Tag Archives: India Photography

The People of India and the City of Varanasi

Of all the cultures I’ve managed to see around the world, India truly stands out as one that offers the most diverse people in the world. Not only is the country defined by a divided religion, but its people are completely alienated by the gulf in riches between the classes.

Just from the two and a half weeks of travelling through the Northern stretches of India, down from Amritsar to Kolkata, its volatility was striking. The North Eastern region of Punjab, central to Sikhism, demonstrated the power of wealth, where gold and land is king, the rich served hand and foot by those lower in the society. Huge plains would be desolate, overgrown with charred shrubs and burnt out grass, the dust sweeping up off the ground from the side-sweeping winds. The only elements that broke the view of the horizon were the plots of land with arenaceous roads leading up the high walls concealing rich mansions or palaces within – the barriers preventing the distribution of wealth to the local communities.

Dwellings - Punjab, India

Dwellings – Punjab, India

The Plains of Ludhiana - Punjab, India

The Plains of Ludhiana – Punjab, India

Real Estate - Ludhiana, India

Real Estate – Ludhiana, India

Homeless Dog - India

Homeless Dog – India

Pot Washer - Ludhiana - India

Pot Washer – Ludhiana – India

The Golden Temple at Amritsar showed off the treasures of the Sikh religion with its beautifully gold plated façade, but for this city, although the riches weren’t distributed in monetary terms, it was instead shared through the power of its religious core. Those of lower class, although evidently poor, showed riches in their devotion to the afterlife. The people were united in warmth and gratitude.

From there, the ugly side of society reared its face in Agra – the tourist haven for those visiting the spectacular Taj Mahal. The wealth again preserves itself within the walls of this great Palace, away from the local community on the outside, one scratching at survival, willing to cheat and deceit outsiders for a chance of a better life. One would assume religion here would be as powerful as the Golden Temple, but this seemed to elude its people here, the black Yamuna River depicting the town’s darkness and lack of being.

The most incredible train journey from Agra to Varanasi then brought with it evidence of India’s repugnant bureaucratic face. With invalid train tickets bought online, each member of staff sat seamlessly unwitting to our situation as we tried to board a 12-hour train at 1am. The attendants one by one would move us on to the next, unwilling to help us at all. The language barrier was apparent, but nobody came forward to help us out. It was a free for all as people dashed around in a frenzy, selfishly going about their business without due care. As we faced the umpteenth uncooperative attendant who simply threw the tickets back in our faces before physically turning his back to us and saying, “it isn’t my job”, we just had to gamble by jumping on board the train anyway. We sat by the stinking toilets in the uncomfortable gangways of the train carriages, sheltering ourselves from the cold air outside and for the next few hours, were met by the most inhuman of attendants who kept repeating to us that our tickets were invalid.

Cramped on the Train - Agra to Varanasi, India

Cramped on the Train – Agra to Varanasi, India

Luxury Train Seat - Agra to Varanasi, India

Luxury Train Seat – Agra to Varanasi, India

Train Air Conditioning - Agra to Varanasi, India

Train Air Conditioning – Agra to Varanasi, India

As much as we explained that that we would pay for the second time (seeing as they had taken money out of my account already from the online purchase) he refused time and time again to help us out, accusing us of bunking the train. After 5 hours, half the people on the train got off, freeing up plenty of space and beds, but this still didn’t coax the guard into letting us stay on. Instead, he threw our bags off the train as it was about to leave the station, forcing us off into a town called Kanpur in the middle of nowhere at 6am.

Kanpur Station Taken on Canon Ixus 50 - India

Kanpur Station Taken on Canon Ixus 50 – India

We were the only white people in the town, one that was completely impoverished. All we could do was dash off to the nearest hotel whilst groups of people followed us through the town, praying that we would make it safely. And in complete contrast to all this aggravation, the porter of a hotel nearby managed to help us hire a cab for the rest of the journey to Varanasi.

Landing there sent us into another world of intrigue. Throughout the stay here all aspects of what we had witnessed bear fruit to us again. The streets upon arrival were full of people crazily rushing around the narrow back streets lined with kiosks selling all kinds of gold and haberdashery, flowers and food.

Street Life - Varanasi, India

Street Life – Varanasi, India

Back Streets of Varanasi, India

Back Streets of Varanasi, India

Back Streets of Varanasi, India

Back Streets of Varanasi, India

Local Flower Stall - Varanasi, India

Local Flower Stall – Varanasi, India

Even slaughter shops could be seen as we moved on through the town, with chickens put to slaughter right in full view of the streets. People seemed to be scrambling around, bartering with each other before moving on to the next. Survival was still clearly a predominant factor of life. Within the melee, army officers would gaze out as if in charge of the ensuing chaos, ready to strike at anything unruly.

Local Police Force - Varanasi, India

Local Police Force – Varanasi, India

Security - Varanasi, India

Security – Varanasi, India

Once dropped off in the centre of town by the taxi, a local took us down the backstreets to our hostel on the banks of the River Ganges for a few rupees – a journey that passed through excrement at every turn, one that we again hoped would have a happy outcome. Fortunately, the local was true to his word and offered us his services in return for a just reward. There was no scheming. Just one man helping out another.

Suddenly, we then entered a completely different world. The deeply religious heart of Varanasi revealed itself off the back its unruly back streets.

