Kenro Izu

Eternal Light

Kenro was born in Osaka, Japan in 1949. In 1975 he established the Kenro Izu Studio in New York City. In 1979 he traveled to Egypt and produced a series titled Sacred Places. He continues to photograph sacred places to this day. Other shows include Eternal Light, and Songs of Lao, a show exclusively created for Friends Without a Boarder to benefit Lao Friends Hospital for Children. More information on Kenro Izu can be found at www.kenroizu.com.


Eternal Light of India

It might be the first time that I recognized the impermanent destiny of all living beings, when as a young child I saw a film about dying wildlife. A herd of animals started a journey toward a place, and when they reached this place they died there.

As an adult, I encountered this truth again in a film about salmon, which hatch in a river, then start a long journey to the ocean. After many years in the ocean, grown to mature fish, they make another long journey back to the river where they were from. Some are caught by large predators, the nets of fishing boats, or the hooks of fisherman at the mouth of the river. The survivors reach the spawning bed, where they were born, they lay eggs and fertilize them and die. Having given themselves as food for other living beings, they close the circle of life.

I remember the first visit I made to Varanasi twenty years ago, where I witnessed a scene of cremation by the river Ganges. Family members of the deceased, who had gathered for the event, were talking and joking about the person being cremated nearby. While continuing to chat, some of them poked the body to turn it so it would burn evenly. A few hours later, the body had turned into ash. Protruding from the pile was an unburned piece of hipbone. The ash was swept into the Ganges. The head of the mourners picked up the bone and tossed it into the river, and the family left the site. Nothing remained where a human body had been three and half hours earlier. The murky water of the Ganges continued to flow with people’s prayer as it always has. This scene had a strong imprint on my mind, and that image remained powerful even after many years; it was the inspiration of Eternal Light project.

The name Varanasi means “City of Light.” This sacred city draws many people in pilgrimage. For Hindus, the city is the destination for the elderly and those with terminal diseases, who die and are cremated here along the Ganges where it is believed they will attain moksha (liberation from the endless cycle of rebirth).

“Mukti Bhawaan” (House of Liberation) in the city of Varanasi gives free lodging to poor people so they can spend their last days with family. The house has been providing accommodations in this way for over sixty years. Occupants are given a room with a simple bed and access to a communal washstand and toilet. Families who wish to stay here bring blankets, cooking fuel and implements, and food to make a room feel like home.

The house is known as “house of waiting for death” among foreigners, but as I visited the place repeatedly, I realized that the house is instead a “house of departure” or “house of liberation,” the direct translation of the Hindi name. Ultimate liberation means to become one with Brahman, escaping the endless cycle of rebirth, but even those who have less exalted destinies are at least liberated into a new and better life.

Without exception, my requests to photograph were accepted. Many times I was asked to take a photograph of family members together with the one about to depart from this life. The families, though feeling sadness at the parting of the loved one, were not as gloomy as I had expected they would be at the loss of a family member.

On my second day at Mukti Bhawaan, I saw an old man, said to be close to a hundred years of age. He was unconsciously struggling in his bed. His wife, who told me they had been married for seventy years, held his hand and whispered something to the old man, and his face became calm and he stopped struggling. This scene profoundly touched my heart. Even while unconscious, he recognized his wife’s voice and trusted it to lead him to a peaceful rest. When I checked early the next morning, the old man had departed, and the room had been washed with water, as usual. Puddles on the floor reflected the winter light coming through a window.

Allahabad is the city where two holy rivers, the Ganges and Yamuna, meet. The exact spot of the confluence is named Sangam, and is considered to be the ultimate holy place. Every twelve years, the festival of Kumbh Mela is held on the vast sandbank along the Sangam. From early morning on, people appear out of the fog, carrying a change of clothing. They gather and walk to the Sangam for holy bathing at sunrise. For this festival in 2013, sixty million people reportedly attended Kumbh Mela, coming from all over India.

I first visited this area eight years ago, in a season when the festival was not being held. At that time, the sandbank had a few Brahmins teaching and some people bathing. When the festival of Kumbh Mela is underway, this land becomes a huge city of tents that house the pilgrims. Numerous pontoon bridges connect the lands between the two rivers.

Half a year later, when I visited again, this time in the rainy season, the site was completely underwater, with no sign of the activities of six months earlier. This experience of the vanishing of a city, where there were sixty million people half a year ago, is another kind of emptiness.

Long after sunrise, at a location a bit distant from the Sangam, there are a group of people who like to bathe and pray in a quiet environment. The reflection of the morning sun on the holy Ganges embraces them.

