Júlio de Matos Photography




It was not longing for the good old days of past Portuguese feats that in 1992 dragged me to the great India. I have never been to Calicut, I had not yet been to Goa, I was close to Damãn and, when I journeyed through Gujarat, I could see how Portugal cleared its mind of what was its biggest stronghold in the Indian Ocean, by the name of Diu.

Since then, the Indian Ocean has been my center of gravity. I have enjoyed the sunrise over the land of various Indian cultures, in Africa at Mombassa in Kenya, as well as in Tanzania, in Asia at Galle and Kandy in the pearl-shaped island of Sri Lanka, in Angkor, Myanmar, Ayutthaya in the Kingdom of Thailand and, of course, in India, in Trivandrum, Tamil Nadu, Sikkim, Kerala, Orissa, Wankaner... But, of all the places about which I have strolled, Varanasi occupies a special place in my heart. Perhaps because I am also an architect, I have had a better relationship with urban cultures than with nomadic or rural cultures, and there I encountered a city, inhabited continuously for over 5000 years, which has survived all fates: invasion, fire, flood, plague, etc., but which has never been abandoned. There are other cities, historically even older, which were temporarily abandoned and left lifeless. If there are sacred cities, then Varanasi is one of them.

I visited Varanasi for the first time in August 1992, passing the ghats at dawn. The Ganges was high, the sun golden in the early morning and, without forewarning, I emerged in Manikarnika Ghat. The sounds, smells, colors, hubbub, music, and smoke...the bodies, rituals and taboos, all roused in me a thrill and an indelible cultural shock which hung over me for more than a decade.

I returned with aroused feelings and expectant emotions. I did not want to go straight to the center of the vortex, so I resisted and voluntarily turned away. It was at the end of the afternoon on the second day, that I went to Manikarnika Ghat. First I walked through Varanasi’s arteries, overflowing with the daily fight for survival and for life. Then I went down some lonelier capillaries and emerged into another world, one with different rules and ways of being. I had arrived at the transit station to the Universe. Everything exists for the purpose of departing on a journey with no destination or date of return. In the end, we are left with only memories.

The firewood is worked exhaustively, stored, broken down, weighed and shouldered to its destination. It is the fuel for this great journey. After a last purifying bath in mother Ganges, watched and supported by those closest, the still mortal remains will be cremated in a pyre of wood. It is not necessarily a lonely departure. There may be many departures at the same time in Manikarnika Ghat. White is used for mourning. The eldest son shaves his head as a sign of pain. Family and friends accompany the lifeless body on its departure.

Silently with no weeping, they watch the fusion of life with the Universe. Slowly, but effectively, he or she is transformed into the air we breathe, into the dust that is always with us. The flames rise, the heat consumes almost everything, and in the end the body, purified by Fire, reposes momentarily on Earth mainly in the form of ashes. Finally, the Ganges gathers the ashes into her bosom in the last leg of the journey. And so, the person is thus dissolved in Water, in this sacred river, the mother of life. The fusion of life with Air and Water, elements that know no bounds, the eternal sources of life, the doors to eternal new beginnings, happens before our very eyes.

This book is purposefully presented without any notes or lengthy captions, so as not to reduce it to a guidebook of just another journey, because that is not what it is. The texts in this book are keys to a better interpretation of the pictures reproduced. “Heaven’s Door – Manikarnika Ghat” seeks to be, above all, a searching look at signs in this antechamber of the great journey, of an unparalleled culture, simultaneously close and distant. Temporal and spatial distance is a determining factor in the clarity of judgement. We distance ourselves so as better to see ourselves and, who knows, for brief moments to attain a depth of field that clears for us, though in different planes, what is circumstantial and what is universal.

To be born, to live, to die, three verbs common to all humanity, but often with very distinct meanings. I was born and live in a culture that is forever more dehumanized by refusing to accept old age and death. We live with the feeling that we are immortal and suddenly are surprised when the end comes. We live thinking that to grow old is not part of the cycle of life; that those who do not partake of the elixir of eternal youth are condemned. Because we have stopped believing... believing in something more, beyond ourselves.

Júlio de Matos
Porto, June 2003

© 2009-2017 All Photographs and texts by Júlio de Matos | All rights reserved | © Júlio de Matos, 2009-2017