River Ganges - Varanasi, India

River Ganges – Varanasi, India

Ganges Embankment - Varanasi, India

Ganges Embankment – Varanasi, India

Here, the kindness and honesty of its peoples lined the banks of the Ganges and presented to us a reality that completely juxtaposed it from what the experiences of the past few days. People were peaceful and caring, often approachable and helpful. Many would sit along the embankment at prayer or simply to contemplate.

Locals Chatting to the Visitors - Varanasi, India

Locals Chatting to the Visitors – Varanasi, India

Old Man Praying - Varanasi, India

Old Man Praying – Varanasi, India

Two Men Praying - Varanasi, India

Two Men Praying – Varanasi, India

There were even conversations struck up with some of the locals down at the Dashashwamedh Ghat in the evening at one of the Agni Pooja ceremonies (Worship to Fire) in which a dedication is made to the Lord Shiva, River Ganges, the Sun and the Universe. A Ghat, by the way, is a series of steps on the embankment leading to the River Ganges.

Varanasi Ghat - India

Varanasi Ghat – India

Ghats of the River Ganges - Varanasi, India

Ghats of the River Ganges – Varanasi, India

Dashashwamedh Ghat - Varanasi, India

Dashashwamedh Ghat – Varanasi, India

One character we met was a very smart 14-year old boy selling postcards, his English as every bit as good as my own, chatting away about his background and intrigued as to what ours was. Another interesting character was an elderly man who was simply interested in who we were and the reasons for our visit to Varanasi. Both people were welcoming and pleasant.

Elderly Local with Hannah - Varanasi, India

Elderly Local with Hannah – Varanasi, India

Along the embankment, kite runners would sit in peace. Highly sacred cows would wander aimlessly through the streets.

Kite Runners - Varanasi, India

Kite Runners – Varanasi, India

Animal Kingdom - Varanasi, India

Animal Kingdom – Varanasi, India

Lining the embankment would also be many shrines or places of worship. And what was strange about these places, was that the opportunistic characters would sit waiting like a snake ready to pounce on its prey. You couldn’t take a casual look around without feeling a hand in your pocket clasping at your wallet. This was also later evidently true as we sought out the famous crematoriums. Families would go on pilgrimage to Varanasi to lay to rest their loved ones in the River Ganges after a deep spiritual cleansing of the soul. For this, the body would be wrapped in special linen and then strapped to planks of wood previously bought off a local supplier. The body would then be brought to the edge of the River to be washed – a final cleansing the soul before being cremated. The body when then be placed on the burning fires in the open for everybody to see. This was a powerful experience, one that from our cultural perspective seemed wrong to share, but from theirs, completely acceptable. It was a deeply emotional moment, one that brought religion, the human soul and the Earth together. From our viewpoint, we were standing in a refuge for lepers and those who travelled to Varanasi to die. Deeply unnerving, the snakes were ready again to pounce on the outsiders, an experience that forced us out quickly into the streets with a weird sensation.

Outside the rituals, all along the stretches of the River Ganges, people would be busy selling all sorts of things to locals and visitors alike, with others manually working. Others would simply rest or bathe in the River. By night, boats would sleep silently on the calm surface whilst local sacred animals took refuge where they could.

Early Morning Bath - Varanasi, India

Early Morning Bath – Varanasi, India

Boat Maker - Varanasi, India

Boat Maker – Varanasi, India

Child Food Seller - Varanasi, India

Child Food Seller – Varanasi, India

Men at Rest - Varanasi, India

Men at Rest – Varanasi, India

Sleeping Sheep - Ghats of Varanasi by Night, India

Sleeping Sheep – Ghats of Varanasi by Night, India

Sleeping Boats - Varanasi, India

Sleeping Boats – Varanasi, India

The atmosphere in Varanasi was somewhat distinguished by the arrival of Holi Week. This is the celebration of the passing of winter into spring at the end of February. Holi Week is a chance for people to completely relax in a world of colour and celebration.

Holi Week Painted Man - Varanasi, India

Holi Week Painted Man – Varanasi, India

Colour is the most important element of the festivities; it needs to be everywhere – on the skin, in the hair, on clothes, on buildings, on the streets, on the passing cows, everywhere! The colour comes from a mixture of “tika” powder and water. On the evening of the full moon, bonfires would be lit to signify the destruction of the holy demon Holika, and gave everybody a chance to drink and party the night away.

The Burning of Holika - Holi Week - Varanasi, India

The Burning of Holika – Holi Week – Varanasi, India

So, even amongst the deeply sacred practices, the bureaucracy, the leeches and scammers who patrol the streets, the rich and the poor, the sick and healthy, people still didn’t forget the heart of humanity – the creation of community and the chance for people to come together to share experiences together. It’s in these celebrations like everywhere in the world that the ugly side to life is put to one side. The diversity of humanity being left behind.

Further Reading on Varanasi and Holi Week

Varanasi City Tourist Guide

All About India – Ganges River

Holi Festival

More Photography :

“The India Collection” by Antematters

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The Town of Agra and The Taj Mahal

One of the biggest things I was looking forward to was the visit of the Taj Mahal in Agra – one of the great modern Wonders of the World. What I didn’t expect was that it brought with it a unique and contrasting experience to the visit of the Golden Temple of Amritsar, together with a stomach-crunching introduction to the complex connotations of poverty.

