souls that indeed have good intentions… but how to know?

After 7 hours there, when we finally boarded our train (for which we decided to pay premium and travel in the comfort of first class with AC), as we got to our seat and turned around to load the backpacks in the top luggage rails, in what could have been no more than 5 seconds, someone stole my camera, and with it all the graphic memories from India. I ran outside up and down the platform like crazy, but of course found no one that had my camera bag in sight.

Yogi in Varanassi, India, holding his only belongings, a piece of cloth while he performs his daily routines. (Martin Herrera)
Most people’s image of a yogi is associated to a flexible and gracious guy with zero grams of fat in his body on a purple sticky. But these are the real yogis. Renouncing their worldly responsibilities and material processions they embrace a life of prayers, study, meditation and practice, entirely dedicated to God. Our room in Varanasi gave us a special insight into their everyday. Their day starts at 3AM, you can hear horns being blown from the other side of the city. And when they are not meditating, chanting, reading and praying, they are washing their clothes (10 AM) – their only earthy possession, or their dishes (1 PM), taking a bath (4PM) and walking in circles (any other time).

I knew before coming that this would be a significant trip for me, and indeed has been in many ways. When I leave this place, I am taking with me the the growth of having become a better photographer. The work I’ve done here was the best I ever done. I was able to get close to people, to become intimate with them, and how their lives make me feel. I searched and found the light that gave this photos the right colors, the tones and spoke of the lives that people in here have to endure with, of their days and carefully noted everything in my travel notebook – which is also gone together with the camera. But after mourning the loss, I am at peace with the fact and the clear intention that this is only the beginning of my work of telling stories through the lens of a camera.

I also leave with the clear reference point that I am at a place in my life, where no matter the experience that is brought forward (and God please be clear that I am not asking for more than anything that is really necessary), I have been able to maintain my peace of mind, as well as connect to my feelings and embrace them (this perhaps not as well as the balance) 😉 I also leave India refreshed and joyful for the relationship I have with Clara, for how we support each other and grow together. This, and my life in general is a true blessing.

Varanassi ghats, where most Hindus people will cremate the dead, are among the holliest places in India.  This main is throwing the ashes of a close realtive to mother ganges. (Martin Herrera)
We saw fisherman, we saw people meditating (some with their eyes opened?). We saw people seeing us. We saw the burning of the bodies, and were told that no pictures were allowed. “Bad for the family, bad for you and bad for the dead”. So like, reaaally bad. There was an old man dressed in white that had just burned a relative. They mourn in white and not in black. The opportunity to witness these old rituals being performed in public, oblivious to time, is one of the things that attract so many westerns to Varanasi.

Local washing a pot in the Ganges; one of the many activities that takes place in the heart of this city.  Varanasi, India, Asia. (Martin Herrera)
One of the many morning routines taking place on the mother ganges river in Varanasi, India.

Clara and I talk frequently about how to write about India; about how to make a fair representation of what this experience is all about. At times the difficult things seem many and overwhelming, and yet the positive even though subtle, are profound and long lasting. I hope that by no means my writing throughs anyone off from gifting themselves with a whole new reference point in their lives. Be clear. This is a great trip, a wonderful opportunity, an experience that will forever be with me, and that will change me in ways I can only begin to imagine.

Namaste… Martin.