The great Hindu city of Varanasi has also been known by the names of Benaras and Kashi. The city, irrespective of whichever name you call it by, left me mesmerized by its completeness. In my eyes, Kashi/Benaras/Varanasi seems to have been like a real full circle; one which encompassed every possible feeling, emotion, sensibility, and reality existing on earth. Supposedly founded by Lord Shiva himself, Kashi unlike most existences on earth refuses to wane in religious importance and Buddha is also believed to have started Buddhism here. With the tide of time, the city’s religious importance grew and despite the eventual advent of Muslim rule, Varanasi continued to be one of the strongest centers of Hinduism studies and culture.
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A brief history of timeless Kashi
A hotbed of Hindu intellectuals, poets and educators, Kashi is known as the City of Moksha and according to some beliefs, anyone dying or cremated there is guaranteed liberation from the cycle of births and rebirths. Throughout history, this has lured hordes of pilgrims, widows, old, and the infirm to the city and the rich Hindus filled Kashi with guesthouses, temples, widow homes, orphanages, etc. With so much of religious traction, rush to do good deeds, and money centering around Varanasi, it is no wonder that the city has always been very prosperous and trade has thrived there for ages.
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The cultural riches of Kashi
Geographically, Varanasi or Kashi as it was known at that time, also fell on an ancient trade route and remnants of its past riches are still been strongly visible throughout the city. Stretching along the sweeping length of the curvaceous river Ganges, the most photogenic part of Varanasi tumbles into the water in a cascade of stone steps and an array of shrines, temples, palaces, and mansions line the sweeping embankment. The rest of the city radiates away from the river in a tight mesh of narrow, winding lanes and Kashi’s bustle decreases in strength in the same pattern. A great center for dhrupad style of classical Indian music and Sanskrit, Varanasi is home to many exquisite art and crafts and the city is famous for wooden toys, glass bangles, and brassware. Some of India’s finest silks and brocades embroidered with real gold and silver thread are produced in Benaras and the city’s iconic heart-shaped paan leaves are in great demand throughout the country. All this commerce gives rise to many more supporting small or large scale industries and Benaras throbs 24/7 with busy activities. From full-blown markets, lanes dedicated to particular trades to hole in the wall shops and studios, Varanasi is one huge commercial hub and the city drives its immigrants and residents into trade with equal fervour.
The humans of Kashi who make Varanasi tick
This passion, however, owing to the timelessness of Kashi is not blazed with energy and the city lanes offer extremely photogenic scenes of soft, mellow commercialism. This is perhaps my most poignant Varanasi memory and at times I felt time drip there slowly like warm, melting molasses. From the ironmen, paan auctioneers, morning flower market sellers, obscure sweets, spices, and tendua (cigar leaves) wholesale dealers, roadside dentists, barbers, Banarasi weavers, kite makers, sweetmeat chefs, ghat masseuse, nightly street food vendors to holy men, the humans of Varanasi move with an unthinkable langour. To onlookers, time seems to have lost its way among the labyrinthine web of old lanes. Thus, the people of Varanasi have time to laugh, smile, gossip, swat flies, snooze at work, sip endless cups of tea, preen before handheld mirrors and some of My Varanasi’s most photogenic moments have been spent photographing them. So, presenting the next photo story set from My Varanasi series. This one is dedicated to the souls who give Kashi its relentless, unapologetic character. Don’t forget to check out the carefully gathered tips for some awesome street photography in Varanasi. The holy city is a visual delight.
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Kashi street photography tips
- Do Not Make Kashi Your First Stop in India (for Westerners) – Take this tip as the Holy Grail of visiting Varanasi. Do not make Kashi the first stop in your India itinerary. The holy city is overwhelming and this is an understatement. Coming from a more sterilized environment, nothing prepares you for the crazy, chaotic, overwhelming, disgusting, shocking, and extraordinarily spiritual experiences that Varanasi presents altogether at every single moment. Take your time to get used to India before heading over to Varanasi.
