Focus on...Varanasi, India
Updated: Nov 5, 2018
Goosebumps during Dev Deepawali.
Varanasi, November 2017.
Before I actually travelled to Varanasi, its name always had this strange effect on me. On the one hand, I had seen some amazing photos by other photographers and it intrigued me immensely. On the other, I was put off by fact that people go to Varanasi to die and that bodies are brought from all over India to Varanasi to be cremated on the shores of the Ganges.
I have travelled a few times with photography tours organized by Darter, so when they offered a photography holiday to Varanasi, I decided it was time to go.
With an Emirates flight to Mumbai and a connecting flight to Varanasi on Jet Airways, it was relatively easy to reach. The drive to Varanasi centre, took about 45 minutes and that was the last time we used the car until departure. If your accommodation is in the right location, you can walk everywhere in Varanasi and for the sites that are a bit further away you take an auto or cycle rickshaw.
The six other people on the tour were all Indian, except for Chris from Malta, which is brilliant, because you pick up so much more about the food, traditions, religion, history, and culture of a place if you are surrounded by people who know it well.
Our accommodation was a very simple three-star hotel near the Ganges, and it took us about a five-minute walk to reach the Ghats, or the river banks, so this was all about location, location, location.
We were here to photograph the five days of the Dev Deepawali festivities, the ‘Diwali of the Gods,’ which is celebrated only in Varanasi fifteen days after Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.
Arun, our photography mentor, warned us about the enormous crowds we would inevitably come across at the Ghats. Yes, there were a huge number of people around and there were a one or two bottlenecks on the Ghats, but you could take a couple of steps away from the crowd and there was plenty of space to move and shoot.
An Infinite Number of Models
For me the main attraction of Varanasi is the people, so incredibly varied and photogenic, getting on with their millennia-old rituals, like Deepan. Here bowls filled with flowers and a butter candle are floated down the river as an offering to the Ganga, the goddess of India’s most holy river and the Kartik Snan, the holy bath ritual in the Ganges. Both rituals are done by each person at his or her own pace on any little free spot in or around the river.
The Ganga Aarti
Besides the people, one of the highlights of the trip were the various Ganga Aarti performed after sunset and during sunrise on the river banks. The Ganga Aarti is an ancient, highly choreographed ritual performed daily for about 45 minutes by a number of ‘pandits,’ or priests. The Aarti is performed in honor of the holy river Ganges and is as a token of humility and gratitude. It symbolises the five elements of space, wind, fire, water, and earth.
The ceremony is incredibly photogenic, with clouds of incense, brass candelabra with butter lamps, and the beautiful dresses of the priests, etc. etc. It is accompanied by melodious chanting, and although you can’t shoot that, it does complete the experience. The challenge is to find the best spot to shoot the ceremony, because the crowds are fierce and the competition with other photographers for the best spot even more so.
We attended the evening Aarti three times in two different locations, so we were able to shoot from different angles and had the chance to anticipate the various stages of the ceremony so that we could be ready for the shot we were after.
During one of the other days, we went in the afternoon to the Ghats and soon I had lost my fellow photographers in the crowd. There was so much going on around us, each of us sprinted off in various directions. I found myself surrounded by thousands of devotees and just put my camera away and enjoyed the moment, completely overwhelmed with all kinds of emotions. This moment gave me goosebumps and was one I will always cherish.
Not for the Fainthearted
One of things I was most apprehensive about were the cremation sites along the river. There is no escaping walking along the river, and this walk inevitably takes you past the cremation spots. Wood pyres with the wrapped bodies half consumed by the flames is not something I wanted to see, and I know it will be etched in my memory. But above all I was worried about the smell of the cremations – I can remember smells for ages, and this was not a smell I was keen to remember. Fortunately, you can avoid looking at the cremation pyres, and I smelt only the wood burning, nothing else. After the cremation the remains of the pyre are shoved out into the river, and let’s just say that not all the pyres are very efficient in carrying out their job… I was grateful that Varanasi is a pure vegetarian city and that there was no local fish on the menu.
A City of a Million Lights
On the evening of Dev Deepavali, the steps of the Ghats are lit up by hundreds of thousands of butter candles. The priests lay out highly intricate patterns on the Ghats as homage to the river goddess. This is not the easiest event to photograph because of the crowds, the low light, and the high light contrast, and tripods were only useful in the more isolated places – there was no chance to use them among the crowds. But notwithstanding estimates of over a million people attending the ceremony, even on this evening there were some clear patches to take a couple of shots.
I had already been warned about cow dung by friends who had experienced it first-hand/foot. Yes, the alleys do get slippery in places, and no, there is no escaping it. Sooner or later you will find your foot in a fresh pile.
Red Sand and Oil, the Perfect Combination
The next morning, we left the sacred to look for the more profane. We had an appointment at the local Kushti grounds. Kushti is a centuries-old form of wrestling and is performed on a soft earthen pitch. The wrestlers train from a very young age at the small open-air gym attached to the grounds.
No Technogym equipment here – most of exercise is done with primitive weights in all kinds of dangerous shapes and sizes and using the wrestlers’ own body weight or the added weight of one of their fellow wrestlers. One show-off did push-ups with another guy on his back, which seemed like pure self-torture to me. It was phenomenal to shoot the wrestlers covered in red sand after their sparring matches.
Varanasi is also known for beautiful silken sarees with intricate Mughal patterns and laden with silver or gold brocade. The weavers district is a short drive from the centre. The rhythmic clacking of the weaving looms comes from every direction. Now most sarees are machine made, but there are still some old master weavers creating unparalleled beauty on their centuries-old handlooms. The most expensive sarees go for well over euro 60.000. The light flowing through small windows into the dark workplaces makes for atmospheric photos.
This Can’t be Healthy
A boat trip at sunrise along the Ghats is not to be missed, with many bathers already up and about for their dip in the Ganges. I have no idea how people actually survive this.The river at Varanasi doesn’t seem the healthiest place to be, with all that floats in it.
Varanasi evokes very strong emotions. It is a city of contrasts with extreme beauty and extreme rawness flowing into each other. This is a place I would like to return to over and over again.
Darter Photography is a Bangalore-based company specializing in photography trips to India. However, they now also offer a variety of photography holidays to places further away, including Iceland, Antarctica, South Africa, Bhutan, and Kyrgyzstan. Their photography tours are led by and mainly attract Indians who are all eager to share their local knowledge with foreigners; this adds an extra dimension to any trip to India. I have gone on three trips with them to India and can highly recommend them for their professionalism and well-organized photo tours.
All images © 2018 Marco Duyves