Besides the Kumbh Mela of Allahabad, which takes place every twelve years, Magh Mela, a smaller festival, is held every year. From January to February, the city is filled with pilgrims and sadhus (holy men). Divisions of class, rich and poor, disappear.

The Hindu god Krishna is said to have spent his youth in the city of Vrindavan along the holy river Yamuna. I was told there are two thousand temples in this city, and all are dedicated to the god Krishna. Many small alleys crisscross the city. Each turn of an alley may hold a surprise, which makes Vrindavan a unique place. When you enter a grand gate, it may lead to run-down housing for the poor. And when you enter a humble gate, you may be surprised to see a well-maintained mansion with its own temple.

The city is also known to offer numerous houses for widows. Some houses give widows a free place to live, others a place to pray. In traditional regional communities, widows are forced out of their families because they are believed to be unfaithful for outliving their husbands. (According an old Hindu custom, a faithful wife should throw herself into the cremation fire of her husband.) So widows are brought from all over India with a little money for a lifetime of stipends.

Widows spend their remaining days or years here, in the company of women who share the same fate. They are prohibited from wearing colorful clothing and jewelry, and from engaging in entertainment. I found in their rooms that only a few keep family pictures. Twice a day, they gather at a hall with an altar, or at designated temples, to chant and pray, to praise and offer dedications to Krishna. Each widow keeps a shrine to Krishna in her room or private quarters. Even the simplest room has a humble little altar to Krishna on a shelf or small table, as if to give these women a light which illuminates the path of their lives.

In the beginning, I sympathized, and still do, with the widows and resented the culture that so defines and restricts them. However, after meeting many widows, I encountered some who voluntarily came to Vrindavan (despite having modern families who wished that the widow would continue to live with them after the husband’s death) to be free from family relationships and to live in proximity with God. I feel that some of these women are “liberated” by having been disconnected from daily life and by living only with the god Krishna, whom they love.

On one occasion, I was sad to hear a story of a widow who saved money to buy a toy for her grandchild, brought it to the home of her family, and was chased out of the house because family members claimed she was cursed by losing her husband while she was still alive.

One woman told me that she had been ten years old when she was struck by an inspiration and pledged to devote her life to Krishna. She traveled to Vrindavan from her birthplace of West Bengal. She has been a resident there for the fifty years since then. She cooks food for Krishna every day, preparing two meals, offering one to the god and eating the other herself.

Whether the widows’ rooms are simple and neat or scattered with objects, there is a lurking anticipation of death. I saw resignation from the current life in the widows’ faces, yet they showed their determination to live with their faith until the god Krishna calls. I sensed a dignity in these women, both within themselves and also in their respect for life, which they maintain until their god calls them. They reminded me of the phrase “dignity of mankind.”

In Varanasi, there is an orphanage adjacent to a primary school. It holds thirteen children, including one boy, under the age of eighteen (though the girls can stay in the facility until they are married), living with a caretaker. I was told that the boy would be transferred to a facility exclusively for boys when he reached age eight. While they waited their turn to be photographed, the children playfully teased the one in front of the camera, or played tricks on me.

Sometimes I forgot that this was an orphanage. They are as full of fun, playful and sweet same as children on streets, right outside of this facility.

Most of the children were girls. The overwhelming number of female orphans suggests the country’s preference for male children. Males can perform religious rituals and do many things not open to females.

After I took portraits of the children in the courtyard, I collected interviews from children and the caretaker for the background of each child.

As I reviewed the interviews after I returned to my lodge, I remembered how the children, though tragically abandoned, retained such innocence yet matureness in their eyes. The twinkle in the children’s eyes—those who have never known their parents and are bound together with other children in the same fate—captivated my heart for years after I left India. I thought I saw the eternal light shining out from their eyes.

One day, I had a chance to photograph newborn babies in a village, by introduction of a pediatrician, a friend of mine. This part of suburban Varanasi was occupied mostly by humble farmers and laborers, and some who live on the fringes of society, segregated within a section of the village.

In this village, many houses are made of mud. A baby asleep on a bed in one house was one day old. The parent accommodated my request to photograph by shifting the bed toward the doorway, where more light could illuminate the baby.

The sleeping baby now opened his eyes, which reflect the world outside of the house.

Parents traditionally paint black around a baby’s eyes to keep evil spirits away. For hygienic reasons, parents are advised by doctors not to perform this ritual, but without exception in the village, all the babies’ eyes were edged in black.

