The big picture: jumping for joy in a girls' ashram


Dayanita Singh captures the spirit and transcendence of the only female-founded ashram in Varanasi, India

The high banks of the Ganges as it bends northwards through the holy city of Varanasi are crowded with ashrams. All but one were established by male gurus. The exception is the ashram for young girls created in the 1940s by a young mystic named Nirmala Chakravarty, known as Anandamayi (or “joyful”). Ever since, 40 girls, between the ages of six and 18, have studied in isolation at the ashram under the instruction of six senior disciples of Anandamayi, who died in 1982.

The girls rise at 4am for the first of the day’s many singing ceremonies. They attend to the cleaning of the courtyards and terraces, and cook food on coal fires. There is no television or radio, internet or newspapers, and little contact with the outside world beyond an annual journey by boat to the maharajah’s palace at Ramnagar. Each day, from their terrace above the river, the girls look down on the thousands of pilgrims and tourists and the rituals of burning funeral pyres and marriage ceremonies.

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