Varanasi Photography - M1key - Michal Huniewicz
Believe it or not, before going to India, my friends and I were advised not to go to Varanasi, as "there was nothing there".
Ha, nothing could be further from the truth - in fact Varanasi turned out to be my favourite Indian city, and one day I intend to return.
Varanasi (or Benares) is a city on the banks of the Ganges, the holy river of Hinduism. In fact, it's the holiest city of Hinduism
and Jainism. (Perhaps you'd like a quick intro to Hinduism or to Jainism (click and scroll down for more)?)
According to Hindus, death at Varanasi brings salvation, and many of them travel there for precisely that reason - to die. 
I did not spend enough time in Varanasi to photographically do it justice, but the following photos should at least give you an idea of what the city is like.
It's a rough place and not to everyone's taste, but I think it's very genuine, not as commercialised as other Indian cities,
and really makes you feel that you're abroad, and exposed to the realities of human life more than anywhere else I have ever been.
Uploaded on: 2013-07-08.
Ghats in Varanasi
are stairs leading down to a sacred river. There are more than 84 ghats in Varanasi,
and they are all "points on the cosmic road" (not sure what that means, but I like the phrase). [1, 6
In the picture, people returning to the city after bathing in the river (seen on the right), at dawn. Hindus believe that washing in the Ganges cleanses their souls and remits sins.
This particular place had a very unique atmosphere to it, especially at that early time.
ISO 1600, 31mm, f/4.0, 1/20s.
This is the Ganges. Here, Hindus bathe, brush their teeth, dump their waste, throw ashes, as well as human remains and whole dead bodies. The boats are for you to hire.
ISO 1600, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/20s.
From our boat
Indeed, one popular tourist activity is to go on a boat and see the city from the river at dawn.
Vijayanagaram Ghat in the background.
ISO 500, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/20s.
The other bank
This is the other side of the river, where one can disembark and have a walk, but there doesn't seem to be a lot to do. You could find a human bone though
ISO 200, 65mm, f/7.1, 1/800s.
From the other bank
Here, three slightly dodgy-looking men, and the ghats (Munshi Ghat and Ahilya Ghat) of Varanasi in the background.
ISO 360, 70mm, f/5.0, 1/125s.
On the other bank
Just how old is Varanasi? There is evidence it's been continually inhabited since the 11th or 12th century BC. [2
According to legends, it was founded by the god Shiva.
ISO 640, 130mm, f/9.0, 1/125s.
ISO 320, 42mm, f/6.3, 1/125s.
The mystic poet and saint of India, Kabir, was born in Varanasi in the 14th century. [3
Illusion and reality
What is seen is not the Truth
What is cannot be said
Trust comes not without seeing
Nor understanding without words
The wise comprehends with knowledge
To the ignorant it is but a wonder
Some worship the formless God
Some worship His various forms
In what way He is beyond these attributes
Only the Knower knows
That music cannot be written
How can then be the notes
Says Kabir, awareness alone will overcome illusion 
ISO 200, 11mm, f/6.3, 1/200s.
Varanasi experienced a cultural revival in the 16 century under the Muslim Mughal emperor Akbar, who even built two large Hindu temples.
However, another Muslim Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, implemented later heavy Islamisation, and had many temples destroyed,
made non-Muslims second-class citizens, and as a result caused the city to experience a setback. [1
It's an interesting question one can ask Muslims - which emperor out of the two they prefer.
Fun fact: Akbar issued coins with the ambiguous phrase "Allahu Akbar", which normally means "God is Great", but could
also mean "Akbar is God", and it outraged many Muslims. [5, p. 223
ISO 200, 130mm, f/6.3, 1/250s.
Domestic tourists taking a boat ride. Behind them, the Maan-Mandir Ghat, built in 1770. In the northern part of the ghat
there is the lingam (penis) of Someswar, the Lord of the Moon, where devotees pay homage. [7
ISO 200, 65mm, f/5.0, 1/320s.
Soon after sunrise it gets busy and colourful.
ISO 200, 22mm, f/5.0, 1/400s.
While Wikitravel suggests you too bathe in the Ganges (!), it reminds you of blood-borne diseases and infections you risk when doing so. [8
Do not forget about bloated rotting corpses in the river that spread disease. If you don't trust me on that point, here's a video of a dog devouring
what looks like a child's body
- right there in Varanasi (quite graphic too).
Needless to say, I didn't have enough guts to bathe in the Ganges - and I freaked out after accidentally dipping my hand in the river.
ISO 200, 80mm, f/5.0, 1/320s.
Those awful photographers, never give you any privacy!
ISO 200, 150mm, f/5.6, 1/320s.
Mature men warming up.
ISO 200, 135mm, f/5.6, 1/400s.
