What gold smells like
an artist's impressions of Varanasi, India

Closing in on the half way point of his Foundation residency at Kriti Gallery in Varanasi, India, artist Elliot Collins gives his observations of this city on the banks of the Ganges.

It seems strange to talk about being half way into my Varanasi residency, but my half way point is approaching and it feels apt to mention navigation, space and perspective.

Watch a slideshow of Elliot's images of Varanasi

This place walks the fine line of truth and fiction. It is easy to see how mythology folds naturally into everyday life here. Even the smell in the air of honeysuckle and incense mixed with cow manure and roasting spices betrays and confuses memory. I am gently reminded that I will never fully know this place, it will always keep something from the visitor.

If I told you that I passed a boat learning to fly or a monkeys that can talk to children I wouldn’t be entirely lying. There is so much rich storytelling material here that I was initially overwhelmed. As I return to the river, the city seems to persist in its unfolding and I change to meet it, no longer fazed by the pollution, poverty or beggars but with a resolve to address it upon my return Aotearoa.

Elliot: "This place walks the fine line of truth and fiction. It is easy to see how mythology folds naturally into everyday life here."

On one walk along the river, I find a submarine-like life boat sat on the steps of the ghats and watch a sadhu (holy man) playing a convincing game of cricket with some local children. There is a stepwell called Manikanika Kund where pilgrims come to bathe that is a geometric dream that leads down to a still pool that reflects the stars at night. Over on the river’s edge a temple sinks on its foundations and people bathe, cleansed by Mother Ganga. 

Just along from Manikanika are the burning ghats (places where cremations are held) with wooden logs stacked high in orderly towers. These are purchased by families who have brought their deceased loved one to the river for cremation and interring into the river. They walk in a procession along the road chanting and singing with the cloaked body raised upon their shoulders. This was a shock at first, but after sitting on the steps watching the whole event unfold, there is a very peaceful and natural aspect to this tradition. In the Hindu faith, this process is the end point of reincarnation, death and rebirth.

Leaving the ghats, there are endless chai stalls selling sweet and restorative tea to the weary pilgrims. I will often stand sipping the hot tea out of terracotta cups, which are smashed on the ground after use, next to shopkeepers who seem rooted like plants in their kiosks, growing too big for their container.

A little further on, holy men worship and chant, slowly turning to stone, their faces covered in pigment and hair tied in a knot. I have become accustomed to the cows wandering the streets, lanes and alleyways around the city. I’m told they hold the gods in their bellies, so I always give them some space as they wander around unimpeded by the noise and pace of the city. You’ll see people tap them lightly as they pass.

This ancient city, which is built on ancient cities, whispers ‘creation, destruction, creation, destruction’ endlessly as I weave through different areas of markets and temples. Hanuman, Shiva and Ganesha statues and shrines are everywhere and must come to life and coat themselves in vermillion paint in the night, which is the only way to explain the hurried paint job, always fresh but always quickly applied.

I have spent most of my time here filming the river from different ghats, so I often find myself sitting on the painted steps that lead to different worlds beyond the river. The steps sit below castles and fortresses and fold out like origami to reveal that they are all one but with many different sides.

There seems to be no wrong turn in Varanasi, just a different way to arrive at your destination. This adds to the many unexplainable yet somehow ordinary occurrences that life in Varanasi gifts you. This is a place where, as a tourist, you have to sit in the mystery and be carried by the flow of the traffic, the people and the rhythm of the river.

It is very hard to define this experience. Being in among the chaos, the city seems to fold you into her disordered embrace and leads you, again, to the river. However, with the sun setting like a deep red bindi circle in the sky, it is perhaps necessary to speak in riddle or metaphor. And although it might seem mysterious, and I might be caught up in the allegory of this place, because of everything I’ve experienced in this enchanted place and for reasons I can’t explain, I now know what gold smells like.

Elliot Collins is a text-based artist who works across multiple disciplines to generate artwork that plays with ideas of memory, trace, memorial and invisibility. While on residency at Kriti Gallery, Elliot hopes to engage with the local life and experience daily rituals as he reflectively continues to make work in response to his surroundings.