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Geography of India

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The annual monsoon rains have come heavy and early to India, swelling the Ganges, India's longest river, sweeping away houses, stranding thousands, and and killing more than 100 so far. Record downpours fell in Uttarakhand state, situated in the foothills of the Himalayas, causing mudslides and flooding mountain villages. The high water is now reaching the capital of New Delhi, where nearly 2,000 people have been evacuated to government-run camps on higher ground. Authorities there said the situation would ease as the level of the Yamuna River was expected to start receding Thursday afternoon. [23 photos]

A submerged idol of Hindu Lord Shiva stands in the flooded River Ganges in Rishikesh, in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, on June 18, 2013. Torrential monsoon rains have cause havoc in northern India leading to flash floods, cloudbursts and landslides as the death toll continues to climb and more than 1,000 pilgrims bound for Himalayan shrines remain stranded. (AP Photo)     

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Many things are uncertain in Mumbai - the weather, the possibility of an appointment actually happening on time, the chance of getting through the city without hitting some obstacle or other… But one...

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The northern Indian city of Varanasi, perched on the banks of the Ganges river, is perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, a site that has drawn pilgrims literally for millennia. It’s famed for its burning ghats—the sloped-approaches to the waterfront where for centuries devotees have brought their deceased loved ones for cremation, then floating the ashes into the mighty, holy Ganges. Some Hindus still believe it’s auspicious to pass away on these steps. In Varanasi’s morning fogs and along its shrine-lined streets, visitors can feel an ancient, intangible power, a sense of place that is defined more by ritual and time than geography.

Varanasi’s burning grounds drew critically-acclaimed photographer Fazal Sheikh, whose latest project, Ether, on exhibit at Pace/MacGill gallery in New York City till Oct. 20, is the product of his own nocturnal wanderings in the old town. New York-born Sheikh’s two earlier India-based projects—Moksha (2005), of a community of widows, and Ladli (2007), portraits of young women in orphanages, hospitals, brothels—had a decidedly engaged, political edge. Ether is less so. “Other documentary pieces of mine are much clearer in the pointed nature of what I wanted to say,” says Sheikh, who first came to prominence with his work from refugee camps in Kenya. “This project is a bit more open and broad. It’s an exploration of a mood.”

Sheikh’s vigil would begin at nightfall and end at dawn. “Ether” itself is that mysterious, unfathomable fifth element of the universe—the others being water, air, fire and earth—and is a property Sheikh attempts to articulate in his work. He makes elemental gestures throughout: The embers of a fire glow with an almost cosmic intensity. The stars wink and gleam in a night sky. Four dun-colored city strays curl into the trammeled earth.

Sheikh describes working in Varanasi as “a sort of nurturing experience. The whole place was calming; there was a kind of quiet.” In Ether, there is a dreamy, contemplative quality to the pictures, but it rarely feels overly sentimental. Departing from Sheikh’s earlier portraiture, many of Ether’s images are of bodies—both those of sleepers and the dead—who don’t directly engage the camera. The inability of a photograph to fully penetrate its subject fascinates Sheikh: “There are some things that a person holds for themselves, some things that will remain inaccessible.” But if there are visions of a world beyond our world, its traces are in the ether.

Fazal Sheikh is a photographer based in Zurich, New York City and Kenya. His latest project Ether, is on display on exhibit at Pace/MacGill gallery in New York City till Oct. 20.

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 Men Feed Birds
Men feed birds from a boat on the River of Yamuna as it is enveloped by winter morning fog in New Delhi, India. (Kevin Frayer/Associated Press) Click image to zoom.

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Sri Lankan prisoners prepare to perform a traditional dance at the main Welikada prison in Colombo November 17, 2011. The cultural event is organized by the prisons department as part of the rehabilitation program for convicts, according to officials. Occupy Los Angeles protesters march through downtown during a rally Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011. Occupy Wall [...]

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Rich Shulman writes

We are pretty used to reading about safety and environmental issues with coal mines in China and the United States. Now, we are learning about India, the world's third largest producer.

As the Indian magazine Frontline reported in 2006:

The haphazard mining has been taken to such absurd levels that Ladrymbai town is sitting on a rabbit warren of crisscrossing tunnels. Should a major earthquake occur in this seismic zone the entire town could cave in, residents fear. They have to negotiate mountains of coal lying all around them, blocking their doorways and polluting water sources and fields. Their children have nowhere to play, except on coal heaps. The destruction of tree cover has seen a fall in the level of groundwater and rainwater run-off. There is no access to clean drinking water.

Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

A crane lifts miners out of a 300ft deep mine shaft, as they head out for their lunch break on April 13 near the village of Latyrke near Lad Rymbai, in the district of Jaintia Hills, India. The Jaintia hills, located in India's far North East state of Meghalaya, miners descend to great depths on slippery, rickety wooden ladders. Children and adults squeeze into rat hole like tunnels in thousands of privately owned and unregulated mines, extracting coal with their hands or primitive tools and no safety equipment. Workers can earn as much as $150 per week or 30,000 Rupees per month, significantly higher than the national average of $15 per day. After traversing treacherous mountain roads, the coal is delivered to neighboring Bangladesh and to Assam from where it is distributed all over India, to be used primarily for power generation and as a source of fuel in cement plants. Many workers leave homes in neighboring states, and countries, like Bangladesh and Nepal, hoping to escape poverty and improve their quality of life. Some send money back to loved ones at home, whilst many others squander their earnings on alcohol, drugs and prostitution in the dusty, coal mining towns like Lad Rymbai. Some of the labor is forced, and an Indian NGO group, Impulse, estimates that 5,000 privately-owned coal mines in Jaintia Hills employed some 70,000 child miners. The government of Meghalaya refuted this figure, claiming that the mines had only 222 minor workers. Despite the ever present dangers and hardships, children, migrants and locals flock to the mines hoping to strike it rich in India's wild east.

Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

22-year-old Shyam Rai from Nepal makes his way through a rat hole tunnels inside of a coal mine 300 ft beneath the surface on April 13 near the village of Latyrke near Lad Rymbai, in the district of Jaintia Hills, India.

Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

Inebriated workers loiter at the site of a coal depot on April 14 in Lad Rymbai, in the district of Jaintia Hills, India. Local schools in the area, providing free tuition, find it difficult to convince parents of the benefits of education, as children are seen as sources of income. The lure of the mines is stronger than that of the classroom.

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Bhola, Bangladesh 2009

Eivind H. Natvig (b. 1978, Norway) graduated with a degree in photojournalism from Oslo University College in 2005. Has has since done assignments for a wide range of national and international publications and received the Norwegian Picture of the Year award. From 2006 Eivind have divided his time between assignments in Norway and an in-depth projects in South Asia financed by a grant from The Freedom of Expression Foundation and Karina Jensens Minnefond. His work has been published in Le Monde, Liberation, MSNBC and Time magazine. He is represented by Moment Agency.

About the Photograph:

“The sun was about to set on the north shore of Bhola on one of the ghats (river banks) near the mainland. This man sat patiently working on his fishing net as life passed by. In some ways he symbolizes the Bangladeshis trapped in a tightening fishing net as the rivers and sea they both depend on eat away the land they call home. Situated by the mouth of Ganges, at the Bay of Bengal the Island of Bhola has been referred to as the ground zero of climate change. Half the island has disappeared in the past forty years, and according to scientists the pace is not going to slow down. People pack up and leave as the water get closer. Some to a nearby embankment, while those with enough money move further inland, but for most life moves on until the inevitable. It’s always about survival for the people in one of the worlds poorest countries.”

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