One thing that has always played with my mind is the way poverty is defined. Some aspects of society will link poverty to money which in turn links to happiness. But what does poverty actually mean? Poverty and money don’t necessarily have a direct link. You can be wealthy, but poorly enriched. You can be financially poor, but lead rich lives. Agra ended up being one of the first places on my travels that I came into conflict with what poverty really means.

As planned, Roberto, Jon, Hannah and I were picked up after breakfast at 8am by taxi for a 600km journey to the magnificent Taj Mahal in Agra. We were due to take another train to Agra from New Delhi, but traditional Friday prayers at the mausoleum meant that we had to jump in a cab instead.

Cow at Breakfast Caught on Canon IXUS 50 - New Delhi, India

Cow at Breakfast Caught on Canon IXUS 50 – New Delhi, India

The drive down to Agra was another torrent affair. Jon was unfortunately initiated to the front passenger seat on our first car journey between New Delhi and Ludhiana when we arrived in India, and for some inexplicable reason, took up the baton again. With Roberto, Hannah and I sat in the back snoozing happily; Jon’s fingernails were etching ever more into the dashboard in front of him. The Indian Highway Code relied heavily on two things – brakes and horns. If there was any kind of Indian MOT (automobile road safety test), then there would only be two fat boxes to tick. This car was tested out fully. But, it failed on brakes.

Our peaceful sleep in the back of the car was stopped abruptly about half way to Agra when our cabbie, whom we named “Drives”, decided to put on his gloves for a “Destruction Derby” type mission.

Drives - Agra, India

Drives – Agra, India

I was jolted out of my snooze to a terrified-looking Jon as we had evidently just swerved out of the way of a stationary cow in the middle of the road. Drives then proceeded to put his foot down to make up lost time in an apparent traffic jam whilst leaving New Delhi. All that was missing were some duelling banjos as we started to play chicken with anything that crossed our path. Drives was obviously capable of reading signs as we came bumper to bumper with huge trucks displaying, “Use Your Horn”, something he took up with ease. It was a shame it didn’t have a sign next to it saying, “Keep Your Distance”. At speeds of 120 kilometres per hour, he would duck in and out of the backs of trucks and cars in the hope that there was a gap to overtake. With complete lack of acceleration, Drives would take all necessary risks to get past any obstacle, often with ensuing cars coming head on at us. At points, the road would somehow fit 5 or 6 cars into a two-lane contraflow. We even had to tackle the puzzle combination of truck, car and cow; instead of braking in behind, Drives would choose to put his foot down and, at the last ditch, veer off the edge of the road, throwing dust and mud up behind us, the back-end swerving, jumping and trying to keep upright on the road. Even when we begged him to slow down (as we’d rather live than be an hour or so later on arrival), he would check to see if we had succumbed to our naps again before continuing on his death defying driving.

After five hours, we arrived in Agra a little bit more stressed out than planned. And what we pulled into was one of the worst places I have ever visited.

Streets of Agra Captured on Canon IXUS 50, India

Streets of Agra Captured on Canon IXUS 50, India

Donkey Walk Captured on Canon IXUS 50 - Agra, India

Donkey Walk Captured on Canon IXUS 50 – Agra, India

One thing I learnt is that we aren’t appreciative enough about the luxuries we have back home, but at the same time, we’ve lost the importance of “being” that gets overloaded by material possessions we have. I have witnessed the importance of “being” in many areas of the world that simply choose to ignore the privileges of the industrial world – as I continue to write about my experiences, this will be plain to see. But for Agra, this place was a classifiable shit-hole. Ironically, it’s a place that completely contrasts the beauty of the Taj Mahal at its banks. The streets were grimy and dusty, with excrement everywhere.

Excrement in Streets Captured on Canon IXUS 50 - Agra, India

Excrement in Streets Captured on Canon IXUS 50 – Agra, India

People were sheltered by half-completed breezeblock apartments and corrugated iron, lacking windows, doors, or any kind of hospitable necessities. Others would dwell in shacks. People in the streets were desperate; much so that they were extremely over bearing and unwelcoming in their attitudes. You really felt at unease around them as they tried to leech off you and trick you in every way.

Locals In Debate - Agra, India

Locals In Debate – Agra, India

There was no humility about it, no manner of hiding it. And you could completely understand why. Here, amidst the crumbling of social deprivation, a striking famous landmark would attract hordes of tourists from around the world, the government cashing- in on its obvious attraction. On the outskirts, its people would rot away in the quagmires, scrapping for survival as the funds from the tomb are swallowed up, undistributed to the local community.

Street Toilet - Agra, India

Street Toilet – Agra, India

The River Yamuna, an angry pitch-black border, would divide the Taj Mahal and the desolate city nearby.

Embankment of Agra, India

Embankment of Agra, India

Even the hotel we stayed in was falling apart – it didn’t even cash-in on the possibility of tourist money. Roberto and Jon’s room was infested with cockroaches, and many others the same. Luckily for Hannah and I, we were checked into a recently sterilised room. But we realised later that the lack of investment in the town meant that tourists weren’t staying. They would come from New Delhi, and then leave immediately. And you could see why. Even if you tried to interact with the locals, you felt at disquiet doing so. They needed money from the outside, yet didn’t make outsiders feel welcome. No one seemed interested in investing funds into the city.

Local Businessman Captured on Canon IXUS 50 - Agra, India

Local Businessman Captured on Canon IXUS 50 – Agra, India

Local Haberdasher Captured on Canon IXUS 50 - Agra, India

Local Haberdasher Captured on Canon IXUS 50 – Agra, India

Away from the austerity of Agra, we escaped to the conflicting solace of the Taj Mahal, a true modern Wonder of the World.

