A MATTER OF LIFE & DEATH – Part IV – Travels in India with William Jerard Coleman

Tales from the *Tuk Tukin Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India

Text & Photos by William Jerard Coleman


Dear Travel Diary,

As our train pulled into Varanasi train station, I felt my stomach drop a bit. I was pensive about the upcoming experience. After hearing many stories from different travelers about the “amazing darkness” of Varanasi, I didn’t really know what to expect or what to think. Although my travel companion Nick and I arrived in the day hours, it took most of the sunlight to find a decent place to sleep for the few nights we would be in town.

With the sun starting to set, we wandered down a narrow walkway, past a few cows and laughing children to find Ganga Love, a seven room hostel managed by a lovely red-headed Australian woman and a friendly Indian man named Santos, faced away from the ghats (the areas in holy riverside cities like Varanasi and Haridwar where stairs exist to reach the Ganges). There was a brilliant rooftop where one could sit, collect his thoughts and view the Ganges from a safe distance. Having settled into our temporary home, taken a shower and smoked a beedi (a thin, Indian cigarette), Nick and I wandered under the moonlight towards the Holy Ganges River.

Our hostel was brilliantly placed within a vibrant and active North Indian community. To get to the river, one had to walk through narrow canals and walkways in the pitch black darkness, using only the light streaming from random windows or a mobile phone to guide the way. At first glance, one assumes that the river front is just one continuous stream of similarity, but when we took a closer look, we could see that there were many different ghats stacked upon one another. Each ghat had its own personality, its own artistic flair and its own level of importance to the Ganges and the people of Varanasi.  Although the ghats were well lit, the spaces of darkness hid amazing secrets. In one corner, you may find a colorfully dressed baba (priest) and his faithful devotee meditating, or a series of yoga enthusiasts practicing diligently. There is something going on in every corner and every space of the ghats, and if you don’t look fast enough, you just may miss it.

Along with the visual feast, Varanasi provides food for thought at every step. Whether through colorful graffiti, or mind provoking graphics, or through the ever changing body burnings and pujahs that occur throughout the day, one cannot help but to think about life and death here in Varanasi. If you wake up early enough, you can view the morning pujah, which includes a fire ceremony completed by eight devotees every morning. It was amazing to see and even more inspiring to photograph. 

After the sun rose, Nick and I climbed into a boat and headed out onto the river for a full on view of the ghat activity.  From this view, at this time, the ghats looked like a family. And the river front looked like a family photo. All family members standing side by side, all very different, but yet still, very much the same.

As the day proceeded, the ghats burst with activity as community members, young and old, trekked down the steep stairs and waded into the waiting Holy River. Many Indians cannot swim, so a lot of older ones held onto chains or cloth tied to the ghats to ensure their safety while they bathed. As the boat steered farther up the river, we came across a main burning point of the ghats. The smell of incense and burnt flesh greeted the morning sun. As one family mourned the completion of their event, another family came down the steep stairs, carrying their loved one on their shoulders toward the waiting cremation station.

Perhaps it was because I was mourning my good friend that the entire scene was amazingly beautiful and not dark at all. It was brighter than anything I had ever seen in my life. Smells of incense, petals of beautiful flowers everywhere and the aroma of sadness, forgiveness and change was everywhere. I gulped it down like a stiff shot of Scotch. It burned my chest and I winced, but I was better off for it.

There are more stories from the ghats that I wish to share with you, dear diary. I’ll add them to my next entry as I have already written so much.  

*a tuk tuk is a three-wheeled motor vehicle used as a taxi, and common in Asia


William Jerard Coleman, co-founder of The Light Years Project, is a freelance artist and global nomad. He was born and raised in North Chicago, and previously lived in Waukegan. He worked for Underwriters Laboratories in Northbrook for a number of years.

In 2012, after ten successful years in the corporate sector, he presented his first exhibition “Recondite Mechanics” in the loft venue of Space 1858 in Chicago.

Having established a firm grip on his dedication to artistry, he moved to Paris to further develop himself and evolve his approach to poetic influence, form & technique. After a spring in Paris, he then traveled to India where he spent time focusing purely on photography while volunteering in local orphanages and schools in the area. After developing The Light Years Project alongside Gemma Kiddy of London, he headed back to India to spend a year presenting his work through pop-up exhibitions in the streets of Fort Kochi, Kerala, India.

He volunteered for the Vikram Sarabhai Science Foundation in the local Indian village of Perumbavoor where he was commissioned to develop an exhibition for the boutique homestay, Niyati, of Southern India. In 2015, he returned home where he produced and presented his first documentary “BLACK – (N) (V) (ADJ)” while completing an artist residency in the historic Karcher Art Lofts of Waukegan.

Coleman is currently traveling around India & South East Asia, promoting The Light Years Project and adding to his expanding portfolio of artistic works. For information about The Light Years Project visit https://www.facebook.com/TheLightYearsProject/timeline.

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