Photographing The Ghats of Varanasi - A Mesmerizing Spectacle
Varanasi or Benares. The Holy Grail of India according to many travelers. It's one of the oldest cities in the world sitting on the banks of the river Ganges and that's exactly why it's so important to Indians. Everybody wants to die in Varanasi and/or be cremated on the banks of the holy river.
After the cremation, the ashes are being sprinkled in the river and that's when the deceased reaches Nirvana. From all over India people travel to Varanasi; to die or to bring the dead, sometimes even with the corpse on ice in the trunk of a car... Life and death are not that far apart in India...
We almost decided to skip Varanasi but I'm glad that we didn't. Especially for a photographer, it is one of the most interesting cities of India and I think I have to add it to the list of cities we love in India. Culture, history and religion compressed into a city with the tiniest alleys and backstreets that almost don't see daylight. There are little shops with sweets, lassies, fruit and every kind of food imaginable but that's not why we came to Varanasi.
The Ghats that lead up to the river is what I wanted to see. That's where the locals are and where they play cards and cricket or just relax in the evening. And that's exactly what we did too every evening when the sun started to set; just relax at the ghats of Varanasi. The light turned into a magical glow again like everywhere in India went the sun goes down and as a photographer it's an awesome few hours to be out.
Our hotel was located around 0.8 miles South of the Dashashwamedh Ghat. That's the main ghat where every evening a ceremony is performed and where all the tourists go. Go little further and you'll find the main burning ghat called Manikarnika. That was our walk every evening at sunset; from our hotel to the river and then all the way to the main ghat and back. Just walking, talking and watching the people doing whatever they were doing...
Close to our hotel there weren't too many people. The kids were mostly playing cricket while the older men were playing cards. Some people were bathing in the river and at some point there were even buffalos in the water and a boy was cleaning and grooming them. A little higher up the stairs, a little girl was watching over the buffalos with a big stick over her shoulder. Every evening she was there looking over her herd...
Burning Ghats of Varanasi
At some point we saw fire and I immediately knew what was going on. Cremations. We've had arrived at one of the two burning ghats. It was the smaller and less 'famous' one but this meant we could freely explore and look at what was going on. We also visited the famous Manikarnika burning ghat but pushy 'guides' kept bothering us there.
Not here, though. We saw bodies wrapped in bright orange robes lying on the floor higher up the stairs waiting to be brought to the river. Piles of wood ready to sell and closer to the river, a few fires that were still going.
It felt a little bit strange to just watch what was going on but that feeling soon went away and we sat there for a while. It's a place that makes you think about life for a minute before you go on with it again. We stayed for 5 days and that's what we did every evening. Walking the ghats, watching life, talking about it and photographing it... one of the most memorable things I did in India...
How to get to Varanasi from Delhi
Here’s some important information on train travel and flights in Delhi.
We wanted to take the train. A long train ride is the cheapest way to get to Varanasi from Delhi and you have to experience at least on train ride in India. We took over a dozen trains and it’s always an adventure on its own.
That time though, we missed our train. We left with an Ola taxi long an hour and a half before our train would leave. It should’ve been a 20 minute drive. Well…, that’s India. We didn’t move for an hour because traffic in Delhi is crazy.
Make sure to plan it well and double check from which train station your train leaves!
Plane from Varanasi to Delhi
Then, we decided to go to the airport and take a flight from Delhi to Varanasi the same day. Yeah, it wasn’t our lucky day; no more flights unless we would pay a bunch of money. We had to stay in an airport hotel and wait until the next day. Varanasi is a popular place and last minute flights are scarce.
Varanasi for photographers
Where to stay in Varanasi
Obviously, the place to be is the banks of the River Ganges. We stayed in a guesthouse close to the Assi Ghat, which is pretty much the last ghat in the South. It’s quite a walk to the main ghats like Manikarnika and Dashashwamedh but I liked it that way. Every evening I started my walk from the Assi Ghat, all the way to the burning ghat to photograph daily life. When the sun had set, I’d return and took photos of the night life.
What to do in Varanasi and where to take photos
For me the ghats are the main focus point but I also really liked the narrow streets around Dashashwamedh ghat. And when I say narrow, I mean really narrow. Make sure to pack a wide angle lens and maybe even a flash. It’s dark in those alleyways and always crowded.
If you have only a short time to spend taking photos, I think the ghats are the most interesting. Everybody says to go out in the morning because when the sun starts rising, it hits the buildings and everything is soaked in golden orange light.
Well, I didn’t go out in the morning. Because every photographer does is that way, I decided to go in the evenings. The light is different but perfect to take photos and once the sun is gone, the fires of the cremations are much more dramatic. The ghats after dark are great to take photos. Make sure to mind you step!
Taking photos of the cremations in Varanasi
Here’s my experience:
Of course, it’s not done to just go down and intrude people’s privacy. It’s a funeral. Taking photos from a distance seemed to be OK, even locals took photos from a distance. You’re good if you stay at a distance and don’t intrude or act like a paparazzi. This is for the Harishchandra Ghat. The less “popular” cremation ghat. I decided to take some photos there because the main burning ghat… Well…
At the Manikarnika Ghat, it’s difficult to take photos of the cremations. Locals try to make money by advertising the cremations as a tourist attraction. If they see you with a camera, you’ll be a target. It’s not allowed to take photos and they’ll let you know. That’s no problem for me but…
If you pay a certain amount, it’s suddenly OK to go and take photos of the cremations. And they’ll let you know too. In a very pushy way. I’m not sure what to think of that. I would like to know from someone who lives in India or Varanasi what they think about tourists and photography at the burning ghats and what the deal is with those pushy guys asking money…? Also, are locals OK with it that people take photos from a distance? Tell me everything.
Have you been to the ghats of Varanasi? I’m curious to see your pictures. Let me know in the comments!