Brian Rope Photography

Brian Rope Photography

Words in Focus

Gunjan and Vrindavan

I visited India on a photographic tour for three weeks during February 2014 along with another twelve people. All but one of us are members of the Australian Photographic Society; the other is the partner of one of those passionate, enthusiast amateur photographers. One highlight of our tour was a stay of four nights in the holy town of Braj-Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh. We stayed at the Jai Singh Gera Ashram located very close to the Yumana River, the biggest tributary of the famous Ganges River, where one of our hosts was the internationally acclaimed Australian photographer, Robyn Beeche (www.robynbeeche.com). One of the other participants has written a nice illustrated piece about the ashram on his blog: www.murrayfoote.com/2014/04/07/vrindavan-jai-singh-gera-ashram/.

 

Vrindavan is known as a place where the Lord Krishna spent his childhood. In the Brahmanda Purana it is said that all the results of traveling on all the pilgrimages within the three worlds can be achieved simply by touching the holy land of Vrindavan! The Brahmanda Purana (the history of the universe) is one of the Mahapuranas, a genre of eighteen Hindu religious texts.

 

Whilst in Vrindavan we met a young girl selling floral prayer offerings by the Yumana River. I had no real need for her floral offerings, but did purchase one. I also photographed her a number of times and gave her an additional small amount of money in return.

 

 

The girl’s name is Gunjan and when we met her she was 8, possibly 9, years old. She sells the flowers to support her mother and three siblings. She had to stop going to school after her father died. She buys marigolds every few days and places them in small bowls made of pressed leaves, together with a tiny candle. Apparently, on a quiet day, Gunjan might make a profit of about AUD$2. On a busy, auspicious holiday, she can make quite a bit more, but her typical monthly take home earnings are never going to be much more than AUD$60.

 

 

Leaves are also used for other things in this area; they were used to make plates that we ate from at the ashram where we stayed. We also used tiny clay drinking vessels which became porous very quickly. So both the plates and vessels, as well as any uneaten food scraps, were recycled consistent with the ashram’s philosophy - and that of the Friends of Vrindavan organisation: http://friendsofvrindavan.com/, which it supports. The mission of that organisation is to serve the ecology, heritage and culture of pilgrimage town Braj-Vrindavan through cleaning, greening and conservation activities.

 

 

A ghat is defined as “a broad flight of steps that is situated on an Indian riverbank and that provides access to the water especially for bathing”. The steps of the Keshi Ghat lead into the Yumana, which is considered by Hindus to be the second most sacred river in India. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit there each year. There are a number of wooden boats with colourful decorations available for hire.

 

 

Young men use poles (and sometimes oars) to move the boats along or across the river. We used two boats to photograph activities along the river’s banks one evening and to cross the river for a walk with our cameras through the cultivated fields to the nearby Belvan Village.

 

 

On our way across the fields a couple of us stopped to photograph a woman outside her modest home. She invited us inside and indicated that she would like photos taken of her holding, and standing before, her most precious possessions and would like copies. So we took the photos and, recently, posted prints to Robyn Beeche for her to pass on to this lady.

 

Young boys at the river’s edge at first appear to be fishing – for fish that is. However, they are more likely to be fishing for coins using magnets as their bait on their lines.

 

 

In the later afternoon young people play on the river bank. Gunjan participates when there are no potential customers for her floral offerings.

 

 

On at least two of the evenings whilst we were there a procession made its way to the ghat and the people then set themselves up in an area and worshipped their gods. One night we watched from a boat.

 

 

The next night some of us walked along the shore and photographed them from above. Steam billowing from a huge pot provided some wonderful photo opportunities, as did the setting sun later on.

 

 

Another of our many experiences in Vrindavan was a visit to a local Hindu temple near the ashram, where we were able to photograph the worship activities. Like George Harrison (of Beatles fame) before he, Robyn Beeche has embraced Hinduism. Indeed, Harrison wrote the lyrics of one of his songs in the Jai Singh Gera ashram. A conversation recorded at Harrison’s home in 1982 - http://www.iskcontruth.com/2010/12/george-harrison-and-prabhupadas.html - may be of interest. It concludes with his fond remembrances of his visit to Vrindavan.

 

 

After returning home I was doing research for information to write stories about my experiences in India and was fortunate to come across an illustrated article about Gunjan and her family situation. With support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, photographer Amy Toensing and writer Jessica Benko had spent several weeks living among the thousands of widows who populate the holy Braj region of rural Uttar Pradesh in northern India. There they investigated the taboos and social structures that leave many widows and their children struggling to survive. That article, India: The Weight of the World on Her Shoulders, can be found at: http://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/asia-india-widow-women-human-rights-abuse.

 

 

 

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