Darwaza of the Taj Mahal - Agra, India

Darwaza of the Taj Mahal – Agra, India

Upon passing through the Darwaza, the majestic red sandstone main gateway, your eyes would then fixate upon the spectacular white marble walls of the huge mausoleum.

Taj Mahal - Agra, India

Taj Mahal – Agra, India

Once you get your mind off the myriad of tourists surrounding it, you can’t help but transfix yourself on its sheer size, on first appearance dwarfing St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Taj Mahal - Agra, India

Taj Mahal – Agra, India

It sits tall, proud and elegant in amongst the beautiful surrounding Bageecha gardens. It almost appears floating in the sky.

Most of the day was spent just wandering the gardens whilst taking the site in, making full use of the camera, recording the ever-changing colours of the façade as daylight shifted.

Sunset on the Taj Mahal - Agra, India

Sunset on the Taj Mahal – Agra, India

The Dome of the Taj Mahal - Agra, India

The Dome of the Taj Mahal – Agra, India

Incredibly enough, although the tomb is sprawling, the actual crypt itself is quite small, with a couple of mid-sized chambers by its side.

We felt it strange that although there are traditional prayers on Fridays which closes the site to tourists, it didn’t seem overly religious, probably owing to the overbearing amount of tourists. We didn’t see any locals praying at all, in complete dissimilarity to the experiences of the Golden Temple of Amritsar. The Golden Temple was a much more touching and important experience, one that leaves a mark on you, one that makes you think and self-assess. It has its own unique physical beauty, but the religious experience surrounding it completely outweighs what you take away from the Taj Mahal itself. Don’t get me wrong, the Taj Mahal is fascinating and an incredible work of art that should be visited. But its potency here is that upon leaving its astonishing grounds to confront Agra once more, it forces you to try and surmise how two worlds divided by apparent wealth can also both lack the richness of being…

Local Gardener - Taj Mahal, Agra, India

Local Gardener – Taj Mahal, Agra, India

Further Reading on Agra and The Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal Tourist Information

Agra and The Taj Mahal

UNESCO – The Taj Mahal

More Photography :

“The India Collection” by Antematters

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A Brief Encounter with New Delhi

The enticing visit to New Delhi turned out to be a very brief encounter as I travelled across Northern India from Punjab towards Kolkata in West Bengal with Roberto, Jon and Hannah. It was a Wednesday and we were due to stay a couple of nights before heading down to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal on Friday, but a moment of panic struck when we were told that it would be traditionally closed for prayer. That meant we had to cut down our time in the city to an afternoon and hire a taxi to Agra early Thursday morning.

Street Life of New Delhi, India

Street Life of New Delhi, India

After taking an early morning train from Amritsar, Roberto, Jon, Hannah and I touched down in what we expected to be a daunting but alluring metropolis. The encounter with the first set of tuk-tuk drivers in Amritsar set the benchmark for what we might stumble across in our journey throughout India, but to our surprise, we actually felt quite abandoned upon arrival. The city was a far cry from what we expected as we left the station towards the centre of town to drop off our bags at the hotel. We didn’t feel threatened or pressurised in any way as we wandered through the main bazaar, checking out the many small winding alleyways, bustling with kiosks selling all types of merchandise.

Indian Kiosk - New Delhi, India

Indian Kiosk – New Delhi, India

The streets were much cleaner than expected; much cleaner than our familiar preconceptions of dirt and squalor of India’s slums.

Back Streets of New Delhi, India

Back Streets of New Delhi, India

A quick bite to eat at one of the local restaurants then changed our minds in an instant as the fears of Delhi belly started to come to fruition. The streets didn’t bear resemblance to the bleakness hidden away behind its façade, the true identity of New Delhi hitting you slap in the face behind closed doors. All four of us looked at each other in anguish at the dining options, all dark, dank and filthy abodes.

Local Restaurant - New Delhi, India

Local Restaurant – New Delhi, India

We eventually just picked what looked like the most hygienic, and prayed for a lucky outcome. In all honesty, the food was delicious, en par with the delicacies we had tasted so far, but we couldn’t help but fear how the food had been prepared behind the scenes.

Indian Cuisine - New Delhi, India

Indian Cuisine – New Delhi, India

The restaurant was grimy from top to bottom; it looked like the end of shift clean-up took about five minutes, probably using an assortment of soiled cloths. Many of the best places to eat whilst travelling are those that are unkempt, but you just couldn’t help but feel this was beyond the mark.

After lunch, we then embarked on a frantic adventure through the city after bartering with one of the many tuk-tuk drivers. I think it cost about twenty pounds between us to hire a guy who guided us to the main attractions, the usual fracas of traffic greeting us throughout the day.

Roberto with Tuk-Tuk Driver - New Delhi, India

Roberto with Tuk-Tuk Driver – New Delhi, India

Again, the streets were much cleaner than expected and much more European in appearance, with huge wide main roads in and out of the centre. Around the flanks, many green thriving parks would decorate the city, with old crumbling buildings from the British occupation hiding amongst the new modern style buildings.

