Discovering Holy Varanasi

Thai photographer Kanrapee Chokpaiboon embarked on four trips discovering the spiritual capital of India, depicting a magical world that enhances at every turn. 

The Ganges runs through the heart of Varanasi, the spiritual capital of India, and pilgrimage site for tourists and believers who flock by the millions to bathe in its holy waters each year. On the one side is paradise, where the living goes about their business among the markets, temples, and bustling streets. On the other shore is desolation and ruin, a five-minute boat ride separating the two.

“It was love at first sight,” Thai photographer Kanrapee Chokpaiboon says of the city’s atmosphere—its exuberant colors, otherworldly rituals and interesting residents. It’s a magical place, he explains, where the old and the new, the sacred and the profane, all intertwine to create an experience that surprises at every turn. Each time Chokpaiboon returned, some new treasure revealed itself that previously had been concealed.

During his four visits to the city, Chokpaiboon settled on the paradisiacal side of the river, getting to know the locals and exploring the streets, but it was the hellish side that intrigued him most with its many mysteries. Gradually, a body of work depicting both sides, called “The Good Place,” emerged.

Back when burial ceremonies were more common, the bodies of the dead were released into the holy waters of the Ganges. The current, however, would lead them towards the far bank, washing them ashore. Nowadays, these rituals are no longer practiced, but a sinister allure still hovers along that bank. There are no residential homes, yet it still attracts visitors. Some ceremonies are still held there, with chanting, prayers, flowers, candles. And it is not unusual to find random animal carcasses, pictures of the deceased, all sorts of things washed ashore, Chokpaiboon says.

As the tide rises and recedes, objects emerge from the waters, stuck in the damp earth: books, papers, statues, shells. In one image, Chokpaiboon captures the remains of a gazebo’s roof, modeled for a temple with pointed spires, half-buried in the dirt.

Chokpaiboon always had a fascination with spirituality, and Varanasi’s uniqueness—as one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, the holiest of cities and host to many religions—was a constant source of inspiration.

There, residents abide by ancient traditions. The Ganges is a destination for many who want to feel closer to the divine: bathing in the waters brings purification; many want to spend their last moments nearby the river; other bring little bottles to take water back.

In another photo, a middle-aged man, wrapped in a orange turban and stole, grasps a serpent that coils around his shoulder. He’s revered by the community for his power over the snakes. In another photo, a man in red robes holds a mighty scepter. Unfazed by his surroundings, he starts to pray, the golden implement touching the water.

Another shot shows a small wooden boat, used to ferry people between the shores, moored at port. It’s night, but the flash captures muted colors. Midair, a swarm of mosquitoes hovers, shimmering. Here, even the most trivial details possess an air of magic that sparks the imagination: “It’s like the soul, a spirit,” Chokpaiboon says of the insects, “and the boat is the symbol of the journey from the heaven side to the hell side, a journey of life, in a way. And all the mosquitoes are like people's souls that are flying.” 

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All photos © Kanrapee Chokpaiboon, from the series The Good Places

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Kanrapee Chokpaiboon is a Thai photographer. His style is defined by his sense of fashion, drama of reality, and his ability to capture humor, against the symbolic, giving a surrealistic/realistic effect. Find her on PHmuseum and Instagram

Lucia De Stefani is a writer focusing on photography, illustration, culture, and everything teens. She lives in New York. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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This article is part of the series New Generation, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talents in our community.

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