Varanasi is the holiest Hindu city. It’s the city you’ve seen on National Geographic — the one with all the steps leading down to the Ganges, the one where the masses go to bathe and clean their clothes and purify their souls and, if they’re lucky, be cremated upon death. One of the oldest continually-inhabited cities in the world, it’s a cacophony of sites and sounds and smells unlike anywhere we’ve been in India thus far.
This post, though, is about Space Invaders.
These were all over Varanasi: paintings on the ghats, mosaics in the passageways. With twisting alleys, crumbling stone structures, and wandering Sadhus coming at us from every direction, Varanasi feels like it hasn’t changed in two hundred years. Which made these paintings and mosaics all the more incongruous.
Hinduism is said to have 330 million gods, depending on who you ask and how deeply you want to explore the theology. The keeper of Aurangzeb’s mosque in Varansi told us that, to Hindus, “the sun is a god, the river is a God, the cow is a god, the tree is a God.” Had we found the symbols of a sect worshiping Inky and Blinky alongside Ganesh and Vishnu?
The invader above is painted on a building that is part of the Harishchandra Ghat, one of the two points in the city where bodies of the faithful are burned. We spoke to a member of the family who runs the burning ghat, an older man with glasses and betel-stained teeth, walking hand-in-hand with his young grandson. “What are these paintings?” I asked him.
“Some symbolic thing,” he replied.
“Who made them?”
“Some tourist,” is what I heard him say. Jenny heard him say, “Some Buddhist.” We’re not sure which it was.
“Do the people like these symbols?” I asked him.
“Well, nobody’s been killed. So why not?”
Of course I did some Googling when I came home. These imagers were placed here by an artist called Invader. He roams the world creating exactly these kind of installations — thirty-five cities so far.
According to Invader’s site, there are fourteen invasion points in Varanasi. Without knowing how many we were looking for, we found and photographed thirteen of them.
I look forward to returning to Varanasi; I want to find number fourteen.