- All-purpose camera equipment – A Canon 18-200mm, with a Canon 450D body is most suitable for Varanasi. Photography enthusiasts should also consider carrying a wide-angle lens. This will allow you to capture a clear shot in the narrowest alleys of Kashi and give more depth to the activity scenes seen on the banks of the river with the background of the old temples and palaces.
- Photograph the ghats at sunrise or the golden hour – Reach the ghats about an hour to 45 mins before sunrise or the golden hour. Walk around and take in the activities that usually pick up momentum with the light. It is a beautiful spectacle to watch the city either waking up or unfolding for the day. Choose your subjects in that clear soft light and shoot away in peace.
- Ghats and Alleys Photo Walks – Ghats are the cascade of stairs that lead down to a holy river. There are around 100 ghats in Varanasi and each of them has a different name, history, and importance. Galis are the narrow alleys of the old city. These are good place to wander especially during mid-morning to early afternoon. During this time, depending on your location, the play of lights and shadows inside a Gali is astonishing. You may get some very striking shots of interesting light beams cutting across the alleys. Since it is very easy to get lost in these alleys, always keep a visiting card of your hotel with you to ask for directions.
- Sunset or Sunrise boat ride – Do this preferably at sunrise or sunset. Not only will it make you get acquainted with the ghats, but it will also help you get those spectacular sunrises and sunsets shots. The sunset trip has another advantage; you can experience and capture the Ganga arati while being seated in your boat. Avoid shooting at the Hindu ‘Burning ghats’, since photography is not permitted there.
- Photographing the Ganga Arti – The Ganga Arti is one of the main attractions of Varanasi. It is held every evening at Dasashwamedh Ghat. It is quite a fancy ceremony and draws throngs of pilgrims and tourists. Honestly speaking, even though, I find it to be a bit of a tourist show, the Ganga Arti is an extremely photogenic event to capture. Arrive early since it can get quite crowded and try to use a prime lens like 50mm or 28mm. To get a shot of the priests in a row, take a spot on the side of the stage that is perpendicular to the river. A dramatic point in the ceremony is when the priests take a fistful of marigold flowers and throw them in the air. A good angle to capture this moment is from the bottom corner of the stage.
- Portraits, Rituals, Framing, and looking for stories – Varanasi provides great opportunities for shooting portraits. Bear in mind that most Sadhus demand money after every click. Negotiate before shooting. Look for photogenic working people of Varanasi. They are everywhere; in the markets, the shops, streets, and temples. Know that in Varanasi, the clutter in your background enhances your street photographs. Try to shoot in Aperture priority mode and keep your F value within a range of f/8 to f/12 to keep everything in focus. Include quintessential Varanasi subjects like street cows, sweet shops, Sadhus, street sellers, etc.to make your shots come alive. Look for unique vantage points and geometry and colors in your frame. Since Kashi is the holiest destination for Hindus, it is very common to find various rituals going on there throughout the year. The Dev Deepavali is the best time to shoot Hindu rituals and the image of thousands of Diyas (clay lamps) floated down the Ganges River is unforgettable.
- Stay Alert – Varanasi, being a very popular tourist destination and pilgrimage is a very crowded place. The crowds also draw many anti-social elements. Stay alert, keep your eyes and ears open, protect your money and equipment, avoid dark, dingy places, and trust no strangers. These are only precautionary measures to stay safe and it is best to trust your instinct.
- Be Respectful – On the same note, please be respectful while photographing the city, the people, and its environment. Try to focus on the city’s colourful beauty instead of capturing the dying animals, wounded beggars, and rubbish heaps, which you will find in plentiful. Focus on the craftsmen and markets of Varanasi and ask before photographing people. Varanasi is a very crowded city, so be careful not to get run over while busy street photographing. The burning ghats are not permitted to be photographed. This is out of respect for the families of the deceased. Though this is not explicitly mentioned in signs in many places, you may get in trouble with the locals if you start taking pictures there. Incidents of tourists trying to photograph at the Manikarnika ghat (the main burning ghat), being harassed by the locals is quite common. Though many people shoot them using a long lens from the boats, it is best avoided.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE