As dawn breaks over the Ganges in Varanasi, flickering candles on banana leaf offerings drift past our boat.
As the sun rises higher, the stepped ghats lining the riverbank become a hive of activity.
Early arrivals are flower-sellers, priests and sadhus. or holy men, who make a living from the thousands of pilgrims who visit the sacred city.
Women wearing vividly patterned saris arrive to bathe.
Seated on the steps of the Assi Ghat, youths lather themselves with soap.
Ablutions performed, prayers are said and smoke curls upwards from the first cremation of the day on the Manarkarnika Ghat, the principal burning ghat in Varanasi.
On Kedar Ghat, professional laundry men begin washing clothes, slapping them on large flat stones with such force that we can hear the echo out on the river. There is religious merit in having your clothes washed in Varanasi, but Brahmins, the upper class in Hindu society, employ their own dhobi-wallahs to avoid caste contamination.
Varanasi is the home of Lord Shiva, one of the three main deities in Hinduism. Not only his Shaivite followers, but every devout Hindu hopes to die here and to have his ashes scattered on the holy river.
Throughout the day, corpses wrapped in gold-coloured bindings are brought for cremation. Another, then another, arrives on a litter borne through Varanasi’s narrow lanes by Doms —low caste untouchables, or Dalits.
Mourners stand watching the funeral pyres being built by other Dalits who perform all the unsavoury jobs at Varanasi.
Only male relatives attend a funeral. Normally the eldest son carries out the obsequies. He lights the pyre after first placing a burning stick in the mouth of the deceased.
Not everyone is cremated however. Sadhus, pregnant women and children under two are considered pure and do not need to be cleansed by the sacred fire.
They are either buried or set adrift on the river.
Photography by Julian Worker, Nick Dawson and Prem Kapoor.
CHRISTIAN HOLY SACRAMENTS
Food has always played a significant role in worship. Probably the best known sacred foods are the bread and wine of the Christian Eucharist, but puja offerings in Eastern religions are equally blessed.
SIMPLE BUTTER LAMPS HINDU PUJA
While rooted in tradition and religious texts, the choice of sacred foods is clearly dependent on climate, availability and financial status. Hence a poor Hindu will light a simple butter lamp for a favourite deity while a wealthy Daoist family orders roasted suckling pigs for a grand send-off at a Chinese funeral.
ROAST SUCKLING PIGS FOR A CHINESE FUNERAL IN CAMBODIA
Edible offerings from temple ceremonies are not wasted being distributed among the less well off. Animals and birds also receive a share as do sacred eels in certain cultural beliefs.
MOON CAKE FESTIVAL OFFERINGS AT A HOKKIEN TEMPLE
Special status is accorded some foods such as the honey used in Jain purification rites.
JAIN PRIESTS BATHE A STATUE OF LORD MATHAVIR WITH HONEY
The seder plate, displayed on the dining table at the Jewish Passover, contains seven symbolic foods recalling the Exodus.
A SEDER PLATE WITH SYMBOLIC FOODS
Simple water becomes sanctified in Christian baptismal ceremonies, sacred water from the River Ganga is flown to Hindu festivals far from its source.
CHRISTIAN BAPTISM USING SANCTIFIED WATER
Beans are thrown during Khmer wedding rituals, eggs are offered to Taoist temple gods, milk is poured on Shiva linga.
HINDU BOY POURING SACRED MILK ON A SHIVA LINGUM
Once sacrificed on Aztec altars and pre-Islamic shrines, human beings were the ultimate in sacred offerings to the Divine.
ANCIENT MARAE ONCE USED FOR HUMAN SACRIFICES IN POLYNESIA (TAHITI)
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
For Thou art with me; Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Psalm 23, from the Old Testament, often just referred to as “The Lord is My Shepherd,” is the most loved of all the psalms, revered by Christians and Jews alike.
But while the language is soothing and as musical as a Shakespearean sonnet, one must look beneath the lines in order to discover their meaning.
Foremost is to accept the Lord as our guide to shepherd us through the undercurrents of life.
The green pastures and still waters symbolise the things He will teach us on the journey to set our spiritual lives in order.
Essentially to love one another and though at times we may walk through the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” to fear no Evil.
And if we believe, and follow His example for righteous living during out time on Earth, at the end of life there will be a place for us in the Kingdom of Heaven.
HOLI SPRING FESTIVAL OF COLOURS
It is usual for people to dress up for a festival. To wear their best clothes. At the colourful Indian festival of Holi, however, it is the opposite. People put on their oldest clothes which will get soaked during the merriment..
