SENSORY OVERLOAD IN INDIA
In January 2019 I spent several weeks in Delhi, Varanasi, Agra, Udaipur and Jaipur, and I had no idea what to expect, as I did zero research prior to this trip. I simply showed up with my camera and let the subsequent culture shock dictate where I pointed it.
As the plane made its final descent into Delhi, I saw what appeared to be a massive inversion layer, cloaking the horizon as far as I could see. It was glowing under the early morning light, and the sky still had hints of pink in it. But this wasn’t fog — it was pollution.
The AQI in Delhi that day was 363, which is considered hazardous, but it’s often well into the 400s in the city and surrounding areas. The smell of smoke and fumes was overwhelming, and I spent most of the day inside napping before finally passing out around 5pm. I had checked to see where the sun would rise, and it was going to be right in the middle of my hotel window. That seemed worth setting my alarm for. The layers of trees would make for a nice composition, and I was curious to see what the sun would look like through the haze.
When I woke up, I wondered if I had made a mistake. There was no pink or even purple...just charcoal gray. And then, half an hour after the sun was supposed to rise, it finally started peeking through the thick blanket of smog, casting an eerie glow on the sky above. I observed all kinds of birds zipping by my window, including a few species of raptors, and below, the streets were a chaotic mix of pedestrians, animals, bikes and cars. Good morning from India, half a world away. It was both beautiful and sobering, when you consider the cause of the pollution — and how much worse it will get in the years to come.
The charming riverside city of Varanasi is just as popular among domestic tourists as it is foreigners. Thanks to smoke and carbon emissions, golden hour started around 3pm, and the sun was a red ball of fire every morning. But poor air quality is only half of it. The Ganges is also one of the most polluted rivers in the world, with over six billion liters of raw sewage and industrial waste dumped in it every day, according to a 2019 report by Reuters. In 2014 a study by government health and environmental agencies revealed that fecal contamination had led to the spread an antibiotic-resident bacteria, yet half a billion people still rely on the Ganges for everything from bathing to drinking water.
I shot boats and birds along the river, and by 7am, the crowds were already covering every square meter of concrete behind the banks. Sadhus, boat guides and children wandered around, all of them selling experiences or items of varying authenticity. After watching sadhus approach tourists and ask for money in exchange for a photo, I began to realize that these were not holy men, but rather, opportunistic performers. Some might call them frauds, but it could be argued that these men are inadvertently keeping some elements of Hinduism alive for the digital generation. Playing dress up for gullible tourists with DSLRs and iPhones isn’t exactly noble, but if they are taking care of their families or using the money to buy food, who are we to judge? And if he’s commodifying his culture, is it equally unethical for us to buy in?
Varanasi is also a popular spot for burial by cremation, and the burning ghats are open 24/7. The recently deceased are brought to the Ganges, dipped in the holy water and carefully placed in a large pile of wood before being lit aflame. If you take a boat to see the Aarti celebration, you'll zip right past the main ghat, but most guides ask skiff drivers to slow down for photos. Our guide explained the burial process, and added that it was ok to take photos from a distance. All I could see was figures and flames, and when we got closer, I put my camera away. It was then I noticed a man in the ghat taking photos of a corpse on a smartphone. Two decades ago, when we weren’t such a tech-obsessed society, would watching someone’s funeral (or filming it...) have been ok? And just how much do ethics change when we become more dependent on our digital devices with each passing day? I don’t know the answers, but I do know that this made me question a lot about my role in all of it.
Whether by foot or vehicle, I was overwhelmed by sights, sounds, smells and curious faces. Indians love their horns, but they don’t use them in an aggressive way. “Honking horn is symbol of your existence on the road,” my driver told me with a grin. I stared open-mouthed at the chaos of a traffic jam in the state of Rajasthan, and the three twentysomethings in the auto rickshaw two feet away noticed this. After we made eye contact, we exchanged a genuine laugh — no words were necessary. Whether you’re passing by a vendor at the market or running into a group of curious schoolchildren at a local museum, smiles and a simple hello go a long way here.
As I slowly adjusted to my surroundings, I began to feel the magic of India — and the urge to document every little detail that caught my eye. I generally focus on landscapes and wildlife, but jumping headfirst into an urban jungle made me realize that I enjoy shooting people and city scenes, too. India is a wildly different country, and as a middle-class American tourist, traveling here can best be described as a cultural safari that is both stunning and uncomfortable. From the splendor of the Taj Mahal to cows eating garbage in busy intersections in the nation's capital, it was full sensory overload.
Many travelers don't actively seek these sorts of experiences, but they are important ones to have. India is an incredible country rich with art and history, but it is impossible to visit and not observe the pollution and poverty. As I left, I felt incredibly grateful for everything I have at home, but I also put some serious thought into future trips — and ways that we can all work together to preserve the planet we call home.