Our first point of call was the fascinating Humayun’s Tomb, one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Humayun's Tomb - New Delhi, India

Humayun’s Tomb – New Delhi, India

Humuyun was the Second Mughal Emperor of India and his wife commissioned the site some 14 years after his death. The Mughal-style tomb was built in 1570 and was one of the first garden tombs on the Indian subcontinent that later provided inspiration for the creation of the Taj Mahal in Agra. The beautiful lush gardens provided a perfect backdrop to the saturated red sandstone and marble façades.

Isa Khan Niyazi's Tomb - New Delhi, India

Isa Khan Niyazi’s Tomb – New Delhi, India

Later, we then stopped off at the Gandhi Memorial – a pleasant and peaceful garden where Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated on 31st January 1947, some 6 months on from the declaration of Indian independence and following on from years of fighting for social reform in India.

Gandhi Path - Gandhi Memorial, New Delhi, India

Gandhi Path – Gandhi Memorial, New Delhi, India

Gandhi Gong - Gandhi Memorial, New Delhi, India

Gandhi Gong – Gandhi Memorial, New Delhi, India

This gave us time to learn more about his life and achievements, his battles for a more equal democratic India, his resistance against racism, inequality and brutal treatment by the British, and also the fight for the preservation of Hindu-Muslim relations.

Gandi Statement - Gandhi Memorial, New Delhi, India

Gandi Statement – Gandhi Memorial, New Delhi, India

From there, we headed off to stroll around another fascinating piece of Mughal Architecture – the Red Fort. This is a 17th century expansive fort-structured palace that served as home to the Mughal Emperors of India, another UNESCO World Heritage site and perfect example of the beautiful architectural achievements of the Mughal era.

Red Fort - New Delhi, India

Red Fort – New Delhi, India

A brief stop at the India Gate ended the day before we headed back to the centre of town for an evening spent in some of the local bars, whilst checking out some of the street stalls by night.

Golden Arch of the India Gate - New Delhi, India

Golden Arch of the India Gate – New Delhi, India

Although it was nice to see some fascinating architecture and take in the views of the surrounding city, I couldn’t help but feel that throughout the day, we didn’t really see the true New Delhi, and being the fleeting visit it was, just packed in as much of the touristy parts as possible. But, India is a vast expansive plane with ever-changing captivations. Time was therefore a scarcity on this trip with more variety to be seen outside the metropolis life we are used to back home. There was much more excitement held for what was to come…

Ghosts in the Night - New Delhi, India

Ghosts in the Night – New Delhi, India

Fruit Stall by Night - New Delhi, India

Fruit Stall by Night – New Delhi, India

Further Reading on New Delhi

New Delhi Tourism

UNESCO – Humayun’s Tomb

UNESCO – The Red Fort

Gandhi Memorial

More Photography :

“The India Collection” by Antematters

Posted in India Also tagged , , , , , , , , |

The Golden Temple of Amritsar

A trip to India is always one that will plunge you into the extremities of what it is to be human, and one of the most striking is the religious diversity that spreads throughout its vast land. I was fortunate enough to discover the wonderful city of Amritsar in the far North-Eastern corner of India in the state of Punjab, home to the one of the most important symbols in Sikh religion, the Golden Temple.

Golden-Temple, Amritsar, India

Golden Temple – Amritsar, India

Otherwise known as the Sri Harmandar Sahib, the temple was conceived in the 16th century as a central place of worship for Sikhs, and continues to this day to be one of the most sacred places for holy worship.

My trip to the Golden Temple began with a journey from Ludhiana to Amritsar where I had my first chance to experience the Indian Railway system.

Ludhiana, Train, Station, India

Ludhiana Train Station, India

Before I boarded the train, I decided to check out the station commotion, which, as with everything else in India, was bursting with activity. An Indian station is never a dull occasion. People would frantically be trying to push their way through the crowds attempting to balance all kinds of baggage, cages, food sacks, boxes, livestock, bits of discarded metal, children, you name it! The trains that pulled up into the station were divided up into a range of classes, from the more comfortable First Class (1A), to the overnight sleeper carriages, right down to the Second Sitting (2S) and mail wagons.

Indian,Train, Ludhiana ,India

Indian Train – Ludhiana ,India

The higher class carriages were often free of people as most tended to cramp themselves together in the mail wagons rather uncomfortably, face up in the armpit of the person in front whilst wrapped around the leg of another unsuspecting passenger. The trains weren’t too dissimilar from the wretched battery chicken cages. People were stuffed in tightly with arms and legs hanging out of doors and windows, making sure that every centimetre of space was taken advantage of. One might say, like the London Underground in that respect, just with the added appeal of a 4-hour plus ride ahead of you, taking in the sweet fragrance of your nearest companion.

All-Aboard, Indian-Railways

All Aboard – Indian Railways

Luckily, I had a Second Sitting ticket towards the front with my friends Jon, Hannah and Roberto, in a carriage much more comfortable than the coop at the back. The journey was pleasant; it was spent chatting with a family that sat in the seats opposite me, watching the plethora of snack sellers go by and later gazing out the barred window to the flat dry landscapes around.

Commute, Ludhiana, Amritsar, India

The Commute – Ludhiana to Amritsar, India

Second-Class, (S2), Ludhiana, Amritsar, India

Second Class (S2) – Ludhiana to Amritsar, India

A couple of hours later, we arrived at Amritsar and were introduced to our first barrage of tuk-tuk drivers – these are the 3-wheel converted motorcycle taxis that whizz around the streets of Asia and Central and South America. It was as if we entered a boxing arena, the crowd surrounding us as soon as we entered the scene, trying to get up and close, vying for our attention chanting and shouting, desperate for our rupees. It was a bit unnerving with the four of us standing there sticking out like sore thumbs yet after a few spats between a couple of the drivers, we finally managed to dart into one of the tuk-tuks and get moving to the centre of town.

Indian, Tuk-Tuk, Amritsar, India

Indian Tuk-Tuk – Amritsar, India

The atmosphere of the city immediately gobbled us up as we were taken towards the centre square of the Golden Temple and our ludicrously cheap subsidised hotel. The importance of the Golden Temple to the Sikh religion meant that the city would try and remove financial barriers that might otherwise prevent people from visiting, hence why they partly funded the accommodation which basically charged those that rested there for water and electricity.

En route, tuk-tuks, cars, bicycles, pedestrians and cows would all charge around in organised chaos, much like the passengers on the mail wagons of the trains, taking up every bit of available space going, playing dodgems as they went about their business.

Streets, Amritsar, India

Streets of Amritsar, India

Once we arrived at the centre, we were greeted by an amazing site. The place was every bit as frenzied as the roads that led up to it, with people frantically trying to get into the Golden Temple grounds. Shoes must be removed, the head covered up and bags left in a cloakroom before entering – probably the only way to try and restore some order to the ensuing desperate crowd.

Outside, Golden-Temple, Amritsar, India

Outside the Golden Temple – Amritsar, India

After depositing our bags and shoes, we entered into one of the most beautifully peaceful sanctuaries on the planet. It was in complete contrast to the scenes outside, as if we almost did just enter heaven. Ahead of us sat the striking gold-plated temple at the centre of a calm moat. Around its borders, visitors would leisurely stroll around at peace, oblivious to the outside world.

Borders, Golden-Temple, Amritsar, India

The Borders of the Golden Temple – Amritsar, India

Sikhs sat by the side of the water, completely focused on their meditation, prayers or simply to rest.

Golden-Temple, Prayers, Amritsar, India

Golden Temple Prayers – Amritsar, India

The atmosphere was breath-taking, the plug pulled on the noisy, dirty streets outside creating a vacuum of tranquility. It was our opportunity to also pause, relax and take it all in as the sun set in the distance, casting a soft shadow over the Golden Temple whilst the birds retreated for the night.

Sunset, Golden-Temple, Amritsar, India

Sunset at the Golden Temple – Amritsar, India

At 4am the next morning, we rose to join in with the morning prayers at the temple. We met up with Arvinder, a close family member to one of our friends from London, Harpreet, whom we met at his Anand Karaj (Sikh wedding) a week earlier. Somewhat jaded and blurry eyed from the early morning wake up, we headed over to the main bridge of the Pardakshna which led up to the main shrine of the holy temple.

There were hundreds of people sitting around the temple apparently still there from the night before. At around 5am, the crowd which was once serene and calm, then suddenly bustled into life. Out of the corner of our eyes from the Parliament of the Book, the Guru Granth Sahib, the prayer book of the Sikhs, danced its way down the Pardakshna towards the temple on a huge levered cushion.

Palki-Procession, Siri-Guru-Granth-Sahib, Golden-Temple, Amritsar, India

Start of Procession of the Guru Granth Sahib – Golden Temple, Amritsar, India

Everybody it seemed then started to push and shove in desperation to try and get as close as possible to the book, calling and chanting out to it, sometimes crying with joy. To them, this was the only true importance in their lives, nothing else mattered, and they would do anything to get a chance to be by its side. We were pushed and shoved in every direction as people grappled past us. As it passed on by towards what would be its resting place in the parapet of the temple, a queue then formed patiently, the past wails and cries replaced by peaceful solace.

Palki-Procession, Siri-Guru-Granth Sahib, Golden-Temple, Amritsar, India

Palki Procession for the Siri Guru Granth Sahib – Golden Temple, Amritsar, India

The sun began to rise to an astonishing deafness, only broken by the early morning song of the birds. And after some time, we entered the parapet to see the great book, together with groups of people worshiping in all embracing ecstasy. To them, this was their way to find meaning, euphoria or even paradise. A way of devout living. The power of the prayers made my hairs stand on end, but the unease of the voyeurism we were displaying whilst watching the incredible scenes later led us to sneak out into the morning sunshine, resigned to our own thoughts.

After some extra rest, we then rose to beautiful blue skies and had another chance to take in the atmosphere of the Golden Temple. Hannah and I broke off for the day and headed towards the kitchen area – the Guru Ka Langar – towards the back of the square. This wasn’t just any old kitchen. It was a vast complex flow-production system that successful American fast food chains would be proud of. Except here, the food was completely free to everybody, irrelevant of social background. It is deeply rooted in the beliefs that we are all equal, regardless of skin, colour, religion, age or gender. In the main hall, people would line up to eat together, all sat on the floor as equals.

Guru-Ka-Langar, Golden-Temple, Amritsar, India

Guru Ka Langar – Golden Temple, Amritsar, India

The people serving up would literally run by spilling the Dal, or lentils, into your dish.

Dinner-is-Served, Guru-Ka-Langar, Golden-Temple, Amritsar, India

Dinner is Served – Guru Ka Langar, Golden Temple, Amritsar, India

Once finished, you would get up and take it to the man-powered dishwasher.

Human-Dishwasher, Guru-Ka-Langar, Golden-Temple, Amritsar, India

Human Dishwasher – Guru Ka Langar, Golden Temple, Amritsar, India

Later, they would then stack up the dishes ready to pass onto the next mouth to feed.

Dish-Dryer, Golden-Temple, Amritsar, India

Dish Dryer – Golden Temple, Amritsar, India

We passed by the great furnaces that cooked the food, huge amounts of people churning out the chapattis and Dal dishes.

Furnace, Guru-Ka-Langar, Golden-Temple, Amritsar, India

The Furnace – Guru Ka Langar, Golden Temple, Amritsar, India

Chipati, Production-Line, Golden-Temple, Amritsar, India

Chipati Production Line – Golden Temple, Amritsar, India

Kitchen, Golden-Temple, Amritsar, India

The Kitchen – Golden Temple, Amritsar, India

Not only did the kitchen promote equality to all, but, it was also a way to repay the extreme devotion of those Sikhs who gave up their lives for worship. These worshippers may never leave the sanctuary again. This was in turn compensated by having a place to sleep with basic food and water to survive. Everything they needed was there. And in such a materialistic society that we live in today, it was an overwhelming occasion to understand that outside the modern world full of technology and opportunity, there are still people deeply rooted to religion and ritual and sacrifice themselves to what they believe is the greater cause. They harm no-one; they don’t even really directly spoil the earth around them. They just sit, pray and survive on the basics. They don’t want anything else. Often, they don’t know anything else. All that mattered was the Guru Granth Sahib and God. They will just sit and wait to be greeted by him. But passing through this experience meant that other questions were asked, more answers were needed to decipher what is it that we are here for? All that later through a myriad of other experiences would lead me to my inner turmoil of devil’s advocacy…

Further Reading on the Golden Temple


More Photography :

“The India Collection” by Antematters

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The Anand Karaj – Sikh Wedding

So, I finally packed up my bags, slung my Canon SLR over my shoulder and bid farewell to Britain. It was time to really discover what the depths of photography meant to me and there was no better way than doing it traveling around the world. It couldn’t really have started better than with a breath-taking visit to a Sikh Wedding known as the Anand Karaj between my friend Harpreet (or Harps) and his wife Bavia, in Ludhiana, part of the region of Punjab, Northern India.

Anand-Karaj, Harps-Bavia, Newly-Weds, India,

Anand Karaj – Harps and Bavia, Newly Weds – India 2010

The Anand Karaj literally means the blissful union or joining of two souls as equals. The variety of celebrations that lasted a full week before the ceremony itself served up an incredible combination of colours, intense energy, succulent food and tons of dancing. It was a perfect opportunity to put the camera to work.

Most of the time, to be honest, I didn’t really know what was going on, but Harps’ family and friends welcomed me in with open arms, together with my friends Hannah, Jon and Roberto, often throwing us into the middle of the party for their own amusement. I say their own amusement, but really it was to make us feel welcome and part of the family, especially having traveled the distance from London.

An engagement ceremony known as the Kurmai normally starts off the celebrations, but we unfortunately arrived a day late and missed it. So, the first couple of days let us acclimatise ourselves to the surroundings and get to know Harps’ close family, his Mum and Dad full of fun and energy, constantly showing us so much warmth and comfort. This was often hand in hand with some of the finest cuisine – Indian curries full of authenticity and distinctive to the British Curry we all know. Harps’ Mum’s homemade secret chicken curry dish sent me into a frenzy, begging for seconds and thirds and more!

On the 3rd day after pottering around town for the first couple, Harps’ family and close friends gathered at the family house to celebrate the important Vatna ritual after a tasty traditional parantha breakfast. Again, I really didn’t know what was going on, but was guided through the ceremony by Harps’ dad. In this tradition, the female side of the family pass on their blessings to the groom whilst cleansing the skin with a scented powder consisting of turmeric, barley flour and rose water. Harps’ Mum set the scene beautifully by painting the floor in traditional symbols where Harps would then sit.

Feet-on-Cushion, Vatna-Ritual, Anand-Karaj, Sikh-Wedding

Feet on Cushion

This was quite an intense affair for Harps, his face unsurprisingly a picture of discomfort the whole way through. But, who could blame him when he had to sit there like a sitting duck to the gazing eyes and the onslaught of intruding hands, smearing an unattractive yellow mixture all over him.

Vatna-Ritual, Cleansing-of-the-Skin, Anand-Karaj, Sikh-Wedding

Vatna Ritual – Cleansing of the Skin

Above his head, a veil would be spread across him, into which the women would later pour hazelnuts as a sign of future prosperity.

Veil-with-Hazelnuts, Prosperity, Anand-Karaj, Sikh-Wedding

Veil with Hazelnuts for Prosperity

Hannah was welcomed into the family like one of their own, also having the opportunity to rub some of the muck into his skin, her dimples showing with delight. We all also had red friendship bands tied around our wrists, I believe as a symbol of the Ghana, a tradition normally undertaken by the bride and groom, where they are tied together for a period of time to ward off bad omens.

That evening, we then all moved to a hotel to celebrate the Ladies Sangeet. This is usually a celebration for the bride’s side of the family, but can also be a chance for everybody on the groom’s side to come together and get to know each other before the wedding whilst eating, drinking and dancing. Again, this was full of energy, with Harps’ dad (an important music producer for Premi) being instrumental in conducting proceedings.


