Varanasi, the City of Light, is a place like no other
Varanasi is the holiest of the seven holy cities in India
Mark Twain famously said “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
Varanasi is truly unlike any other place in the world. One of the world’s oldest and holiest cities, you can really feel it in its atmosphere. The holy river, the ghats filled with life, the chaotic spirituality and so much more make this a city you can’t forget. From early morning to night, Varanasi is one magical place.
As Mark twain said everything here is full of character, feels like its been there forever and is a photographer’s dream: behind every corner there are new and great photographic opportunities.
I’d recommend staying at a hotel within walking distance of the main ghats so you can savour the morning atmosphere and at first light you can witness all the characters that are here on a daily basis. It’s normal to see people bathe in the holy river Ganges, street hairdressers, locals washing laundry and clothes, kids playing with kites and cows walking around aimlessly.
Most people agree that Varanasi is both magical and mysterious, with rituals of life and death taking place in open view, whilst the sights, sounds and smells along the Ghats are something you’ll never forget
Places we visit on a Varanasi Street Photography Workshop
The first rule of photographing Varanasi on a street photography workshop is get up early and be at your location before first light. It’s a purely magical time of day and even more so in this truly religious and cultural epicentre of India. It really is an exprience you want to live, and document as a street photographer.
Travel to the other side of the river Ganges. Take a boat across the other side, it looks like you are on another world: it’s almost desert like in its appearance. Here you will find religious sadus and other nomads leading the most simple life. Its a must to get there before the sun rises.
Ganga Aarti Evening festival. This takes place every evening on the main Dashashwamedh ghat. According to Hindu mythology, Lord Brahma created this ghat to welcome Lord Shiva. As a photographer I would normally visit here two or three times to really document the festival well. You can both hire a boat and witness the ceremony from the river, which gives you a great view, and then the second evening do this from the banks capturing the key moments as you now have an idea of what is happening.
The Ghats alongside the mother Ganges river. There are over 88 seperate ghats that are mainly used for bathing. The main ceremonial ghat is the Dashashwamedh ghat. The main group contains around 25 of them, and it extends from Assi Ghat north to Raj Ghat. The ghats date back to the 14th century but most were rebuilt, along with Varanasi, in the 18th century by Maratha rulers.
Its definitely worth taking a boat one eveing or a stroll in the day down to the burning Ghat, also known as the Manikarnika Ghat, where you will see piles of wood for the fires line the Ganges. The fires continuously burn with a constant stream of dead bodies arriving wrapped in cloth and carried through the old market lanes on makeshift wooden stretchers
The Tulsi Ghat is worth a visit again one early morning to witness the Mud wrestlers. The day always starts with a short prayer session at the tiny altar inside the mud ring which is devoted to Lord Rama. Many men train here under the tutelage of doyen Siyaramji. You will see them doing many exercises such as pull ups, squats whilst some will swing around a gadha expertly around their heads, lift weights before getting into the ring to wrestle.
The Old markets, that include a small intimate goat traders market in the old muslim dominated area, the vegtable and the chicken markets . This is a great walk for street phortographers, starting out at the goat market and wandering the old ancient streets ending up at the vegetable market . After the vegetable market I’d normally take a Tuk Tuk to the main train station looking for the older style trains with the open bar windows and station food sellers offering their wares to passengers. The fish market is just a short walk from the main Dashashwamedh Ghat.
The Old Town just a short walk from the main Ghats, where you will find life around every corner you turn, with lots of photographic opportunities from shops, temples and local characters. I’d recommend using a wider lens here as the lanes are so narrow and they are often quite crowded. You’ll see cows, rickshaws, dogs, motorbikes and people all trying to navigate the tiny streets in a barely controlled chaos. The old Town is also home to several temples including the Kali temple and the Golden temple, however both normally have long queues. A couple of places worth visiting for a pit stop are the Blue lassi Shop and the Dosa Cafe right next to the Vishwanath Gali.
A great Time to go: Dev Deepawali
This festival is a major attraction, with the sight of millions of candle lamps lighting both the ghats and river Ganges its a breathtaking sight. Thousands of devotees from the holy city of Varanasi and surrounding villages, gather in the evening on the Dashashwamedh ghat to watch the Ganga Aarti.
The Dev Deepavali (“Festival of Lights of the Gods”) is where Kartik Poornima is celebrated in Varanasi. It always happens on the full moon of November/December, fifteen days after Diwali. The steps of all the ghats on the riverfront of the Ganges River are lit with more than a million small earthen lamps and the gods are believed to descend to Earth to bathe in the Ganges on this day.
During Dev Deepawali, houses are decorated with oil lamps and coloured designs on their front doors. Firecrackers are lit at night, processions of decorated deities are taken out into the streets of Varanasi, and lamps are set afloat on the river.
The main rituals performed by devotees consist of taking a holy bath in the Ganges and offering the oil lit lamps to mother Ganga in the evening. The Ganga Aarti is also performed in the evening.
Over 100,000 pilgrims visit the riverfront to watch the river aglitter with lamps.
Sarnarth is well worth a visit as its just 6 miles from Varanasi as It is one the four main holy sites of the Buddha. The other four being where Buddha was born (Lumbini), reached enlightenment (Bodhgaya), gave his first sermon (Sarnath), and where he passed (Kushinagar). Its well worth 1/2 a day to go and experience it and get some great people photographs.
You will see many Buddhists Monks from around the world practicing their various ceremonies on the lawns and around the main temple which is a giant domed shaped brick sculpture called a stupa, built where apparently Buddha gave his first talk.