Photographers' Blog

Waiting to die

Varanasi, India
By Danish Siddiqui

The River Ganges is sacred in Hinduism, and the city of Varanasi, which lies on its banks, is one of the oldest and holiest sites for Hindu pilgrims from all over the world.

Devotees believe that you can wash away your sins by taking a dip in the Ganges at Varanasi. What’s more, dying and having your ashes scattered here is a sacred thing for Hindus who believe that it brings “moksha,” or freedom for the soul from the constant cycle of death and rebirth. To attain this salvation, many travel to Varanasi to die.

A woman stands in a street outside the Mukti Bhawan (Salvation Home) at Varanasi, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, June 17, 2014. Picture taken June 18, 2014. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

“Mukti Bhavan,” or “Salvation House,” is a charity-run hostel for people who wish to pass away in the city. It has 12 rooms, a temple and small quarters for its priests. Lodging there comes with certain conditions: guests have two weeks to die or they are gently asked to move on.

Sometimes, Bhairav Nath Shukla, the hostel manager, extends his guests’ stays by a few days if he thinks the person is about to die. Eerily enough, Shukla can often predict roughly when it will happen.

Bhairav Nath Shukla, manager of Mukti Bhavan (Salvation Home) looks out of a window while praying inside his office at Varanasi, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, June 17, 2014. Picture taken June 17, 2014. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

The 61-year-old has been taking in the dying and performing prayers for their salvation for the last 44 years and when I started covering this story, hostel records showed that 14,577 people had checked in to date. Most of them have attained moksha. Many of those who couldn’t die left disheartened with their relatives.

Birth in India’s “surrogacy capital”

Anand, India

By Mansi Thapliyal

A smooth, modern road in the prosperous Indian state of Gujarat leads to 35-year-old Chimanlal’s small, windowless brick hut that he lives in with his wife, young son and two daughters. Earning 2500 rupees ($38) a month as a driver, Chimanial says it is not enough to feed his children. Only his son goes to school. But in a year’s time, their lives are set to change.

Some 50 kilometers (31 miles) away is the small city of Anand, known as India’s “surrogacy capital”. Chimanlai’s wife is carrying a baby for a Japanese couple in which she will be paid 450,000 rupees ($7,200), an unimaginably large amount of money for a family like theirs.

Since 2004, over 500 Indian women have traveled to Anand from neighboring villages and towns to become surrogate mothers for families from nearly 30 countries. Dr Nayana Patel and her husband run Akanksha clinic, the city’s only surrogacy facility.

A farewell message to the telegram

New Delhi, India

By Mansi Thapliyal

At 10 p.m. on July 14, India will send its final telegram before the service shuts the following day, signaling the end of a service that has been going for over 160 years. It is the latest means of communication to be killed off by the mobile Internet age.

From families waiting to hear from their children who migrated to India’s cities for work, to soldiers in remote areas for whom the telegram was the only way to stay in touch with relatives, the telegraph service has been used to connect millions of people across this vast country since the mid-19th Century.

Charged per word, some messages went on and on, while others chose to write single words like “love” – a simple message to express how they felt.

India’s missing daughters

New Delhi, India

By Mansi Thapliyal

Atika, 10, woke up early one morning in August 2008 and was sent by her mother to buy a few items from a nearby shop. She returned and told her mother she would prepare tea for her father before quickly going to use a communal toilet close to her house. She never returned.

Ambika was a feisty 15-year-old high school student who took wrestling classes. Her mother returned home from work late in the night on October 10, 2010. She woke up the next morning and found her daughter missing.

Atika and Ambika are among the thousands of children who go missing from India’s streets, schools and homes every year.

Bollywood dreams

Mumbai, India

By Danish Siddiqui

The Hindi film industry or Bollywood can make a star, a household name out of anyone overnight. It can bring instant money, fame and the fan-following of millions from across continents.

Bollywood is an addiction for many that attracts thousands of aspirants to the breeding grounds, the city of Mumbai, everyday. I was keen to look at this other side of the glamour world. The side that entails the struggle to enter the world of aspiring dreamers and their struggles to become a star.

There is no time limit to becoming a nationwide sensation, a star in Bollywood. As one of the aspirants told me it’s a gamble you take, forgetting all your worries about the results.

Riot of color

Vrindavan, India

By Vivek Prakash 

It’s one of those things that you just have to do. Ever since I moved to India, I’ve always wanted to photograph Holi celebrations in north India. As a kid growing up here, I played with colored powders and water in the streets with my friends. As an adult, I’ve been lucky enough to have the chance to return with my camera. I had been looking forward to this assignment. I was expecting a riot of a different kind, a riot of color and noise – and that’s exactly what I got.