The wealthy residents of Varanasi live far from the ghats, as the ghat area is more heavily polluted and less spacious. [1
By the way, the black thing in the picture - that's a lingam, meaning it symbolises a penis - this is a representation of the Hindu deity Shiva.
The object it is placed on is yoni - it symbolises the female organ. [9
Not that any Christian would ever have an issue with human sexuality, but according to the British Missionary William Ward, the worship of the lingam was
"too gross, even when refined as much as possible, to meet the public eye". [9
Curiously, some scholars suggest that lingam has actually nothing to do with the phallus, nor does yoni with the vagina. [10
In other words, it could be just our dirty Western minds, and nothing more than that.
ISO 200, 11mm, f/5.0, 1/1000s.
As many as 50,000 Brahmins live in Varanasi, providing religious services to the masses. [1
ISO 800, 11mm, f/5.0, 1/125s.
Here, a typical Varanasi street, and a man on a motorbike showing me a gesture (which is considered vulgar in the UK).
ISO 200, 11mm, f/5.0, 1/640s.
Unlike in India where people dump rubbish it in the street, in Poland it is taken by an elegant gentleman in an expensive car to the forest,
where he disposes of it without shame or remorse - why not.
ISO 200, 34mm, f/4.2, 1/400s.
The building in the background is the secular Banaras Hindu University, originally called the Central Hindu College,
and created in the 19th century by Annie Besant, to "bring men of all religions together under the ideal of brotherhood
in order to promote Indian cultural values, and to remove ill-will among different sections of the Indian population". [1
The building is also an example of Indo-Gothic architecture.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/5.0, 1/1250s.
It was him!
Here, after one of my friends and I made contact with women up on balconies
, those and other men chased us away.
The Varanasi urban agglomeration is almost 1.5 million people, and for every 1000 men there are fewer than 900 women. That could explain
us being forced to leave when mingling with their precious females.
Around 10% of the population lives in slums.
ISO 280, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/125s.
May the fleas of a thousand camels...
This was taken in a Muslim neighbourhood. Muslims constitute 25% of the population of the city, and have mosques.
The adhān, Islamic call to prayer, can be heard.
Fun (?) fact: When applying for an Indian visa, you must state your religion. No religion is not an option!
ISO 200, 36mm, f/4.2, 1/1600s.
Kids in India are always eager to pose - these surrounded me and followed everywhere until I left the neighbourhood.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/400s.
No space is wasted in densely populated Varanasi.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/320s.
They just don't care...
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/400s.
Man riding a bike.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/1250s.
Fun fact: Due to a high number of tourists from Israel, there are Middle Eastern cuisine restaurants in Varanasi, some ran by
authentic Middle-Easterners. [8
I met some Israelis too. I could still recall some compliments in Hebrew from my trip to Israel
, and said "!את יפה מאוד
to one of the women. "That's one thing I'm not!", she replied.
ISO 900, 11mm, f/3.5, 1/125s.
"Varanasi is a city of love!", said a young woman from Argentina I met in a Nepali restaurant near the ghats. "But not of sex,
as it's too dirty", she added after I gave her a suggestive look. "That's what my husband says too."
... I didn't really like her anyway.
ISO 560, 11mm, f/2.8, 1/30s.
Before the ceremony
This was taken during the Dev Deepavali (aka Kartik Poornima) celebration and before the aarti ceremony.
Hindus believe that during Dev Deepavali gods bathe in the Ganges.
ISO 900, 11mm, f/2.8, 1/30s.
This was taken during the aarti ceremony.
ISO 200, 50mm, f/1.4, 1/80s.
This girl didn't mind posing for me.
ISO 200, 50mm, f/2.0, 1/50s.
ISO 320, 50mm, f/1.4, 1/80s.
For every foreign tourist, 15 domestic tourists visit Varanasi. Most foreigners are from Sri Lanka or Japan [1
], and my Spanish
friend was asked whether he was Japanese, presumably because he was wearing a face mask. (He said yes.)
ISO 320, 50mm, f/1.4, 1/80s.
"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.
ISO 1600, 50mm, f/1.4, 1/80s.
Young Indian people like interacting with foreigners. This young man asked my friend to take a picture of him.
ISO 200, 50mm, f/1.4, 1/60s.
When your plane is delayed, demons awake
As I said before, many people go to Varanasi to die. When the plane that was to take us out of there turned out to be broken,
we began to wonder if we'd share the same fate. We spent almost the whole night at the airport, and believe the authorities only
found a replacement plane and crew because there were diplomats on our flight who eventually made some emotional phone calls.
When we finally made it to New Delhi, we met with our driver, who also had to wait an additional 12 or so hours, and was fresh as ever and not upset,
and he took us to Agra.
Next time I'm taking a train.
ISO 200, 11mm, f/2.8, 1/25s.