Dirt, death and deep spiritual cleansing

15 April 2016

Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. If we ignore legend and myth (never a good idea), even the most conservative historians agree that when you walk here you do so in the footsteps of untold millions who have trodden the same stones for over 30 centuries.

Varanasi (also known as Benares or Kāshi) is the religious capital of India and is sacred to just about every religion. It’s a revered place of pilgrimage for Hindus, who believe the city was founded by their deity Lord Shiva and who have made it one of their seven sacred cities. For Buddhists, Varanasi (specifically Sarnath, nearby) is where Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon: this makes it the cradle of Buddhism. The Jains hold it as sacred too, and for Sikhs the city plays an essential role in the founding of Sikhism. There’s a sizeable Muslim population, and the Roman Catholics and the Jews are strongly represented here too.

So there’s no getting away from it: Varanasi is holy, and loads of people feel that way about it… most noticeably the Hindus, India’s overwhelming religious majority. To visit here and purify body and soul in the holy Ganges river, to die here in old age on the banks of this river whose every drop of water is redeeming… this is the dream of every devout Hindu.

Varanasi is beautiful, grotesque, uplifting, upsetting, complex, simple, cleansing and unspeakably filthy — all at the same time.

I remember being simultaneously amazed and appalled on my first visit to this spiritual melting-pot, many years ago. Varanasi is beautiful, grotesque, uplifting, upsetting, complex, simple, cleansing and unspeakably filthy — all at the same time. So one must prepare one’s mind accordingly: this is a city that is almost casually shared by the living and the dead, and where ancient religious practice can leave putrefying, half-burned human body-parts bobbing along in the same stretch of river that tens of thousands of pious pilgrims bathe in each morning in the hope of cleansing their souls. (Think I’m exaggerating? Check out this section — Varanasi, the Holy City — of an excellent BBC article on the parlous state of the River Ganges.)

The shooting here is simply stunning — even if human decency (and the occasional flash of shocked recognition) meant I did not take certain photographs at all.

Photographing Varanasi

Varanasi is a city of about a million people. Most of the best shooting action is on the banks of the river Ganges: specifically, on the 6km stretch on the west bank, where the ghats lead down to the sacred waters. Different stretches of the ghats have different names and, as we’ll see, different utility and significance.

This is a sunrise-facing city and the action starts before dawn. Here, on the ghats, tens of thousands of Hindus come each day to cleanse themselves in the murky, bacteriologically rich waters of the Ganges and to participate in the almost continuous pujas conducted by the priesthood. You can walk the ghats with your camera or shoot from a boat on the Ganges, and the changing light and activity means that each visit you make produces a different mood and gallery of photographs.

Some of these sadhus are genuine ascetics intent on salvation through self-denial, solitude and suffering, others are simply contemplating their next meal and your contribution to it.

The emphasis here is on worship and devotion. Expect to come away with photos of orange-robed and extravagantly decorated holy sadhus. Some of these sadhus are genuine ascetics intent on salvation through self-denial, solitude and suffering, others are simply contemplating their next meal and your contribution to it. Both types are fun to photograph.

Life on the ghats plays out in casually amazing cameos. The photo-opportunities are rich. Riverscapes, people studies and silhouettes are to be had in plenty.

The lead actors on the ghats are the ordinary, pious Hindus engaged in acts of personal, family and group worship. Men and women wade in to anoint themselves in the rich Ganges soup. Heads are immersed and emerge enriched. Cupped hands pour the holy river water into waiting mouths. Babes and infants are dunked and launched into life on the back of blessings from the Mother Ganges.

Nearby, women wash clothes in river water far dirtier than the garments, and lay out bright saris to dry on the bare paving. Boys race and lunge and dive from the river bank.

It takes about 300 kilograms of wood to turn a human corpse into ash. Pelvises and breast-bones often need a bit of extra encouragement to burn.

And then, the living give way to the dead. One sees human bodies awaiting cremation on the sacred banks, usually accompanied by tearful relatives and huge piles of stacked wood. Photography is imprudent and probably impudent on these special stretches of the ghats. If you really must, there are vantage-points punted by shifty-looking shills who probably have no right whatever to sell the promised photographic access. When I politely declined to shoot, my guide decided to pump me full of unwanted information in anticipation of a nice cash reward. Which is why I can tell you that it takes about 300 kilograms of wood and 4 hours to turn a human corpse into ash. That pelvises and breast-bones often need a bit of extra encouragement to burn — and that, when family funds cannot stretch to the extra fuel, any unconsumed bones are unceremoniously swept into the river along with Auntie’s ashes. (It’s not uncommon to see a stray dog trotting happily to a secret snacking place with someone’s half-burned femur in its jaws — in fact, this is considered an excellent omen.)

Holy men, and children under two years old, are buried, not burned: they are deemed not to require the purifying powers of cremation. And, darkly mirroring the upselling strategies of the living, the rich can choose premium sandalwood for their final roasting while the merely pious must make do with humble mango-wood.

But from the macabre to the magical: Early evening around sunset, the Ganga Aarti ceremonies start up. If you’re in the right place at the right time, expect to crank up the ISO a bit and rattle off a few dozen frames covering spectacular rituals of worship. These involve richly-robed priests, flowers, incense-smoke and flame and dance, the ringing of holy bells, and are unquestionably a photography highlight of any visit to Varanasi.

Varanasi old town lanes

Moving away from the river you enter the heart of the old city, and here you encounter a maze of lanes and alleys that represent a whole new seam of photographic gold.

Imagine ancient domes and towers and minarets, decaying mansions and crumbling palaces, battered patinas and textures and peeling paint and incongruous English-language advertisements — promising yoga, internet, spiritual healing, dance classes, currency exchange, fine silk and cheap guesthouses — slapped on to pillars, walls and street corners.

Varanasi is an iconic Indian city — only more so. In these streets, you’ll dodge fluttering chickens, lugubrious cows and their smelly outputs, miserable mongrels, greasy grifters and persistent touts — not to mention the busy and wonderfully good-natured citizens of Varanasi itself — as you compose your shots and try to pull meaning out of the helter-skelter of rude commerce and sacred history.

Your soundtrack: the discordant ding-dongs of old bells in over 2,000 shrines and temples, the swelling of ancient mantras and devotional hymns, and the hubbub of thousands of people hurrying about their daily business.

So is Varanasi worth the trip for a photographer? Absolutely! This is a wonderful, thought-provoking city in which to confront concepts of faith and hope, and of life and the afterlife and the bit in between. Some of the best photographs you’ll take in India — perhaps in your life’s travels — will come from here.

If you’d like to shoot Varanasi with an expert, perhaps tacking on Agra and the Taj Mahal as well, check out our Varanasi photography tour with Agra and the Taj Mahal for a quick suggested itinerary. We can save you a load of time, spare you needless disappointment and ensure you’re shooting the most fertile aspects of this amazing Indian city.

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