By Suhita Shirodkar
I spent five weeks in India at the end of 2010, visiting family, travelling, and sketching. It’s always exciting to sketch in India: the colors, the crowds, the chaos... an urban sketcher dream come true.
These sketches are from my four-day trip to Varanasi, on the banks of the river Ganges. Varanasi is the holiest city of the Hindus, who make up about 80 percent of the population of India. Devout Hindus believe that a dip in the river Ganges, especially at Varanasi, will cleanse them of all sins. This makes Varanasi a destination that they come to from all parts of the country — and a perfect place to sketch.
The “ghats” in this city refer to miles and miles of steep steps that descend from the city to the river. This is where both locals and travellers gather: to wash their clothes, pray, fly kites, sit around and watch the sunset, bathe, and to cremate the dead.
Almost anywhere in India, you can’t walk more than a few minutes without spotting a temple: from gigantic South India temples that are at least a block in size to tiny roadside shrines tucked under trees. But Varanasi beats out the rest of India in the number of temples it packs per square mile. They glow in shades of ochre and gold in the afternoon sun and are draped in saffron and red flags.
I sketched this scene by the municipal water tower early in the morning. Bathers and worshippers dip themselves in the river and perform their morning prayers, while a man, wrapped in a shawl against the chill, stands by and watches.
Another morning sketch. This time, a lady, who has just bathed in the river, carefully pleats and drapes her sari. The ghats are lined with holy men who sit under large umbrellas and perform rituals for pilgrims. In the distance, in stark contrast to the tranquility of the scene, are machine-gun toting cops. I visited Varanasi a few days after a terrorist attack on the city, which involved a bomb blast, and there were cops everywhere.
The Burning Ghats are two ghats within the city where Hindus cremate their dead. The bodies are shrouded in cloth when they arrive. The last rites involve one final dip in the river before the body is cremated on one of several pyres that are all kept alive by an ‘eternal flame’, a fire that has been tended to and kept burning for generations. In the background is an electric crematorium that the government built in the hoping to replace some of the wood-burning pyres with a system that causes less environmental damage, but people have been reluctant to abandon age-old traditions.
No trip in India is complete without tasting the local street food, known in North India as ‘chaat’. This fellow fried spiced potato dumplings and lined them up around the periphery of a large cooking vessel. When a customer appeared, he smashed one of these golden balls of potato into a plate, topped it with spiced garbanzo and garnished it with grated radish. You can see that his ‘food stand’ is a movable cart that holds everything: the food, his supply of cooking gas, and condiments.
One last peaceful sketch. A boatman awaits his first customer of the day. And while he waits, he fishes — or, at least, he attempts to. I never saw him catch anything all the time that I sat there and drew him, but he seemed so at peace. A mongrel dog wandered into the scene. These dogs are everywhere. They’re as prevalent as the electric wires that dangle anywhere you look. Or the crowds of people you can never get away from. Or the temples. I love the madness that is India.
Suhita Shirodkar is a graphic designer based in San Jose, California. She blogs at sketchaway.wordpress.com and is a member of the San Francisco/Bay Area Urban Sketchers. To see the more than 80 drawings from her trip to India, visit this flickr set.
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