Every year, the Indian city of Varanasi draws curious visitors from all around the world. Steeped in history, myth and ritual, ceremonies around death regularly take place on the Ganges, the holy river that winds its way through the city.

Performing a religious ritual in Varanasi
Religious ceremony in Varanasi. Image by: Ashraful Arefin

It’s something that has to be seen to be believed, as Bangladeshi photographer Ashraful Arefin recently discovered. “I’ve always been very intrigued by Varanasi”, he begins. “I remember reading stories and novels about the city, and it felt very mystical and magical to me. The religious legends, stories about how it formed and the fact that it’s one of the oldest cities in the world; Varanasi really fascinated me.”

Fire, light and chant constitutes a big part of Varanasi rituals
Chant and ritual form a major part of Varanasi religious ceremonies. Image by: Ashraful Arefin

Though he’d read up on the city, he wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. “It wasn't completely as per my imagination”, he explains. “I wasn't sure how I was going to react to death being so normal, and with all the stories about cremation and rituals, I thought it would be a very serious place. But to my surprise, Varanasi was totally different to that! The people are so simple and very welcoming to all.”

Bathing at the edge of the river Ganges in Varanasi
Man bathing in the holy waters of the Ganges. Image by: Ashraful Arefin

“The mystical vibe was just as I thought it would be though”, he continues. “The view of the ghats and River Ganges in mist is very beautiful and dreamy, especially early in the morning. And it was an amazing experience to observe the people, the lifestyle and activities around the ghats.”

Night time in the lanes of Varanasi
Shopping in the narrow lanes of Varanasi. Image by: Ashraful Arefin

Seeing death so close wasn’t as daunting as Ashraful had anticipated. “I feel the people of Varanasi have a kind of inner peace”, he says. “They know that no matter what you do or how you live your life, it isn't permanent. Live cremations are happening almost every hour, people are taking holy baths to wash away their sins, performing rituals and meditating. But at the same time, they’re doing their daily chores – laundry, men fixing boats and boys playing cricket. It was amazing to see so many different activities going on in one place!”

Praying on the river bank
Pilgrims pray at the water's edge. Image by: Ashraful Arefin

“Another fascinating part of my Varanasi experience was the Ganga aarti”, he says. “It's a mesmerising puja or prayer ceremony that takes place every evening at Dashashwamedh Ghat. The air is filled with prayers, holy chants, live music, and incense. It’s very intense and overwhelming. But the surprising thing is, even in the chaos, people are very relaxed and there's a certain calmness and peacefulness. I think that's one thing other cultures could learn from; enjoy all the simple things life has to offer.”

Man feeing birds in Varanasi
Feeding the birds on the river bank. Image by: Ashraful Arefin

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