Premi on Song

In amongst the singing and dancing, a cushion full of candles was also passed around between the women whilst dancing to bhangra music.

Ladies-Sangeet, Candles, Cushion, Anand-Karaj, Sikh-Wedding

Ladies Sangeet – Candles on Cushion

One of the moments of the night, however, was the chance for the four Europeans to get up and split up the bhangra tunes with a rendition of the “Macarena” – a cheesy Euro pop fusion of the 90s. It was a chance this time for the Indians to not know what the hell was going on as we paraded the stage swinging our hips. One particular touching moment was when one of Harps’ family came up to us and insisted on us shaking the hand of her child for the second or third time. A lot of prosperity is seen in Westerners, and the simple acknowledgement by a westerner by handshake is seen as another positive omen.

There was then just one more day and night full of dancing and celebrations in the streets around Harps’ neighbourhood before the wedding. This party was mainly to announce the wedding to their neighbours, a chance for us to parade around the streets knocking on people’s doors to get their blessings whilst singing and dancing to more bhangra music. One of the symbols of celebration was always the throwing of money or the holding of money above people’s heads, again, one of prosperity for the future.


Street Drummer

Then, it was time for the main Anand Karaj ceremony on the Saturday. Up at the crack of dawn to put on our traditional wedding attire, the Bana for us guys and the Salwar Kameez for Hannah, we then headed over to Harps’ house to kick off the day with the departure of the Baraat – or the departure of the groom.

Wedding-Dress, Anand-Karaj, Sikh-Wedding

Hannah, Happy, Arvinder, Roberto and Me

Harps and his best man, Harvey were sat centre stage in the middle of his front room awaiting the final blessings by his friends and family before leaving for the first Holy Temple. The room was full of action, the women of the family busy scurrying off preparing for the departure, with others simply battling to get a chance to see the groom. I had to just try and find a spot to blend in somehow and it all in whilst snapping away.

Departure-of-the-Baraat, Anand-Karaj, Sikh-Wedding

Departure of the Baraat

At the first stop, traditional prayer readings took place solely for Harps before we headed off to a ridiculously huge palace for the celebration of the Milni. Normally, the groom turns up on horseback, but Harps chose the less amusing option of arriving in a car. The Milni is a tradition where both sides of the family greet each other before the wedding ritual itself. Holy shabads were sung out, which are hymns of the holy book of the Guru Granth Sahib, and gifts and embraces were shared amongst them.

Milni Ritual - Anand Karaj - Sikh Wedding

Milni Ritual

From there, we then moved on to the Gurudwara, the temple that held the Guru Granth Sahib and the only official place for Sikh matrimony. This was quite an emotionally intense experience. Members of the groom’s family sat to the right, with the bride’s to the left.

Outside, Gurudwara, Anand-Karaj, Sikh-Wedding

Outside the Gurudwara

Inside, Gurudwara, Anand-Karaj, Sikh-Wedding

Inside the Gurudwara

Harp’s sat patiently in front of the Guru Granth Sahib whilst the singing of holy hymns (called the Kirtan) echoed around us.

Patient-Thoughts, Groom, Anand-Karaj, Sikh-WeddingHis face was full of concentration whilst he awaited the arrival of his wife to be. Around twenty minutes or so later, Bavia then arrived. She was dressed in a beautifully decorated green Sari, her head covered by a chunni. The Sari weighed a few kilos with all the glistening jewels that embraced it and she didn’t seem to flinch under the pressure.

Then, the local Granthi began proceedings asking the bride and groom to stand to the pronunciation of the Ardaas, the blessing of Waheguru or the Wonderous Giver of Knowledge. This asks for consent for the bride and groom to be married, with the Granthi blessing their heads on various occasions. Once agreement had been met, the Lavan hymn of Guru Ram Das was then read out. This is composed of four stanzas, which draws out the marriage vows whilst the couple walk around the Guru Granth Sahib. Bavia’s family would also help her round the book, also a sign of support for her to join Harps’ family. The couple then sat for some more lectures and kirtan, followed by the singing of the Anand, before another random hymn was sung out to conclude the ceremony.

Anand-Karaj, Sikh, Wedding

Anand Karaj – Sikh Wedding – Ceremony

It was quite an amazing experience to go through as there was so much emotion flowing throughout the temple, especially from Bavia’s family with the seriousness of the marriage felt by all. It was a life changing moment for both families, but especially for Bavia who was about to be welcomed into Harps’ family and move away from her family for the first time to the UK. But for her, apart from the importance of marriage, the excitement of the opportunities in London awaited.

After the ceremony, we celebrated the marriage in style by heading back to the palace for an afternoon of dancing, eating and drinking with what must have been a thousand people. It was like a University ball, with a huge band stand host to an amazing bhangra band, “Ricky Noodles” being the unlikely celebrity to headline the show.

Bandstand, Anand-Karaj


Then, a quite emotional ending to the day ended back at Harps’ family home. A car pulled up outside the front with a crowd gathered to see the arrival of Bavia with her cousins. She was officially greeted into the family with one final centre stage full of blessings before drinks continued long into the night…

Bride, Groom, Arrival, Anand-Karaj, Sikh-Wedding

Bride and Groom Arrival at Family Home

Bride, Mother-in-Law, Anand-Karaj, Sikh-Wedding

Bride with Mother in Law

Further Reading on the Anand Karaj


More Photography :

“The India Collection” by Antematters

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