“Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” – Mark Twain
Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world dating back to 1800BC.
I have been meaning to visit this city for years now and when I finally got the chance to spend a few days there, I jumped on it. While my time in the city was cut short by a serious stomach bug, I did get to spend a couple of days photographing around the city.
Here are a few quick thoughts and tips from my time there:
1) For Westerners, especially first time India travelers: do not make Varanasi the first stop of your itinerary. Nothing quite prepares you for it. It can be crazy, chaotic, overwhelming and extraordinarily spiritual experience. Sometimes all at the same time.
2) Walk and photograph the ghats at sunrise: I found that the quality of light is better at sunrise compared to sunset. I would suggest getting out on the ghats about an hour to 45 mins before sunrise and experience the various activities that happen as the city wakes up. It is also the time when the city is at its quietest. It is almost a zen like experience where you will witness all the rituals of life and death playing out right in front of your eyes. And yes it is very safe to walk the ghats that early or at any time of the day.
3) Walk the narrow alleys of the old city: After a good sunrise walk along the ghats, the narrow alleys of the old city are a good place to wander around during mid morning to early afternoon. During this time, depending on your location, you may get interesting light beams cutting across the alleys that can be used to make some interesting images. Its very easy to get lost in these alleys, so always keep a visiting card of your hotel with you in case you need to ask for directions.
4) Avoid a Holy Shit moment: Varanasi is one of the holiest cities for Hinduism. And cows are considered holy animals among Hindus. The combination of the two means that cows have free reign over the alleys of the city. While, the ghats are generally kept clean and are generally free of cows, the narrows streets and alleys of Varanasi are a different story. It would be logistically impossible to keep the streets free of cow poo. What that means is while you are walking, keep an eye on where you are stepping. Trust me, its easier said than done. If you dont, you will have your holy shit moment.
5) Experience the burning ghats: Many Hindus believe that the cycle of death and reincarnation will end by dying in Varanasi. Which makes the burning ghats or the cremation ghats an experience in itself. The most famous cremation ghat of the lot is Manikarnika ghat. The fire here burns 24×7. There are bodies lined up to be cremated at any given hour – night or day. Witnessing the burning of bodies here was a strange feeling for me and can be traumatic for some. But once you understand the Hindu rituals and witness it the first time, it becomes yet another ritual that plays out in front of your eyes. Anyway you look at it, its quite an experience. Generally photography is not allowed around the burning ghats out of respect for the families of the deceased. While there are no posted signs that say that, you may get in trouble with the locals if you start taking pictures here. You can get away with a long lens and snapping from a distance or you can get on a boat and photograph these ghats.
6) Photograph the Evening Ganga Aarti: Every evening at Dasashwamedh Ghat, there is a Ganga Aarti – evening prayer ceremony for the Ganges and lord Shiva. This is quite a fancy ceremony and quite a tourist draw in itself. Throngs of pilgrims and tourists gather to watch this spectacle and it can get quite crowded. I would suggest witnessing this twice if possible to get the best images. On your first time around, get there early and take a spot on the side of the stage(perpendicular to the river.) This gives you a good angle to capture the priests in a row. A walk around lens or even a short telephoto would give you interesting results. Keep a note of the different parts of the ceremony. A dramatic point in the ceremony happens when the priests take a fistful of marigold flowers and throw them in the air. Be prepared, for it if you want to capture this moment. A good angle to capture this act, is from the bottom corner of the stage. Avoid weekends and holidays if possible as it can get really crowded. There is also a morning aarti that happens in Assi Ghat at sunrise which is barely gets the crowds.
7) Take a boat ride on the Ganges: While this is probably the most cliched thing to do, it still is quite an experience. Do this at sunrise.
Lodging: Stay at a hotel on the ghats if possible. There are a bunch of upscale hotels that are located away from the ghats, but staying there sort of defeats the purpose. Dashashwamedh Ghat is the main ghat and the hotels around here are a good base to explore the city. We stayed at the Alka hotel. Their upscale rooms here are clean and more than adequate. You may request a room with a balcony overlooking the ghats. Keep in mind, car traffic is not allowed to the ghats, so pre arrange your pickup with your hotel before you get there.
While we weren’t there during a festival, try visiting Varanasi during a festival like Dev Deepawali to make your trip even more rewarding.
The winter months also bring fog which can add a lot to your photography here.