Holi is commonly believed to have origins in the Hindu legend of Holika, the demon goddess in the 7th century Sanskrit drama, the Ratnavali.
Holika is said to have colluded with the demon king Hiranyakashyap to kill his son Prahlada who worshipped the God Vishnu, instead of his father.
CHILDREN CELEBRATE HOLI IN INDIA
A plan was hatched for Holika to sit Prahlada on her lap into the middle of a bonfire in the belief that he would perish and that she would survive.
But the reverse happened. Holika was consumed by flames and Prahlada was saved by Vishnu, the moral of the story being the triumph of good over evil.
Held in spring, the 11th month of the Hindu calendar, the festival celebrates new life and good fortune for the growing season.
On the eve of the full moon, many villagers build a bonfire with an effigy of Holika. Known as Holika Daha, it is a reminder of the symbolic victory of the forces of good over evil.
BONFIRES ARE BUILT ON THE EVE OF THE FULL MOON
While the theme is serious, Holi is filled with good humoured fun. Caste, age and religious differences are abandoned as revellers throng the streets singing and dancing and bombarding each other with water mixed with coloured powders.
Natural colours derived from burnt-yellow turmeric and ruby-red dhak have now been largely replaced by commercial pigments, but the effect is the same.
This is why Holi is known as the Festival of Colours: red for love, green for prosperity, orange for success and pink for happiness.
HOLI PROCESSION IN A TOWN IN UTTAR PRADESH
CHINESE NEW YEAR DRAGON
The Year of the Monkey─ninth animal in the 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac—begins with a bang on 8th February 2016.
Chinese New Year is celebrated with colourful pageantry by Chinese communities all over the world. Sydney, where Chinese-born Australians and students make up some 5 per cent of the population,is set to stage the biggest festivities outside Beijing.
BURNING JOSS STICKS AND PAPER MONEY IS AN ANCIENT TRADITION
Red, the colour of Fire, one of the five elements in the Chinese zodaic, corresponds with the Monkey, accordingly 2016 is the Red Fire Monkey Year.
In Chinese culture, monkeys are considered intelligent and quick-witted and while it is illegal to breed and train them without a licence, one village is exempt.
Villagers in Baowan, in rural Henan province, have been training monkeys using harsh methods for many centuries. Macaques are taught to walk on stilts and to even catch knives while balancing on a board.
MONKEY FARM IN BAOWAN VILLAGE CHINA
While the Chinese have a particular reputation for animal cruelty, I have seen monkeys riding bicycles in India and monkeys in fancy dress posing with tourists in Thailand. In Marrakech one morning, I saw a monkey defy its owner who swung it around on its chain and cracked its head on its box.
Amid the dancing, drumming and exploding fire-crackers for Chinese New Year, spare a thought for other primates such as the orangutan which shares 97% of DNA in common with humans. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that 3,000 orangutans have died in fires, a result of forest clearing to make way for palm oil plantations in Indonesia.
DANCING IN THE CHINESE NEW YEAR
So in this Year of the Monkey with primates even more likely to be used as tourist attractions, do your bit by refusing to take photographs. And boycott products in your supermarket without an RSPO label certifying they were made using sustainable palm oil.
PALM OIL PLANTATION
ORANGUTAN BURNT IN FOREST FIRES
Do you remember when we used to get little bible cards at Sunday school?
Getting a card was to me the best part of attending a lesson from the bible when I would far rather have been fishing with my father. Or playing with my toys in the sandpit under the palm tree.
Although she did not go to church herself, mother made a great fuss about my sister and I attending Sunday school which was held in an ante room of Saint Augustine’s Anglican Church in Neutral Bay.
Our curly hair was brushed a hundred times. This painful ritual over, it was pulled into bunches — you couldn’t call them plaits—and tied with bows to match our blue seersucker frocks, a popular textile in Sydney’s hot summer climate.
Bible Cards, or Holy Cards, were first popularised by the Catholic faithful in the late 19th century. They were used to mark baptisms, confirmations, funerals and to celebrate important occasions in the religious calendar.
The cards spoke volumes, even though most were not larger than the size of a postage stamp. Not simply for the inspirational message, usually a popular biblical quote, but for the images of Jesus and Mary and the disciples, beautifully and reverently illustrated. Left blank, the reverse side was used for personal handwritten messages.
Swapping bible cards was popular with the dozen or so children who attended our Sunday school class.
I still have a box of them. Most are a little yellow, and dog-eared from all those years ago.