August in India is the midst of the rainy season. Compared to six months earlier, in the dry season, the water level of the Ganges was up by five to seven meters when I visited again. Next to the cremation ghats of Varanasi, a ruined Hindu temple slants away from the river, barely appearing in the high water. This small temple, beautifully carved in sandstone, was on the shore in the dry season six months earlier, but in the flood only the tip of the tower could be seen. A boat tied by rope to the tower was swaying in rushing water.

I used to walk through each ghat along the Ganges in the dry season, but in the rainy season most of the ghats are underwater. On my previous visit, cremations were performed along the riverbank at the ghats, but in the rainy season the only place to cremate is along the street above the ghats, and on the rooftops of buildings of the cremation ghat.

While I was photographing a temple in the distance from a structure next to the cremation ghat, the wind direction suddenly changed. The ashes of a cremation poured down on me as if falling snow. Nearby me, an elaborate ritual was being performed by a Brahmin and the elder of the family, prior to a cremation. The corpse, covered with brightly colored fabric, was waiting nearby on a bamboo stretcher to be purified by the holy water of the Ganges before being put onto a pile of firewood.

The cremation ground of Narainpur is located on the opposite shore of the Ganges, fifteen kilometers south of the city of Varanasi. In the dry months, people can cross the Ganges by pontoon bridge. The cremation ground faces a curved sandbank of the Ganges, thirty meters below the gate by a road. When I arrived there, cremations of two bodies were being conducted.

Above the ghat, a man appeared holding a cloth-wrapped object to his chest, together with a man who wore western clothes. A newborn baby had just died, and the father came to this place, accompanied by a doctor, to return the baby to the Ganges. I was told that there are a few exceptions to cremation. One is for babies. The second is for people who died from contagious diseases or by animal bites. The third kind is for sadhus, because they no longer live in this world. They are not cremated but instead are “returned” to the Ganges.

The father had a long conversation with a man who seemed to be a foreman of the cremation ground. After a while, the father got into a boat tied to the shore. A boatman poled the boat into the middle of the river and stopped. The father tied a brick to the wrapped baby. After a brief pause, he lowered the baby into the river. The boat, afloat in the river, was embraced in the afternoon’s overcast light.

At 4:00 p.m., when the sun had moved lower in the sky, another body was carried to the cremation ground. Men brought and stacked firewood to build a cremation stage. The body, on a bamboo stretcher, was dipped in the Ganges. Then the colorful fabric was removed, and the body, wrapped in white cloth, was placed on the stacked firewood. A man with a shaved head and dressed in a white cloth with a smoking stack of hay in his hands circumambulated the body with the family of the dead before igniting the firewood with the hay. This “last rite” is a ritual that can be performed only by a male family member. The cremation, tended by the family and caretakers of the site, took about three hours (neighbors and friends can attend, but not directly tend to the fire of cremation). When the sun started setting beyond the Ganges, I saw the sun’s disk over the cremation fire shimmer like a mirage.

On the following evening, at the Narainpur cremation ground, a boy wearing a white cloth entered with his family. He was a mere five years old. I was told that his father had passed away few years ago, and he now had lost his mother. The boy was the only remaining male family member who could perform the ritual of the last rite. Probably too young to understand the great matter of liberation and the Hindu teachings, he seemed lost in the tragic loss of both parents. The child, clad in a white cloth, emanated a subtle light at twilight.

Before dawn the following morning, the cremations from the night before were over, and the families had gone. Several people came and began carrying off the remaining fragments of wood from the cremation ground. The workers of the cremation areas are called “Doms” and their families take the leftover wood from the cremations for their cooking at home, as is the custom. Where cremations had taken place the previous night, chunks of wood and charcoal were glowing with pinpricks of light, as if a starry sky.

Could this be the “eternal light” that I have been looking for?

All people are perhaps looking for their eternal light. Some may be looking for bright shining light in the distance, and some may look for the one close enough to reach, but there may be something right under your feet—the starry night right below me, the small coals scattered by my foot, glowing in the darkness of a cremation ground in India.

I’m not a religious person, but I have traveled to numerous countries as if on a pilgrimage, using my photographs to find my eternal light. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I am still looking for it.

I thought I had visited India for the last time to finish my project of the past six years, India, Where Prayer Echoes. Curiously, the ending has become the beginning of this new body of work, Eternal Light.

It is as though the Hindu gods have suggested that I think about the question “Where are people heading, in this life and after?”

Kenro Izu, May 2016

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