GALLERY: FESTIVAL OF HOLI

Holi is celebrated widely across India, but it is more popular in the north of the country. The epicenter of all the action is in a triangle of villages around the city of Mathura – the fun begins at Barsana, then moves to Nandgaon, Vrindavan, and Dauji before finally finishing a week of rolling celebrations in the region where the Hindu god Krishna and his consort Radha are thought to have been born and lived. It’s a festival that celebrates the arrival of spring, but in this region it also has special significance as it celebrates the story of Radha and Krishna and their love for each other. The enthusiasm of the people is unmatched – the energy combined with sheer numbers make for fantastic scenes drenched in water and color. It makes for delicious pictures. But I have to admit, after having covered it for the first time, it’s harder than it looks to get a great picture. Keeping your equipment dry and operational is a big challenge.

On my first day of coverage, I arrived at the village of Barsana early in the morning and headed straight for the main temple where celebrations would take place. I was at first disappointed as the morning session at the temple was a bit subdued. However, by the time the temple re-opened at 4pm it was a different story. There were thousands of people waiting to storm the entry doors. Inside, a sea of bodies heaved against each other, amid projectiles of colored powder and buckets of orange colored water being flung everywhere. It was hard to hold your position steady enough to shoot pictures, let alone compose something nice. At one point, there was so much powder that photographers were completely caked in it – nostrils and lungs were full of red dust. I wished I had brought a surgical mask instead of a scarf to shield myself.

A widow’s refuge offers solace to the sorrowful

Vrindavan, India

By Adnan Abidi

The sound of applause echoing in the dingy shelter forced a smile on the face of Tulshi Dasi. An expression she had almost forgotten since her world turned white. The reason: she could now write and had just finished writing the English alphabet on a blackboard. And all this at the age of 70! She had never felt this empowered and never knew that learning was so much fun. As Dasi wrote a new chapter in her life in the grimy shelter in Vrindavan, that she shares with many women like her, her companions, around 50 odd widows applauded her progress.

GALLERY: WIDOW REFUGE

Widows, either abandoned by their family members or shunned by society, find their life’s last refuge in various government run shelters such as this one. They come here from all across the country, but mostly from Bengal, where they survive by begging and chanting hymns in temples.

Hindu widows are branded as inauspicious by society and are forbidden to wear any form of color or be a part of any kind of celebrations like marriage and childbirth, hence most find respite amid their own kind, and seek solace in sorrow. As I spent my day with them I realized that learning was the best part of their day. Each of them would get up early, bathe and offer prayers together in the hall before resuming their daily chores of making prayer beads and flower garlands.

Riding India’s railways

Across India

By Navesh Chitrakar

My journey on the great railways of India began on October 23, 2012. The trip not only marked my first visit to India, it was also the first time that I had ever travelled on real trains because my home country, Nepal, does not have a proper rail network.

Everything about the trains was new to me, which made it really exciting. I started out from Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station in Delhi and headed towards Agra with the help of a railway atlas, a train map and a fixer. I had been provided with the fixer’s assistance for a couple of days thanks to my chief photographer Ahmad Masood, one of the generous people who gave me a lot of help to complete this story. It didn’t take me long to get used to train travel; I understand and speak Hindi, and most of the people on the trains were very friendly and helpful. Most of the time I was doing what I was there to do: observing and trying to capture the most significant and fascinating aspects of India’s railways.

In a country that is the seventh largest in the world by area and the second largest in the world by population, the Indian railway network reaches almost everywhere and carries commuters from one end of the country to the other. The network is a lifeline for India and for the Indians who use it. And why not take advantage of it? People prefer trains because they are a cheaper and faster way to travel. When you travel India by rail, everything is going on around you; it seems like the railway has created its own world and the running of that world depends on the running train.

Meet Miss Malini

Mumbai, India

By Vivek Prakash

Where I live is not the India of most people’s imaginations or memories, and it’s hardly the India I once knew as a kid.

My Mumbai has easygoing cafes, organic markets, swish malls, expensive restaurants serving great food and wine, fabulous nightclubs and raucous house parties. The idea that this India is any less “real” than bad infrastructure or the world of Slumdog Millionaire is misguided.

India has many crosses to bear – I acknowledge that. I’ll be the first one to complain about crumbling roads, horrid traffic, corrupt politicians, impossible bureaucracy and the gulf between rich and poor. But you’d better get used to the idea that slowly but surely, generational change is taking place. My Mumbai is probably the India of the future.

Exorcism at the ghost fair

Malajapur, India

By Danish Siddiqui

Malajpur is a small but not ordinary village in central India. In fact it is probably the only village in India which has been hosting a ghost fair for the past several years. People from across the country come to this fair to get rid of ‘evil spirits’ that they claim to be possessed by.

As night falls on Paush Purnima (full moon night) the ‘possessed’ are taken to the local shrine to be exorcised. People who bring their relatives here feel the latter’s bodies have been ‘taken over by ghosts of the dead’ and that exorcism is the only release for them. Interestingly, most of those who come here to be exorcised are women. When I asked the priest the reason he said, “They are emotionally weak and hence easy target for spirits.”

On the first day when I went to the temple, it looked to me like any other temple complex. But suddenly from the middle of the crowd I heard a woman scream as she started running around the temple courtyard. According to priests the ghost inside people becomes weak the more they run around the courtyard in an anti-clockwise direction. For those who don’t run voluntarily (which is the case often) relatives or priests make them do so by pushing or kicking.