The ghats of Varanasi

“What’s your favorite place?” is a recurring and obvious question to ask a traveler. Whenever I’m asked that I like to think about it for a bit, the list is long and the truth is I very rarely dislike a place, but is obvious include India in my selection, and in the huge overdose for the senses that the whole country is there’s one place that, for so many reasons, easily stands out: Varanasi.

The ghats of Varanasi filled with burning dyias during Dev Deewapali. NIKON D800 (24mm, f/2.8, 1/30 sec, ISO1000)
The ghats of Varanasi filled with burning dyias during Dev Deewapali.

 

Holy man praying at one of northern, and quieter, ghats. NIKON D800 (230mm, f/7.1, 1/4000 sec, ISO800)
Holy man praying at one of northern, and quieter, ghats.

 

Holy man (presumably a fake one) sitting at Manikarnika ghat, nearby the wood used in the burning pyres. NIKON D800 (16mm, f/7.1, 1/640 sec, ISO400)
Holy man (presumably a fake one) sitting at Manikarnika ghat, nearby the wood used in the burning pyres.

 

Varanasi is hardly the most beautiful place on Earth, but it’s unique in so many ways that beauty becomes the less important of its traits. One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, one of the sacred cities of Hinduism, if not the most sacred, that follows the sacred Ganges for eight kilometers, from Varuna Ghat to Assi Ghat (hence the name: Varanasi). This probably is a fine way to start introducing the city. The city where people go to be blessed, go to see yet another postcard inspired by their travel guide, go to purify themselves and even go to die. Yes, to die. Having the ashes scattered on the Ganges in Varanasi in good, being cremated on a pyre in a ghat close to the river is even better, but actually dying in the holy city is one of the greatest blessings for many.

 

The activity of the ghats of Varanasi, people performing ablutions and the rowboats getting ready. NIKON D800 (70mm, f/5, 1/5000 sec, ISO400)
The activity of the ghats of Varanasi, people performing ablutions and the rowboats getting ready.

 

Bathers in the Ganges early in the morning, while the rowboats filled with tourists cross nearby. NIKON D800 (35mm, f/6.3, 1/1250 sec, ISO400)
Bathers in the Ganges early in the morning, while the rowboats filled with tourists cross nearby.

 

The morning starts awkwardly in Varanasi, at sunrise and always by the river: on one side those performing puja: the ablution and offerings to the Ganga, patiently ignoring everyone around them. And what’s happening around them is the other morning ritual of Varanasi, the packed rowboats filled with outsiders to enjoy one of the “unmissable” experiences in India: see the ghats of Varanasi from the river, as the sun rises from their backs and lights the majestic and yet decaying building facades, a view impossible to have while walking in dry land. Obviously I did it, and it’s indeed pretty, but awkward nevertheless.

 

Washer washing clothes in the waters of the Ganges. NIKON D800 (35mm, f/8, 1/250 sec, ISO400)
Washer washing clothes in the waters of the Ganges.

 

Portrait of candle seller at Assi ghat NIKON D800 (50mm, f/2.5, 1/200 sec, ISO400)
Portrait of candle seller at Assi ghat.

 

I could so easily go back and walk in the ghats of Varanasi for days, from one end to the other, back and forth, just like I was doing when I took some of these photos. I could sit at one of the many thousands of steps leading to the Ganges, close to the washers that are vigorously hitting the city’s clothes (and probably mine also) against a rock, seeing the kids doing dogfights with their kites or playing cricket. Go back to my secret spots, like that restaurant with the balcony with a view or maybe just standing from the opposite bank of the Ganges (something actually few people do but actually should) and look at the flames of the cremation pyres as the Sun goes down; the pyres that at first haunt you only to slowly become another feature of the city, to the point where you make jokes with the “owners” of the burning ghats saying you’ll open another crematory by the river, because “Hey! Business is blooming and there’s enough for everyone!” (yes, I did had this conversation). Cheerfully declining hundreds of boat rides with a smile, ignoring dozens of fake sadhus, that are funny and captivating just because they’re fake and even avoiding some haircuts: at Dashashwamedh Ghat (the “main” ghat) I promised one of the street barbers that if I someone would shave my head in Varanasi it would be him, for days, twice a day, I renewed that promise with him. I was actually planning to do that but failed, as time ran short in my very last day in Varanasi; a longer chat with Rohit, the candle seller of Assi Ghat that was showing me the joy of his eyes: his new old rowboat (he is not the boy on this post, but this little dude), there was only time to grab my luggage and rush to the airport to fly home.

This was my last memory of Varanasi, and India: Rohit laughing and saying he was luckier than me, after all Varanasi and the Ganges was his home.

 

 

Manikarnika, the main burning ghat of Varanasi seen from the opposite shore of the Ganges NIKON D800 (105mm, f/2, 1/125 sec, ISO5700)
Manikarnika, the main burning ghat of Varanasi seen from the opposite shore of the Ganges

Browse this full set in my gallery

You can also check a selection of single shots from India and the rest of my India photos.

  • Peter Brandt

    Great article, Joao! Tell me, when you talk of fake holy men, what is the distinction?

    • Thanks Peter! There’s no accurate way to answer that, but usually if you find a sadhu in the more crowded ghats of Varanasi and somehow he is a bit over the top (like the one in red on this post) then he might be just a “street performer” earning some rupees.