IN TOUCH - Pilgrimage
Photos by John Williams

We talk to John Williams about his photo series following the final days of Hindu pilgrims as they journey to the Indian city of Varanasi to die. Pilgrimage was funded through the Foundation's IN TOUCH arts commissions.

Watch John Williams' work Pilgrimage

What does the series portray?

The series portrays two different aspects of the pilgrimage to die in India's holiest city - Varanasi, (Benares or Kashi as it is also known).Some devout Hindu pilgrims travel to Varanasi to obtain moksha or spiritual release from the process of reincarnation.

Historically, this journey for spiritual release was undertaken by pilgrims and their families either moving to the city to retire, or travelling to Varanasi and waiting on the banks of the river Ganges to die.

These days, some pilgrims retire to Varanasi and take up long term residence at somewhere such as the Kashi Mumukshu Bhavan. Here they may rent a room and live out their days as they await death and spiritual release.

As an alternative to this version of obtaining moksha, some pilgrims near the end of their lives stay at places such as the Kashi Labh Muktibhavan, often referred to as a dying house or mansion of liberation. Here the pilgrims and their families are given a simple room for a few days or weeks until they die and are then cremated on the banks of the Ganges.

An elderly person's hand

John: "I hope that this project can add to the discussion, debate and understanding of the process of dying in some way."

What inspired you to undertake this project?

I'd been interested in photographing aspects of faith for a few years when I came across the idea of the pilgrimage to die in Varanasi.

It seemed to me to be one of the ultimate examples of faith - if I go to this place and die there, I will escape the process of reincarnation and go to be with god.

How did you meet/approach the subjects of the series? Was it difficult? 

It's taken a few different methods to get to make these images.

Originally in 1999, I met with a researcher in Varanasi who knew the manager of the Muktibhavan and things progressed from there. For the series at the Mumukshu Bhavan I had the assistance of a different researcher who worked with a variety of artists when I was undertaking an artists residency in Varanasi in 2019.

During my first visit to India I became friends with the manager and his family at the Muktibhavan and have visited Varanasi during my subsequent trips to India to catch up with them.

I've seen them grow up, get married, have children etc, which has been a privilege. Photographing there is relatively easy - apart from the subject matter and the light - as everyone knows me. The pilgrims families are often interested in where I've come from and why I'm there but have always been extremely open and generous with me, allowing me to photograph them and their dying relatives.

It has been a much more formal process at the Mumukshu Bhavan, including a written submission to get permission from the management to photograph there.

These kinds of projects are difficult because they take so much time. Time to organise them and time when you're on location.

Although it sounds dramatic to say, "I'm off to photograph people dying" its actually a very slow process, with a lot of time spent waiting around for things to happen and then some intense bursts of activity.

The majority of these images were created on black and white film, so there is the uncertainty of what you have actually photographed as well.

How did the experience impact you as a person?

It certainly made me grow up as a photographer! I remember being shown around the  Muktibhavan for the first time, sitting on the stone floor, pointing my camera at a dying pilgrim and thinking that I'd better do this right. Other than that, I suppose photographing in these locations has helped me see and understand death as part of a process.

I'm not saying that this makes me immune from the shock or sadness when someone I know has died. Or, that I'm immune from the uncertainty of my own death, but rather that death is an inevitable process that we must all go through and that there are different ways to approach it. It's also given me a life-long link to India.

People using their phone cameras to take photos of a woman mourning over the body of a loved one.

John: "The pilgrims families are often interested in where I've come from and why I'm there but have always been extremely open and generous with me..."

Can you tell us about the recordings that accompany the images?

When I first visited the Muktibhavan in 1999, the priests used to chant the name of god 24hours a day in shifts, through a battered old sound system. It is considered a good thing to hear the name of god as you expire.

Since then, the technology has progressed somewhat, first with CDs and now from USBs.

However, they still chant each evening so the recordings are two priests chanting in the puja room of the Muktibhavan.

I'd always wanted to record the priests to use as a soundtrack to the images in some way and it seemed the perfect way to use these recordings in this project.

What did it teach you about Hindu culture, or at least the culture of those you met?

Hindu culture is very complex with many layers and interpretations, and Hindu culture and religion are interwoven rather than separate from each other.

Most of the people that I met were quite devout people who seemed to genuinely believe in what they were doing and why they were doing it. They were also very hospitable and quite happy to explain their beliefs to me.

One of the difficulties of trying to photograph religious activities is that you are trying to photograph the intangible, yet many of the people I photographed seemed to be the embodiment of a lived faith or belief.

An elderly woman lying under a sheet on boards

John: "...death is an inevitable process that we must all go through and that there are different ways to approach it."

What do you think a New Zealand audience will get from seeing this element of Hindu culture?

Often when you travel to India it is overwhelming: the sights, the noise, the smells; it can be difficult to find your way through the chaos that can be India.

These images portray an unseen aspect of Hindu culture in a quieter way and present an alternative perspective on death and dying through a non-western view of mortality.

Given the events of 2020 and2021, and the coverage of the global pandemic, I imagine that many of us have been confronted by images of death or contemplated sickness and death ourselves.

I hope that this project can add to the discussion, debate and understanding of the process of dying in some way.


For more insights from John on this work and his connections to Asia, listen to his podcast episode in the Asia Media Centre's podcast series, 'Asia Insight':

About the Foundation's IN TOUCH arts commissions

Pilgrimage is one of ten digital art works to be produced through the Foundation's IN TOUCH arts commissions. The commissions were offered to New Zealand arts practitioners who had previously participated in Foundation programmes to develop new works suitable for digital channels and which draw on the artist’s ongoing connections to Asia.