Dublin based photographer & photo journalist Kevin Goss-Ross takes you down into the memories lanes if you have experienced one of those never ending second class train journey in India, smoked up a chillum on the steps of the Varanasi ghats or sipped on a chai on those wintery foggy mornings. India is a land of spirituality, a land of fertility, a land with rich culture and diversity. To experience the real India, the incredible India, you really have to feel the vibe of this country and that’s exactly what Kevin Goss-Ross has done on his journey to India. We are proud to feature Goss-Ross’s work and share his ‘Ten Rupees’ which is a collection of portraits taken in India. Before you proceed to his photographs, do check out the video on the opening night of ‘Life and Death between Chai’, which featured this collection along with the work of Gareth Bright and Caitlin Fay Smith.
According to Kevin Goss-Ross:
The cold bites at my skin. I didn’t pack for this. I was told that India would be a place of unbearable, choking heat, but here we are sitting around a smoky little fire. The man sitting next to me hands me a pipe. There is an entire crowd gathered around us but – militaristic and insufferable as they are in this country – the police aren’t going to try anything. I take a respectable lungful and pass it to the god to my left. He shifts his trunk-like growth to accommodate the pipe and reveals a slobbery, mucus encrusted hole of a mouth. Thank god I smoked before him.
Feeling rather too toasty I thank the people gathered around the fire, get up and walk towards where I left my shoes. No one is allowed wearing shoes around this man. He is the supposed reincarnation of Ganesha, after all. When I get to the edge of the crowd who have all gathered to pay their god for a blessing I spot my shoes under a cow adorned with orange flowers’ hoof. This might be tricky… the cows know their place around here. An amused local laughs at my worried face and gently slaps the cow’s flanks to make it move off of my now thoroughly compacted footwear. “Joke’s on you, cow” I laugh to myself, “the shoes are leather”. I walk along the Ganges in the hope of finding anything which resembles food and come across a beggar dressed in orange. He mentions for me to sit next to him and with breath reeking of cheap wine and stoned slits for eyes he starts telling me that he is a baba: a holy man who depends on people to give him money to survive since he isn’t allowed working.
He tells me that he isn’t allowed having a wife, a family or any property and that he’ll bestow on me priceless spiritual information for the small price of a hundred rupees. I ask him if I can take a photograph instead since I don’t care too much for the idea of paying for drunken babbling. I can get that for free in any pub. Almost as if on cue his face lights up and a hand is extended, palm up. I’ve been in India for a week now and by this stage I’m ready: I reach for my back pocket which is crammed full of Rs10 notes. He looks slightly offended but takes the lowest denomination of note anyway.
Stumbling along in a daze past beggars, goats in vests and all types of different faeces littering the concrete I accidentally and unfortunately find my way to Manikarnika, one of the two burning ghats. The smell of burning sandalwood fills my nose and I immediately feel ill. We’d been trying to avoid this area. There are four fires burning at the moment, and I can see a foot sticking out of one. A young man walks up to me and tells me in a stern and aggressive tone that there will be no photographs. I assure him that the last thing I want to do is take photographs. Before I can stop him, he starts telling me the story of Varanasi and the rituals of the burning ghat. Two hundred people are burned here every day, 24 hours a day, within 24 hours of their death. They do this in order to escape the endless torture of reincarnation, he tells me. First the uncovered, painted body is marched through the narrow streets of the old city with grieving male family members chanting “Ram nam satya hai”. The holy fire Shiva is said to have bought down to earth thousands of year ago then has to be purchased along with holy wood: sandal, mango or other types of wood which mask the smell of burning flesh. When the fire has burnt out what is left of the corpse then gets thrown in the holy Ganges by the oldest son. The family then has to pay the owner of the ghat, who also has the right to fish out corpses and keep any jewellery or gold teeth the dead might have been burned with. Children under two years old don’t get burnt as they don’t need purification. The same applies to pregnant mothers, anyone killed by the bite of a cobra, holy men and lepers. Instead they get chucked straight into the river, weighted down with ‘holy’ stones which also cost a pretty penny. As my self imposed guide tells me this, I see the foot sticking out of the fire swell and turn around 180 degrees. In the pile of ashes next to it, a cow munches on a wreath of marigolds that escaped the fire.
As the sun sets I’m perched on the roof of the hostel. The smoke from the burning ghat tints the sky. Varanasi is an incredible place frozen stubbornly in the past. Despite my anger I have fallen in love with this magical city. If I do nothing else with my life, I will make it back here one day and probably never leave again.